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Thunderstorm Fear

Dear WOOF:

We are proud owners of a 2 1/2 year old male pitbull who is scared to death of thunder and lightning. When it storms he tries to get to the highest level of the house and pants, shakes until the storm is over.
I am afraid that he will one day hyperventilate or have a heart attack. Do you have any suggests to help us work with our dog through the stormy weather?



It sounds like your dog's reaction to thunderstorms is pretty severe, so anti-anxiety medication may be helpful.  Discuss this option with your veterinarian, and read on!

The standard approach for modifying such behavioral responses are known as desensitization and counter-conditioning. Done together, this involves controlled, non-fear inducing exposures (desensitization) to each fear-inducing trigger - for example, playing a CD of thunderstorm sounds whereby the volume intensity can be controlled - while pairing the non-fear inducing exposure with good things (counter conditioning) *like yummy food treats, play or anything your dog LOVES*. The goal being to eventually establish a new and positive emotional response to the experience (at full volume/intensity level) that was previously frightening to the dog. This can be a helpful approach if the dog is only afraid of the sound of thunder.  


The problem is that he's not only afraid of loud crashes of thunder. He's learned through experience that lightning precedes loud thunder claps, so he's afraid of the lightning too - it's become something that he "predicts" will lead to the scary sound!  Events like lightning can not be easily simulated and/or controlled enough to successfully desensitize/counter-condition which complicates things that much more.  Many severely storm-fearful dogs start out only being afraid of the thunder crash - but through experience become more sensitive to pre-thunder events, like the lightning or the sound of rain. From there as the fear intensifies, they associate the scary thunder with the lightning, and then even further back in the chain of events - possibly as far back as the atmospheric changes in barometric pressure and humidity that occur well before a storm hits! Eventually then, those atmospheric changes also become 'predictors' of loud thunder claps, and trigger the onset of fear.  When a dog becomes this sensitive and fearful of the storm experience, modification exercises as described above are not likely to be effective on their own. Anti-anxiety medication can be very helpful, and is usually required.


So start with a visit to your veterinarian to discuss anti-anxiety medication, and see these links for more advice, and products that can help:


For those of you with dogs who experience mild fearful reactions to storms (he/she seems a little uncomfortable) please intervene early because as mentioned above, as time goes by the fear will almost always intensify. At the first sign of an impending storm, start pairing the experience with his/her favorite things, like tug games, tummy rubs, yummy food treats,etc. This can be enough to convince the mildly fearful dog that storms make good things happen.  And if you're one of the lucky ones whose dog isn't bothered by them, keep it that way by making life extra fun for him/her during a storm! 


As always, feel free to pass our Tips along to your dog-loving friends and family! 



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