Many dog owners will be well all too familiar with the distress caused to their dogs in response to loud, startling noises such as fireworks and thunder. Stormy nights and times of the year such as bonfire night and New Year’s Eve can end up being uncomfortable and miserable for the afflicted dogs and their frustrated owners.
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A multifactorial problem?
Not all dogs are afraid of thunder but it’s pretty common. Sometimes dogs are fearful simply because of the imposing sound and not knowing what it is or where it comes from. There is still a lot we don’t yet understand about why some dogs are scared of thunder. It may be that there are a number of reasons behind it. Some breeds (such as Collies) are certainly more prone to noise phobias than others. So a genetic predisposition might impact which dogs are affected.
Curiously, there is also some suggestion that static electricity might play a part. For example, where a dog has a long coat that can trap static electricity (which builds up during a thunderstorm). When that coat comes into contact with metal it may end up giving the poor dog a startling shock.
The stress response and past experiences
Humans and animals alike have stress responses inbuilt into their physiology, where the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated by the animal being exposed to a fear, anxiety or stress provoking event. It is responsible for the fight or flight response, priming the body for action. Many of us are more than familiar with the resulting effects (pounding heart, shaking hands and so on) because we experience it too during a stressful or scary event. It is the body’s way of helping to keep us safe and it is present in all dogs.
However, a negative experience with an inciting stimulus, such as thunder, can lead to an overzealous and inappropriate activation of the sympathetic nervous system and its secondary effects. Perhaps the dog was startled by thunder and displayed undesirable behaviour like crying, scratching, howling, barking, shaking or hiding, as a result. If they were chastised by the owner for doing so, and they connect it with the episode of thunder, they may well become more nervous of it; being told off is generally an unpleasant experience for a dog. In this way, the dog may now associate thunder with another unpleasant experience; thus heightening its anxiety and leading to signs of distress.
How can you help a dog that’s scared of thunder?
It can be difficult to calm a dog that’s afraid of thunder. It can feel like they can’t be reached because they are too focused on their fear to interact with you. Thankfully, there are some simple things you can do to help your dog out. Give him a safe place to rest, but let him choose where he wants to be. It’s helpful to have a safe space for your dog to call home when thunder strikes. But don’t force him to be somewhere he isn’t comfortable. Keep an eye on where he likes to hide out during a thunderstorm and make it comfortable for him there. Provide a cosy bed, water and some snacks or toys to try and distract him.
There are specially-made canine bodysuits that can be helpful for dogs with fearful behaviours. These come in different sizes to suit a variety of breeds and apply gentle pressure which can help to ease anxiety.
Some dogs may also respond to desensitisation therapy to get them accustomed to the sound of loud noises like fireworks. This could help for thunder too, although it requires a lot of time and commitment from the owner. Pheromones such as Adaptil may also be useful in many cases.
Trying to get the dog to understand and accept that thunder isn’t something to be scared of can be a long process. Some dogs won’t ever feel completely at ease despite our best efforts, in which case your veterinarian may be able to provide anti-anxiety medication to help your pet to relax.
However, if your dog’s thunder-fear seems unmanageable, it’s time to talk to an expert canine behaviourist. Good luck!
- N. Cottam, N. Dodman, 2009, Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119 78 to 84
- Veterinary Evidence: “Thunder-shirts”