It’s still March and my town has already experienced two evenings with thunder booms. Having lived with a severely thunder-phobic dog for the last 8 ½ years, I completely sympathize with people who also have dogs who quiver, drool and freak out with approaching dark clouds and the first raindrop. I originally wrote an article in 2007 for the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue’s newsletter called April Showers Bring…Thunderstorms and it has subsequently been reprinted in Our Havanese magazine. I have updated it for this blog, and will divide it into two posts as it’s a lot of information for one post. 

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when you hear the forecast that many dog owners dread – chance of thunderstorms.  People lose sleep and often time from their jobs in attempts to be with their dogs during storms.  Houses get destroyed when dogs frantically try to escape the noise.  I even heard of a dog who jumped out of a second story window in an attempt to find safety.  Consider yourself among the lucky ones if your dog does not completely freak out during a storm.  Even though your dog may not have problems now, many dogs develop thunder and noise phobias later in life.  Let’s first review how to ensure your dog does not become thunder-phobic.  Then we’ll take a look at what can be done to work with dogs who react fearfully during storms.

It only takes one incident for a dog to learn to fear thunder.  You may be in the middle of some particularly loud and house-shaking boomers when you dog’s ears go back and he runs under the bed.  Being human with the instinct to nurture, our first inclination is to tell the dog that everything’s okay.  We even hug the dog and comfort him like a child.  The problem with this approach is that dogs don’t think like humans. Telling a dog that “it’s okay” is not understood.  Dogs, instead, may read this comforting as a reinforcer for the behavior. In the dog’s mind, he’s thinking, “Hmm, I act scared and I get comforted which feels good.  So I’ll keep on acting scared in order to receive more comforting.”  A dog cannot reason that “it’s okay” means that the thunder will not harm him. Researchers are divided on this theory, however. Some believe that comforting a dog during a thunderstorm reinforces fear while others think that it’s cruel to ignore a dog who is reacting fearfully. 

I prefer not to comfort the dog but instead to redirect him to something fun and distracting if possible. But all dogs react differently. Some like to find a safe place to hide; others prefer to be close to their people. Most dogs have a place in their homes where they feel good.  If your dog gravitates to this area in a storm, allow your dog to go there undisturbed.  But if your dog does not seek a safe place and instead comes to you, act like nothing is wrong.  Try to engage him in play or distract him with his favorite treats.  Have him do sits, stays and other obedience commands that show your dog that you are in charge and in control of the situation.  Plus it also serves to distract you from the scary storm!  After all, we may have the tendency to react nervously ourselves during a bad storm. Our dogs pick up on our reactions. I have a friend who bakes cookies during a storm and her dog loves it!

 Next time, we will get into what to do if your dog is already thunder-phobic.