At the first clap of thunder, your dog is suddenly missing in action, and you're likely to find him in the far corner of the darkest closet or under the bed. Even if your dog is one of the so-called meanest breeds, he may sit trembling on your lap or at your feet when the thunder rolls.
Fear of thunder and other loud noises is not uncommon in pets. In the animal world, fear is a normal response to a threatening situation or aversive stimulus and is designed to protect the animal from harm. A phobia is a persistent excessive and irrational fear response. Fears and phobias can develop at any age and in any breed.
Fears, in general, can develop after a single frightening event or they can arise gradually over time. They are reinforced if the stimulus presentation is frequent. Dogs that are afraid of noise usually do not learn to tolerate the fear-inducing sounds. In fact, they often become more fearful with each exposure and the fear may generalize to include other similar sounds. For example, dogs that start out with thunder phobia may eventually become fearful of fireworks, cars backfiring, or sonic booms.
A fearful dog may seek human company, freeze, pace, pant, tremble, salivate, try to escape, hide or bark at the fear-inducing noise. In severe cases, dogs may even injure themselves in their attempts to escape.
A complete physical examination by a veterinarian is an important first step, not only to rule out medical problems that may exacerbate your dog's fear, but also to verify that your dog is healthy. You may also consider consulting with a behaviorist.
In many cases of noise or thunderstorm phobia the diagnosis is obvious. However, if the noise occurs when you are away, you may come home to discover destruction, your dog on the loose, or signs of inappropriate elimination. Audio or video tape recordings can be useful in such cases to determine exactly what triggers the behavior problem.
Treatment may be as simple as bringing your dog indoors, turning on the radio/television/fan/air conditioner ("white noise"), or providing a comfortable hiding place or "safe place."
If your dog's signs are more severe, a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization may be helpful. This involves replicating the noise by tape recording and then exposing your relaxed dog to the noise at low volume. You can then increase the volume gradually, taking care not to cause your dog to become fearful. A veterinarian or behaviorist can help you design an appropriate program.
Desensitization to thunderstorms is difficult using this technique because other difficult-to-recreate stimuli are presently simultaneously in a real storm e.g. changes in barometric pressure, darkening skies, and perhaps even certain odors (ozone?). The real situation will often precipitate the phobic reaction even after desensitization using taped recordings.
Your dog's veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may also recommend anti-anxiety medication.
If your dog's fear is mild and the noise is infrequent, these simple techniques may be sufficient. However, don't try to reassure your dog during a fearful event with petting, soothing words, or extra attention, as this can sometimes exacerbate the problem by reinforcing your dog's fearful response. Also note that dogs are sensitive to peoples' moods may be influenced by the way that you react to the noise. It is best to act happy and upbeat or to redirect your dog's attention to some absorbing activity.
Try to anticipate your dog's exposure to noises and avoid such exposure, if possible. Talk to your pet in a light, cheerful tone that sends a message that the storm is no big deal. Encourage your dog to find a quiet restful place to wait out the storm.