Dog behavior, curbing your dogs fear of thunderstorms

When my first dog got to be a little bit older, she acquired an intense fear of thunderstorms. As a young dog, this dog never seemed to notice thunderstorms, but age altered her attitude. At the first rumble of thunder, my usually adventurous dog would dash off, find somewhere to hide, and shudder uncontrollably. Reassuring talk did nothing to calm her. Sometimes she would even lose control of her bladder, she was so petrified.

Then one day while waiting for the dog’s vet appointment, we picked up an article with a solution to this vexing dog behavior issue. It recommended using sound-effect recordings to desensitize the dog to thunder over a period of time. I filed this information in the back of my mind, planning to try it.

Well, before I got around to beginning my dog’s desensitization program, we all went camping and got entangled in the loudest, flashiest, most spectacular thunderstorm any of us had ever known. There we were, surrounded by nonstop lightening and earsplitting thunder, with a dog who wanted to run back to the city. For the duration, we both held the dog down affectionately but, well, doggedly, afraid that otherwise she would rip up the tent. When it was all over, she fell asleep there, breathing quietly in our ears until dawn.

The startling thing here was that this dog was never afraid of thunder again! I think, in her perception, she had survived the biggest monster of all thunderstorms and anything after that was a piece of cake. In other words, the dog had had a fast-track desensitization program.

However, I do not recommend that approach with your frightened dog. Here is what the article advised:

1. Get an audio recording of thunderstorm sounds. There are lots of them around.

2. With the dog in the room, play the recording very quietly – such that the dog pays no attention to it.

3. Repeat this for several days, gradually increasing the playing time until you get up to about 5 minutes.

4. Continue the exercise, but now turn up the volume just a little. Turn up the volume a little more each day until it is quite loud. If the dog seems to pay attention to the sound or become nervous, turn it back down until he relaxes – you have pushed too far in too short a time.

5. Carry on with this exercise for a few weeks until the dog ignores loud thunder.

6. After that, repeat two or three times a week, then once a week, once a month – just to make sure the dog still doesn’t react to thunder.

Of course, it’s important to stay with the dog while you do all this so you can monitor his responses, and also so you don’t actually increase the dog’s fear by leaving him alone in a frightening place.

This gradual desensitization of the dog is the caring, thoughtful way to do it – not like my dog’s crash course (couldn’t resist that pun), but the fundamental principle is the same. The dog learns to recognize these sounds as normal and stops fretting about them. In a short time, your anxious dog will be a fearless dog.