It was a dark and stormy night…and Fido trembled under the bed, refusing to budge an inch until it passed.
For many pet parents, that’s a familiar story. Terrified dogs can even become destructive and frantic in their attempts to escape the unknown danger, damaging property or injuring themselves in the process.
A fearful pup stresses the whole family during a storm. So what causes dogs to be scared of thunder in the first place — and how can you calm them down?
Why is My Dog Scared of Thunderstorms?
For many dogs, the loud booms of thunder and bright flashes of lightning seem to activate every instinct in their body that warns of danger!
If you’ve been with your dog their whole life and you know for a fact that they’ve never been hit by lightning, you may wonder where this storm phobia came from. In her research on fear of thunderstorms in dogs, Alison Seward of the Ryan Veterinary Hospital’s Behavior Clinic writes:
“Wild animals react to thunderstorms fearfully. This is appropriate, because storms can be dangerous. If you can’t take cover from a storm, you risk being struck by lightning, drowning in a flash flood, or being injured by falling trees or flying debris. Seen from this perspective, fearful behavior during thunderstorms is not really abnormal at all. The problem is that modern pet dogs are, for the most part, shielded from the real dangers of storms, but they may create danger for themselves by their reactions to storms.
Panting; pacing; whining; salivating; trembling; urination and defecation (including diarrhea) in the house; digging and clawing at floors and walls; chewing household objects, woodwork or walls; attempts to hide or escape (which may include digging and chewing); running away if escape occurs; attempts to stay near a family member, are all signs of thunderstorm fear.”
It’s heartbreaking to see your best furiend shaking out of terror — especially when you know there’s no danger at all.
Sadly, we can’t explain to our dogs in words they’ll understand that storms are harmless. So how do you comfort your dog during a storm? Is there a way to help your best buddy chill out?
Home remedies for dogs scared of thunder
Create a Sanctuary
One of the best ways to soothe your pup during a storm is to create a place of peace and safety within your home.
Note that this “safe space” is not necessarily where YOU think makes an appealing hideout. Pay attention to where your dog naturally goes when they’re scared, and make that space as comfy and appealing as possible.
Stock your dog’s sanctuary with a comfy bed and blankets, their favorite toys and a shirt that smells like you. Providing some white noise from a TV, radio, fan or gentle music won’t drown out the thunder completely, but it can help.
Remember that wherever your dog’s sanctuary is — whether it’s a bathroom, their crate or under your bed — it’s important that you don’t confine them there. Feeling trapped can turn a safe space into a scary space very quickly!
Block access to parts of the house where your dog may hurt themselves, if necessary, but give your dog as much freedom as possible. Even if Fido doesn’t come out of hiding until the storm passes, at least he’ll know he can.
Extra Exercise & Training
If you know a storm is coming later in the day, it’s worth the time to go for extra walks or get in a few more games of fetch to wear your pup out — preferably before your dog even realizes the storm is coming.
As the storm rolls in, do a low-intensity training session if you can. Mentally exercising your dog tires them out, too, and it helps to keep them distracted and focused on you for as long as possible.
Ideally, tiring your dog out early means they’ll have less anxious energy to burn during the storm.
Your pet’s favorite food and treats go a long way towards improving an otherwise scary experience! This is known as reconditioning and it teaches your dog that actually, Good Things happen during a storm.
A frozen chew toy, such as a Toppl stuffed with a Vital Essentials frozen patty, can keep your dog’s attention for quite a while as they work out every last yummy lick. Making a snuffle mat or lick mat is another easy way to give your pup something else to focus on.
Find out what method of distraction your dog likes the best, and pull out “the good stuff” during a storm.
Other at-home methods to calm a dog scared of thunder
Anecdotally, there’s other ways to reassure a fearful Fido.
For example, evenly applied pressure from a Thundershirt or a makeshift “swaddle” may help with some dogs. However, other dogs may simply feel constrained rather than comforted. Remember that any time you put clothing on your dog, it’s important to watch them closely in case of overheating or restricted circulation.
Canine-centric calming pheromones are also available, either as a collar or room diffuser. Again, there isn’t sufficient evidence to guarantee this method will work, but for some pups it may be worth a try.
Consider anti anxiety medication
For moderate to severe storm phobia, don’t be afraid to talk to your vet about possible medications. The occasional pill is a small price to pay for the peace of mind that Fido won’t be climbing up the walls in terror! As Seward says:
“For most dogs with moderate or severe storm phobia, anti-anxiety medication is essential to manage the dog safely. Panicky dogs can damage homes, injuring themselves in the process. Some dogs will jump through screens or even windows in their fright. They may be injured doing this, and, if they run away, they may be hit by vehicles.”
What DOESN’T work to help dogs scared of thunder
Ignoring your dog or refusing to comfort them
At one point, “conventional wisdom” dictated that comforting your dog during a storm would be “rewarding” their fear. However, behavioral research since then has concluded that this isn’t the case.
It’s true that if you reward the choice your dog makes, Fido is more likely to make a similar choice in the future — but, the key word here is choice. The fear your dog experiences during a storm isn’t a conscious decision. Your dog isn’t choosing to be afraid, so “rewarding” the fearful behavior doesn’t make them more likely to repeat it in the future. According to Seward:
“First, do not ignore your dog during storms. This advice used to be given because it was believed that attention during storms would reward the fearful behavior…this is simply false. Ignoring a fearful, panicky dog deprives him of whatever comfort and psychological support you can give him. It also leaves him without any information about what he should be doing instead.”
Instead, you should reassure your frightened pup by behaving normally and calmly. Do you usually cuddle on the couch with your dog in the evenings? If your dog is up for it, do whatever you would normally do as if nothing is wrong. If your dog comes to you for extra pets or comfort, calmly reassure them of your presence.
It also helps to give your dog guidance and direction of what to do instead. For example, tell your dog to lie down in their “safe space” or encourage them to chew on a suitable toy.
Punishing your pet for their fear
Even worse than ignoring your dog is punishing them for a fearful behavior they can’t help. Of course you don’t want your dog clawing at the walls or digging up the floorboards, but using aversive methods such as yelling at your pet, squirting them with water or holding them down will not help!
Even if your dog does stop the behavior you were trying to discourage, they are still afraid. In fact, your already-terrified pet will now associate storms with being punished by you. This will almost certainly make them even more scared during the next storm, anticipating that you may punish them again.
Desensitization with a storm CD is unlikely to work
There are many proponents of desensitizing your dog to thunderstorms. While the desensitization process (slowly increasing your dog’s exposure to whatever scares them, accumulating positive experiences with each exposure) does work for many dog phobias, fear of storms isn’t one of them.
The reason for this is simple: it is impossible to accurately replicate all the sensory stimuli of a real storm. A CD can play the sounds of thunder, but it cannot simulate a change in barometric pressure, humidity, static electricity, humidity or the smell in the air. All of these factors work together to tell your dog that a real thunderstorm is on its way.
In fact, trying to desensitize your dog to storms may even backfire and have the opposite effect. Says Seward:
“Unfortunately, there is no good evidence to support the idea that dogs can be desensitized to storms…This effort may instead further sensitize the dog to storm sounds, worsening the situation. If this occurs, the dog may associate even more things with storms—getting out a CD; working with his owner using treats; being in the room you use for practice. The risks of attempting desensitization this way, combined with the time and effort involved, make it a poor strategy for working with dogs with thunderstorm fear.”
A more effective option would be reconditioning your dog by building new, positive associations during actual storms (possibly after medication has taken the edge off Fido’s fear).
Storms can be scary for our furry friends, but there are steps you can take to help your pet survive the experience with minimal stress. Creating a sanctuary, distracting your dog with yummy treats, and getting in extra exercise on the day can all reduce your dog’s fearful behaviors.
However, you should never be afraid to ask your vet for help with your dog’s storm phobia. The occasional anti-anxiety pill to help your pup snooze through a storm is preferable to a terrifying experience for you both!