Summer brings fun times for dogs – parks, BBQs and lakes. But it also brings anxiety-laden travel, fireworks and thunderstorms. Yikes! A dog’s fear and anxiety can be heartbreaking for pet parents.
Big Bad Storms
Although the fear of a thunderstorm is generally thought to be due to the noise, many dogs show symptoms long before the thunder starts to crash. Dogs can sense the change in barometric pressure and therefore can anticipate when a storm is coming.
Naturally, not all dogs are frightened of storms. There is a theory that dogs born in the winter are more likely to develop fear of loud noises/thunder/etc. because they’re never exposed to loud thunderstorms or fireworks when they are in the crucial stage of socialization (between one and four months). If exposed to loud events when just a young puppy, noise becomes normal. Some breeders take their pups to loud places like airports or gun ranges to achieve noise socialization.
Dogs with a role model (mother or other dog in the house) who is unafraid of loud noise events are also less likely to be afraid. Dogs are pack animals, taking their cues from the pack leader. You need to be the calm ‘pack leader’ in modern times, setting a good example for your dogs.
What NOT to Do
Surprisingly, you have to be careful that your soothing actions do not give your dog the wrong message. Like any training initiative, you want to reinforce positive behaviors you want your dog to replicate, and ignore behaviors you want to stop. If your dog is frightened of the storm and panting, trembling or chewing – or any other undesirable behavior – your strong urge to pet and stroke your dog out of comfort, or provide treats as a distraction, could actually be reinforcing their frightened response!
A Pennsylvania State University study showed dogs were just as anxious when comforted by their owner as when they were alone, so being a calm role model and not attempting to soothe your dog may be the best thing you can do. Honestly, your attempts to comfort are probably more beneficial to you than your dog.
What You CAN Do
If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, you can take several approaches to help alleviate their fears, or at least keep the fear from getting worse.
Safe Place – Create a safe place for your dog to go during loud noise events. Basements, rooms with no windows and even bathtubs tend to be favorites for dogs to ‘escape’ to because they help muffle the sounds/vibrations. If your dog likes to crawl under your bed during a storm, ensure he has access – especially when he’s home alone. Try running a fan or radio to help cover up the sounds which cause fear (as long as the power‘s not out, of course!).
Distraction – Some dogs don’t want to hide during a storm, they want to move around – lots! Provide room for pacing and a strong chew toy. Or try to distract your dog from the storm with an indoor game or by practicing training commands. This is a great strategy for all dogs, whether they pace or hide. Your goal is to distract your dog for longer and longer at the beginning of each storm. Remember: Once your dog begins to react to the storm and loses focus on your distractions, stop giving treats and simply be a calm role model.