Imagine not understanding something as common as a thunderstorm, how frightening it would be if you were suddenly bombarded with loud, earth trembling noises without knowing what was causing them. As children we learn that storms are an every day event and become desensitized to the sound. Animals, however, specifically dogs, don’t have the benefit of that understanding.
While not all dogs are afraid of thunderstorms, the ones that are can be destructive to your home or even themselves in their misguided attempts to hide from the sound. But with a little time and patience it is possible to help your dog relax enough to endure and perhaps eventually ignore a storm. To get more information on just how to desensitize a dog to storms and loud noises, I spoke with DeAnna Fox, DVM.
Dr. Fox says that while it is natural to want to comfort your dog while he is afraid it may make a bad situation worse. “When we give a dog attention, it interprets that interaction as a reward. By petting your dog while he is afraid you are reinforcing that behavior and making him think he is giving the appropriate response. The best thing you can do is act normal or even excited about the storm. Dogs watch for our reaction when something unexpected happens. If you’re calm, it’ll be easier for him to be.”
It is best if you can teach your dog at a young age to accept loud noises, but sometimes we adopt our pets as adults when the noise phobia is already ingrained in their behavior. If you have an adult dog that is afraid of storms, make sure to provide him a safe place to ride it out, like a training crate covered by a blanket. My mother’s dog, a German Sheppard mix, likes to hide in her bathroom until the storm is over. She says it’s the only room of the house where the dog doesn’t seem panicked by the noise.
“You may be possible to condition an older dog to the sound by playing recordings of storms,” adds Dr. Fox. “Play it with gradual frequency and at louder volumes until your dog becomes accustomed to the sound. You might also try to play music or turn up the television during an actual storm to help cover the offending noise.” Her last piece of advice for pet owners is to avoid medication unless it’s an isolated situation like a fear of fireworks on the 4th of July. “Medicating doesn’t teach the dog not to be afraid; it merely makes them physically incapable of displaying their fear. It’s best to take a behavioral approach when treating a recurring issue.”
Finally, if traditional advice doesn’t seem to be working, try contacting your veterinarian. Since he or she is familiar with your dog, it may be possible to get a more personalized approach.