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Thunder phobia, the fear of thunder, is quite common and it affects dogs of all ages, all breeds and both sexes. Some dogs with thunder phobia are frightened of all loud sounds while most are frightened of thunderstorms. It is speculated that these dogs are responding to atmospheric changes, static electrical changes, as well as the sound of the thunder. Additionally, dogs may become frightened of distant or pending thunderstorms and may exhibit fear in response to weather conditions that we cannot hear or sense.

The fear response to thunderstorms may be mild or may progress to severe life-threatening panic attacks. The progression may take place during a single event or may progress to more severe attacks over several years.

The symptoms of a mild attack may include pacing, panting, trembling, remaining close to their owner, and a worried appearance. These signs are usually noticeable several hours before a storm arrives. During peak storm activity, when thunder is loudest and most frequent the fear response may become more severe. Some dogs become destructive, hide, or attempt to escape.

In extreme cases, affected dogs may panic. They may howl, race madly, foam at the mouth and become completely distressed. Some dogs break through windows, dig through doors, climb fences and run to escape the storm. They become so frightened that they loose all sense of reason and run until they collapse or injure themselves or others. To the thunder phobic dog, the only goal is to escape danger immediately.

What You Can Do To Help

  1. Create A Safe Haven: Many dogs will seek a safe place to hide. It may be under the bed, under the sink, in the closet or in their kennel. Let your dog decide his safe haven. Frightened dogs usually seek a cubbyhole that is dark, small and protected from the effects of the storm. Allow your pet to have easy access to this area all the time. Make it safer by decreasing light and sound from the storm. Sometimes music will ease your dog and help to cover the sounds of the storm. The safe haven approach doesn't work for all dogs. Some dogs are motivated to flee the danger. Forcing a safe haven or forced confinement may intensify the fear response.
  2. Distract Your Dog: If you are observant and can anticipate your pet's anxiety about a pending thunderstorm, you may prevent the fear response by distracting him. In an escape proof area, play games that your dog really enjoys. Keep his attention focused on the tennis ball, or tug of war, or other favorite games. Music or food may distract, delay or decrease his fearful response. This approach is most effective in dogs that are just learning to fear thunderstorms or have a mild fear response. If your pet becomes fearful in spite of your efforts, stop. You do not want your pet to associate his joyous activities with his phobia to thunder.
  3. Behavior Modification, Counter Conditioning and Desensitization: Some affected dogs can be trained (conditioned) to change their fearful response to thunderstorms. By exposing the thunder phobic dog to low levels of the stimulus that triggers the fear response he may gradually accept them as non-threatening. This approach is tricky and not always successful. Please consult with your veterinarian. If you are not gradual or gentle enough you may reinforce the fear rather than ease it.
  4. Thunder Shirt:  gentle, constant pressure has a dramatic calming effect for most dogs if they are anxious, fearful or over-excited. Visit their page for more information and to order http://www.thundershirt.com

What Not To Do

  1. Do not reassure your dog when he's afraid. Regrettably, you will be conditioning or encouraging the phobic behavior you want to stop. If you pet, soothe or give treats to your pet when he's behaving fearfully, you will be rewarding him for his fearful behavior.
  2. Do not force confinement on your frightened pet. Locking your dog in a crate to prevent him from being destructive during a thunderstorm does not ease his panic and he may severely injure himself while attempting to get out of the crate.
  3. Do not punish your dog for being afraid. Physical and verbal punishment will only increase your dog's fear.

These approaches fail because they don't lessen your dog's fear. Simply preventing your pet from escaping or being destructive does not ease his panic. His fright is real and he will demonstrate this fear one way or another. He may bite and chew at his crate; an easy way to loose a few teeth. He may dig, climb, jump and throw himself around the crate; an easy way to injure toes, toenails and legs. Or perhaps he may howl and bark and dangerously worsen his anxiety.

What Your Veterinarian Can Do To Help

In addition to helping you with a Counter Conditioning Program, your Veterinarian can prescribe medication (tranquilizers and anti-anxiety type medications) to protect your pet from injury. In most cases a combination of medication and a program to gradually and gently help him adjust to storms is usually the best approach.

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