It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

by David Lavernoich, DVM, Good Hands Veterinary Hospital

Let’s paint a picture in our imagination: It is early September here in Georgia. You’re lying in bed soundly sleeping at 3:00am when suddenly there is a flash, and you hear a large BOOM! This immediately startles and wakes you from a pleasant dream. You hear the patter of raindrops on the window you think to yourself, “Oh, just a normal summer thunderstorm” and fall back asleep. Meanwhile your dog heard a loud explosion, saw an unusual bright blue light, and now something weird is tapping on the window like a “Thunder Monster.” This may seem like a very unusual situation for your canine companion and may cause distress.

Storm and noise phobias are a common occurrence for some of our furry friends. About one in five dogs have some adverse fear or phobia reaction to loud, unusual noises. These phobias can manifest themselves on a spectrum of reactions. On the mild side of the spectrum, the response may be passiveness, panting, pacing, avoidance, drooling or even no response at all. More severe reactions may cause destruction of walls or other property to try and flee from the noise, and they may even injure themselves in the process. Many dogs will find a quiet place to hide or ride out the storm on their own, but there are several things that we can to help our pets when this type of situation happens. 

For milder reactions to thunderstorms, you can try some of the following:

  •  If your dog tends to hide on their own in a safe and quiet spot, allow that. If they are safe and not causing a problem, let them ride it out with out too much disturbance from you.
  • Avoid punishing, yelling at or scolding your dog during these stressful times, as it may make the situation worse. Some people will scold their dogs when they pace, whine, drool, etc. when they are nervous. This will only compound the situation. 
  • During the adverse noise, try to have some mild white noise such as the tv, classical music or a fan to help distract from the shock of the abnormal loud noises. 
  • Avoid changing your own behavior in reaction to their behavior. Sometimes if we give too much attention to your pet’s unwanted behavior, it may reinforce it. If your pet needs a reassuring snuggle, noogie or pet, there is no reason not to. 
  • If your dog will tolerate it, you can place some cotton balls in their ears.
  • Close the blinds to try to avoid the bright shock of the lightning strike, as this can be alarming.
  • Try to use these times for fun training games, nose work or learning new tricks. However, never force these training situations, and if need be, consult your veterinarian or dog behaviorist. 

For more severe reactions that cause destruction of property, harm to themselves or you, running away, or if the dog seems to be out of control, you may need to counter condition or even administer medication. The problem is that this solution can be quite complicated, and no one’s situation is the same. In these situations seek professional assistance such as your veterinarian, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a certified behaviorist. They will help you better understand your dog’s behavior. First, they will obtain a history to grasp the full scope of you and your pet’s situation. Dependent on the findings, they may suggest certain anti-anxiety medications and will come up with a plan for behavior modification, as well. There are good, effective medications that can help with these situational phobias, but it is best to consult your veterinarian to determine the best ones.

These may be scary situations for your companion. But with a little leadership and love from you and guidance from your veterinarian and/or behaviorist, you can turn these “Thunder Monsters” into “Passive Summer Storms.”