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Dogs and thunderstorms: Helping your dog cope with storm anxiety

Pug nervous because of thunderstorm

Creating a safe space can help your dog during storms

© Shutterstock

With storm season upon us, many of you may have witnessed thunderstorm anxiety in your dogs. Here we take a look at tips and techniques to help them feel safe.

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 16/02/2021, 17:00

Storm anxiety is fairly common in dogs, and in severe cases, may be experienced as a phobia. Signs include barking, urination, panting and pacing. Dogs may try to hide or become excessively clingy and they may start shaking.

If your dog licks their lips, yawns or puts their ears back these are all further indications of stress. As a dog owner, witnessing this kind of behaviour during a storm can be heart-breaking.

How do storms affect dogs? 

Although a common concern, little research exists on dogs and storms. Our canine companions often show low level reactions before storms even begin, suggesting they perceive things we don’t. . 

The sound of thunder - With far superior hearing to humans, dogs are significantly more sensitive to sound. This means the bangs and claps of thunder are louder to them, and particularly difficult for dogs with noise sensitivity.

Dogs can sense atmospheric changes - Just before a storm begins, there is a drop in barometric pressure and it is thought that dogs may be sensitive to static build up.

Light and darkness - Skies typically darken with the approach of a thunderstorm. This, combined with the fast and bright bolts of lightning, can put your dog on edge.

Why do some dogs go crazy in storms?

If you’ve wondered whether a particular event caused your dog’s phobia, you may be on to something. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, surveyed 69 owners of dogs who suffered storm anxiety. His research found that one third of owners could pinpoint the exact moment the phobia began. Examples included a fear of fireworks, followed by the onset of frequent storms, or having been outside when experiencing a very loud noise.

He also found that the largest breed group that was represented was the herding group. Breeds named in this group included Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs. Dodman hypothesised that perhaps these dogs are more susceptible to noise aversion, being highly reactive in nature.

For more information about herding breeds, take a look at our guide here.

Whether your dog goes crazy during storms because of past trauma, noise aversion, or breed predisposition, there are steps you can take to help your dog cope.

How do you calm a dog’s storm anxiety?

When it comes to keeping your dog calm during storms, there are techniques to help.

Creating a safe space

During stressful events, your dog’s adrenal glands produce cortisol as part of the fight or flight mechanism. A safe space can help reduce stress levels. Let your dog choose the area they feel safe in. Creating a dark den may help, and you can build positive associations for your dog by encouraging them in with treats they love. Some dogs have been known to seek refuge in the bathroom. Dodman believes this may support the theory of changes in static electrical fields during storms.

The addition of background music may help calm your dog, or alternatively use a white noise machine to cover some sound.

Exercise and brain games

If you see a storm is forecast, lots of physical and mental stimulation in the form of walks and food games, can help boost serotonin levels for your dog. This aids calmness and relaxation.

Behaviour modification

Desensitising your dog, and building positive associations to loud noises can help them cope during storms. This must be done gradually, to normalise the sound for them. Begin with very low level recordings of the sound, and pair this with your dog’s favourite treat or game. As your dog grows more confident with the noise, gradually increase the volume over repeated sessions.

If your dog shows signs of stress, such as lip licking, ears back or moving away, you have moved too quickly and will need to reduce the intensity. And remember, once the noise stops the treats should stop. This helps your dog learn the noise means good things!

What can I give my dog for storm anxiety?

There is equipment designed for dogs during storms to help them cope. Dodman suggests antistatic storm-wear may help, and the popular Thundershirt could also reduce anxiety. The Thundershirt wraps tightly but comfortably around your dog, helping them to feel safe during stressful situations.

Are there supplements to help my dog during stormy weather?

Dogs have been found to benefit from the calming properties of Melotonin, a natural supplement that can aid relaxation and a reduction in excitement. This calming effect may help anxious dogs, however we would always recommend consulting with a veterinarian before trying this out.

Pheromone diffusers, such as the Adaptil appeasing pheromone collar or spray, could also increase relaxation for your dog. This may help them to feel safe during storms.

Probiotics can also help reduce anxiety

In the most severe cases of thunderstorm phobia, pharmacological support may be deemed necessary by your veterinarian, but this should only ever be decided with their support and guidance.

Finding what works for you and your dog

Thunderstorm anxiety can be difficult for both owner and dog. Some dogs choose to hide, while others seek out their human for reassurance. It’s important that you remain calm, supporting your dog with gentle guidance. If working with your dog to build positive associations to the noise, try to do so regularly. Repeated, positive exposure at the right intensity will help build these connections before a real storm arrives.

Finding the right combination of techniques can be difficult, due to the various elements that make up a storm. Do seek professional guidance if you deem it necessary, veterinarians and behaviourists will be happy to help. Working with your dog to manage storm anxiety and help them cope, requires patience and time, but will no doubt strengthen your bond for years to come.

Frequently asked questions

What can dogs sense before it happens?

Does your dog become anxious when you leave the house?

Which breeds of dog make calm companions?