British weather. People joke we’re obsessed with it, but when it affects our dog’s behaviour, why shouldn’t we be? Autumn and winter are usually the stormiest UK seasons. Strong winds, rain and snow can all appear – not pleasant to walk in, but also a bit unsettling. And with the warmer weather of spring and summer also bringing thunderstorms, it can feel like there’s no escape. If your dog is scared of thunder or the wilder weather, I’ve got some tips to help keep them calm.
Why does my dog get scared during a storm or thunder?
A lot of dogs are afraid of loud noises, especially unpredictable ones such as thunder or fireworks. This causes them fear, stress and anxiety, and as a owner, it can be distressing to watch them suffer every time the weather turns stormy.
Without having been habituated to loud and unpredictable noises during the unique developmental period in their puppyhood when new things are accepted as being ‘a normal part of life’ and nothing to be afraid of or worried by, many dogs can grow up to suffer from noise phobia.
While we know what thunder is, and that it isn’t something dangerous or terrifying, our dogs don’t. All they know is it’s loud, unexpected and scary.
Don’t forget, your dog’s ears are amazing! They can hear at a much greater distance than we can, so it could sound louder and closer to them. That goes for rain pummeling the roof and fence panels wobbling in the wind too.
For something that produces a strong emotional response, such as fear, won’t habituate, it will sensitise. In other words, they won’t get used to it, they’ll just get more scared and worried about it every time it happens.
It’s not just the noise either. The air pressure changes before a storm, and because our dogs are much more sensitive to these changes than we are, they can detect them early. This means they begin to get stressed as they know what’s coming – often long before we do.
What are the signs my dog is scared of thunder or storms?
When your dog is showing symptoms of thunder or storm fears, they can show a variety of symptoms:
- They may search for a secure place to hide. A lot of the time, our dogs will try to find a place that makes them feel safer and more secure – such as under a bed or other piece of furniture
- Shaking, trembling or panting
- Barking or whining
- Pacing around your house
- Excessive drooling
- Seeking comfort from their owner/becoming clingy
See more about signs of stress in your dog.
What can I do to keep my dog calm?
Try to exercise them beforehand
If you think a storm is coming, get your dog’s daily walks in early before any hints of thunder or noise. Not only does this mean your dog won’t get scared of the thunder or storm while you’re out, but exercise might take the edge off any excess canine energy and make them a little more relaxed. They may even sleep through the quieter rumbles.
Most importantly give them the chance to go to the toilet long before the weather takes a turn. Feeling desperate for the loo is just going to make things worse for your dog.
Make sure your dog has a space they can go to during a storm
When that thunder begins to rumble or fence panels rattle, a safe place they can go can help your dog be less scared. For some dogs this might be a crate in a corner covered with a blanket to make a secure den. For others it might be under a piece of furniture.
Make sure to prepare the spot in advance with their favourite toys, treats, a blanket and bowl of water. This way, they have somewhere they can retreat to if they feel scared or worried. This spot should also be easily accessible and close to you – as they need your comfort as well.
If they choose to go somewhere else, let them. Don’t try and encourage them out – just make sure they have water, and stay close by them.
Be there to give them the support and comfort they need
When it storms outside, it’s natural for your dog to look to you for reassurance. After all, you’re the one who provides safety, security and love. Stay calm so you give them confidence, and give them as much – or as little – physical contact as they need. Some dogs will get comfort from cuddling up to you, while others will be happier just knowing you’re nearby.
Offer them distractions like a game, some training or simple food dispensing toys – such as Beco bones filled with treats, LickiMats etc. These can help give them something else to think about. But a really stressed dog can’t eat, so don’t be surprised if they refuse even their favourite morsels.
Try and mask the noise of thunder or banging fence panels
Thunder can be particularly scary to dogs, because they can hear at a much further distance than us humans. And if everything else is silent, the thunder seems even louder! Try turning on the TV or radio, having a loud conversation (even if only with your dog!) and carry on as normal.
Close your curtains
As well as minimising noise, you should also consider closing curtains or blinds. This helps block out flashes from lightning or trees waving about wildly that may be additionally unsettling for your dog.
Talk to your vet
If your dog is showing excessive fear of thunder or storms, and especially if it’s getting worse, you should talk to your vet. They may be able to suggest medication or complementary therapies that might help in severe cases, as this is an area where there are several new treatments available.
Get help for the future
One thing you can be sure of is that thunder and storms happens – as do fireworks and other loud noises. This is a behaviour problem that isn’t going to go away without help.
It’s far better to work to prevent the distress and fear that noise phobia brings than to have to deal with a panicky dog when it does. Find an accredited behaviourist who can help you work on your dog’s noise phobia to help make future storms… less stormy for you both.
Carolyn Menteith is a behaviourist at tails.com with over 25 years of experience working with and training dogs.