On Good Behavior LLC

Thunder Phobia: Early Intervention Works!

The August that Flash was 5 ½, I noticed that he was behaving strangely during thunderstorms. He would hide under my desk, drool, and look generally miserable. It took me a few weeks to realize that this always occurred around thunderstorms, but once I put two and two together, I realized I needed to act quickly to prevent this from getting much worse. I had seen clients’ dogs who would injure themselves doing things like trying to dig through walls during storms and this was not a problem I wanted to experience.

Flash always loved squeaky toys, so I decided to get him a special thunder toy. Since he seemed primarily concerned with the noise, I decided to pair the noise with the toy. Whenever I was home during a storm, I would get out his toy and wait for a boom of thunder. Then I’d celebrate (Yipee! That was a big boomer!) , bring out the toy and play tug with Flash for a few seconds, then put it on my desk on go back to work until then next bang. This wouldn’t have worked if Flash was too stressed to play, but I’d never seen him turn down a toy.

After a few storms where he got to play with his toy after every clap of thunder, he started to make the connection. He would still be hiding under my desk, but instead of cowering when he heard thunder, he would look up to see if his toy was coming. We didn’t get in a ton of practice that year since thunderstorms were coming to an end, but I felt we were on the right track.

The next year, he still would go under my desk, but there was no drooling and he would often stay out from under the desk after playing tug in hopes of another round. We worked on it all summer and he seemed to be doing OK. Usually, this is a problem that gets steadily worse, so I was hoping we were out of the woods.

Fast forward to the following spring (now a year and a half after I first noticed the problem). First thunderstorm of the year and I wasn’t even thinking about it. Flash however was acting very excited and trying to get my attention. Finally, he ran to the hall closet door and started nosing it. Duh! He wanted his thunder toy! Of course, I happily got it out for him and played. At this point, I knew we were home free. No longer did Flash see a thunderstorm as something scary to hide from; he saw it as playtime.

I’m very thankful that I knew to intervene early and that it worked. Flash continued to want to play during storms for the rest of his life and on several occasions there were thunderstorm delays during agility trials and he happily came out and competed minutes after sheltering in the car for a storm delay.

As with many problems, early intervention is key. Mild fears of many kinds can be overcome by counter conditioning (that is, making the previously bad thing into a predictor of good things), as Flash’s story shows. Full blown phobias are much harder to treat because dogs in a true panic are not interested in toys or food so strategies other than counter conditioning must be used.

Dogs who have progressed to true thunder phobia will look panicked, drool, and whine. They may pace or try to escape through windows or walls, or they may hide in small dark places (like under my desk). They will refuse food and toys. Often medication is necessary to get them safely through storms. 

There are things that can be done for dogs with thunder phobia, but it’s so much easier to keep it from ever developing! If your dog is just a little bit afraid of thunder, consider intervening now and teaching your dog that thunderstorms are the best thing ever. If your dog is already phobic, you will probably need help from your vet and trainer to make your dog as comfortable as possible. 

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