When Your Dog Is Afraid of Storms
What to do if you have a dog with storm phobia.
1. Reward calm behavior year-round.
Many owners make the mistake of trying to console and pet a fearful dog that's whimpering or climbing on them, but that just encourages the panicky behavior, Sherman says.
"We absolutely don't want owners to scold their dog, but we don't want them to reward the dog for being clingy because that will increase the clingy behavior," she says.
Instead, practice getting your dog to settle on command. Sherman advises clients to put a special "inside" leash on the dog and practice having the pet lie at their feet while praising the calm behavior.
"They should practice when there is no storm, so the dog learns the routine," she says. "When the storm comes up, then they put on the leash and say, 'Come on and lie down here,' and the dog still knows what to do."
During the storm, you can also try distracting the dog by offering its favorite toy, playing fetch, petting it, and feeding treats as long as the dog remains calm, Peuser says.
"What you're trying to do is get them to forget about the storm and replace [the fear] with something positive," he says.
2. Give the dog a safe place where he can go in a storm.
That might be an open crate, a basement where the dog can't hear or see what's happening outside, an interior room with music playing, or a bathroom.
Let your dog decide: Notice where he goes during a storm, and if possible, allow access to it.
Be sure your dog can come and go freely, since some animals become more anxious if confined. Sherman treated one golden retriever that was confined to a garage and, in an attempt to escape during a storm, scratched through the drywall of the door leading to the house.
3. Consider a snug garment.
Snug-fitting shirts and wraps especially designed to calm anxious dogs are worth a try, says Sherman, who has consulted for Thundershirt, a so-called pressure garment that is said to have a calming effect similar to swaddling a baby. Some dogs also respond to wearing a metal fabric-lined cape marketed as the Storm Defender, which claims to protect dogs from static shocks.
So far, the benefits of these garments are anecdotal. A 2009 study found "there was a trend toward the Storm Defender performing better" than a placebo cape, but the results were statistically insignificant, said study author Nicole Cottam, MS, behavior service coordinator at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Tufts researchers are currently performing a study sponsored by the makers of Anxiety Wrap, another compression garment.
4. In the winter, desensitize your dog to the sounds of a storm.
Play a CD of thunder recordings at low enough levels that don't frighten your dog, while giving him treats or playing a game. Gradually increase the volume over the course of several months, stopping if your dog shows any signs of anxiety. The goal is to get your dog used to the sound of thunder, and associate it with good things, Peuser says.
Experts caution that desensitization can have limited success in an actual storm because you can only recreate the noise, and not the other factors that may be bothering the dog, such as the static electricity or changes in barometric pressure.