It's a dark and stormy night, and you've settled in the perfect spot on your couch to watch a movie, with your pup laying at your side. You hear a series of loud booms from the sky and your dog jumps off the couch, barks, runs around in a circle, and looks for somewhere to go but can't figure it out. He ends up shaking and scared. You try to soothe him by petting him and talking in a calm voice, but he still seems frantic. This situation can be worrisome for you, too. You're probably wondering why your dog is behaving like this and how you can help.
Dogs can be afraid of a wide variety of things, including thunder. Perhaps you adopted your dog from a rescue shelter, and you don't know much about his past, but he flips out anytime he hears loud noises, like books falling off shelves or doors slamming. Or you take your dog to the vet because he is constantly licking his paws, and the vet tells you he has anxiety. The loud sounds and shaking that thunder makes are terrifying to your already anxious four-legged friend.
The Root of the Behavior
The fear of thunder is thought to come from a combination of physical and emotional stressors, and a predisposition to anxiety. The physical stress of the storm-the noises of wind and thunder, shaking of the ground as the thunder hits, the sounds of the thunder getting closer and closer, air pressure, and lightning that blazes up the sky-are all factors that can make your dog shake. Humans learn about the science of storms in school, can be reassured that it will all be over shortly, and can hide under blankets. But a dog doesn't understand that, and may only steal, or pee on, your blanket.
The emotional stressors may come from bad experiences. Perhaps your dog was always outside during storms, and his anxiety was an appropriate response to stay safe. Or he was in a shelter for a long time where he couldn't get any comfort when there were loud noises at night and now panics thinking no one will comfort him. Some dogs that change homes often tend to be more anxious and the uncertainty of the situation or how owners will react is anxiety-provoking enough, but a storm added to the mix makes everything worse for your dog.
While some dogs have bad memories of storms that have a conditional fear, there are other dogs who are predisposed to anxiety. There are dogs who not only get anxious during a storm, but might experience anxiety because of introducing a new pet or human, losing a pet or human friend, separation anxiety when you leave for vacation or even work, fear of cages, or food uncertainty. Certain experts claim that some breeds are predisposed to anxiety, which includes the German Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Border Collie, Havanese, Shorthaired Pointer, Vizsla, and Bichon Frise. Toy breeds or smaller breeds, such as Chihuahuas and Shih-Tzus are also prone to anxiety.
Encouraging the Behavior
It's terrible to watch your dog suffer, and you want to do everything to ease the pitter-patter in his heart. When your dog suffers from anxiety, it manifests as several different symptoms, and some are worse than others. The brevity of the storm will make these symptoms pass, but they can be concerning while the storm is happening. In addition to the symptoms mentioned earlier, your dog may also experience panting, yawning, licking, and clinging to its human friends, and can even get as severe as running away, pacing, chewing or having accidents in the house. None of these behaviors are helpful for your pup or you and can become problematic if they continue.
The symptoms like panting, yawning, running, and pacing are not terribly harmful, just uncomfortable for your canine friend. Once the anxiety passes, your dog will most likely stop those behaviors. He'll only have been out of breath or physically uncomfortable for the duration of the storm. However, when dogs excessively lick or chew their paws or tails, cling to humans, or have accidents in the house, it can be more concerning because that behavior can be damaging. A dog might lick or chew so much it can break the skin, leaving open wounds that could become infected. Having accidents in the house could be a problem not only for your floors, but your dog might get confused about his house training. If your dog clings to you, it will be hard for you to go to the next room without setting him off. These are not behaviors you want to continue after the storm, and if they become excessive during the storm, you want to get help from a vet.
One suggestion for mild anxiety might be a well-fitted shirt or jacket, like a Thundershirt. This type of shirt is fitted for the dog so it can apply gentle pressure all over to reduce the dog's anxiety. It works similarly to a continuous hug. When you receive a hug for a few minutes, it puts pressures on your sympathetic nervous system. That pressure you feel tells your body to release relaxing hormones, so you calm down. The same logic is used in making tight fitted shirts for dogs. The shirt compresses their nervous system gently, reducing anxiety. This can be used for situations other than the storm, too. Hugging a dog might be a good solution, too. However, it may not be easy if your dog is running around in a panic or peeing on the floor.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Always remember to speak to your dog calmly. Even if he's acting crazy and demonstrating symptoms of anxiety that will have you scrubbing your white carpet later, don't yell at him. You'll only elevate his anxiety, and you'll probably become more frustrated, too. Also, make sure he has somewhere to hide. Leave his crate or the room with his bed open so he can go to his comfortable hiding spot if he needs. If you're not sure what the best approach is for you, talk to your vet or contact a trainer. A trainer or veterinary professional can give you some methods to keep your dog calm, and your vet might need to recommend medication if your pup's anxiety is severe.