Dealing with your dog’s thunder phobia Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Friday, 16 October 2020 12:47
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

Is it true that if the owner stayed calm the dog would stay calm during a thunderstorm? Well, yes and no. I have three (large) dogs which exhibit signs of thunder phobia and it can be quite a mission to survive a storm.

There are multiple factors causing fear in storms: Lightning flashes, thunder, rain, barometric pressure and static electricity. Dogs will pick up impending thunderstorms long before we do. Because we’re not always at home, we need to take precautionary steps.

Fear is a normal and often life-saving response and only becomes a problem when it is unfounded and the animal does not get used to whatever is causing the fear. Phobias are a severe acute form of fear.

Phobic dogs hyperventilate, shiver, try to hide and may even urinate and defecate. Animals with phobias often exhibit an all-or-nothing response, regardless of the severity of the stimulus.

Management involves desensitisation, counter-conditioning and medication. Medication is not intended as sole treatment and should be accompanied by behavioural and environmental modification.

Phobic dogs need a safe den area to hide during a storm. This can be a bedroom, garage or crate and must have free access as the owner may often not be at home during storms. Your dog can also be trained to sleep in the refuge, thus reducing night time incidents.

Animals which dig whilst in their refuge or move off to another place need a better refuge. Add heavy curtains, place extra blankets over the bed to absorb sound, play background music.

Do not force dogs to “confront” their fears. Do not “reward” your dog for phobic behaviour by giving it too much attention during these episodes as this will reinforce its behaviour. Keep a relaxed attitude and go about your daily business as normal. This simple point cannot be over-emphasised: Dogs are very sensitive to their owners’ moods and stressed owners stress their pets.

Food or a favourite chew or toy, which has not been seen in a while, may distract your dog’s attention from the storm. Dog appeasement pheromone (DAP), available as a spray or plug-in aerosoliser, has been shown to be helpful in some cases of noise phobia.

Desensitisation aims to manage the condition over the long term. This involves gradually exposing your dog to increasing intensities of the scary sounds. CDs with scary sounds are available from  

Follow the instructions carefully. As soon as your pet shows fear, the intensity of exposure needs to be reduced. Positive reinforcement is used when fearful behaviour is not exhibited. As with any behavioural modification, this is a very gradual process.

Applying pressure to certain areas on the body also seems to make a big difference. You can buy a Thundershirt®, which straps on and applies a gentle pressure to your dogs, which they find calming.

You can also make a thunder shirt by wrapping a piece of preferably stretchy cloth around your dog in a specific way. I have tried this on my Boerboel and have found it to be very effective, combined with an anxiolytic.

Calming caps® and thunder bands® cover the dogs’ eyes. Dogs must be gradually introduced to these before the storm season. There are also collars, sprays and plug-ins (dog-appeasement pheromones), which decrease anxiety, regardless of cause. They should be used together and need to be used constantly. The collar needs to be snug, as body heat activates it.

Watch out for big glass windows and devils fork fences. We see lots of injuries to pets as they try to escape the noise. 

Early treatment once the problem manifests, prevents it from getting worse. Typically the intensity of the dog’s fear worsens with age. Young animals, less then five months old, can easily be taught to tolerate loud noises by using positive reinforcement, such as play or treats, whilst exposing them to low levels of the noise.

Puppy socialisation to a wide variety of situations and experiences is vital to prevent the development of many fears and phobias.

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