There are already many articles written about dogs and their “storm phobias”, and at the moment opinion varies as to the reasons why. From it being an evolutionary behavior that some dogs still have ingrained from their ancestors, because a storm signals a need to take shelter, to it being closely linked to other anxiety or separation issues already inherent in a dog. Here I’m going to give a different view on why dogs are afraid of storms, and discuss the things you can do to help if it’s something your dog experiences.
What is a storm to your dog?
Most importantly, it’s something they can’t see. Because of this, it becomes much more difficult to assimilate the experience in their brain and link it to how they feel they should behave. Effectively, it’s like trying to join two dots when one of the dots is just not there.
This is why dogs who are prone to separation or anxiety issues are perhaps more likely to experience storm phobia. For these dogs in particular, a storm is likely to increase their stress levels to a point beyond which they can cope.
Let’s take a look at why a dog may experience separation or anxiety issues…
it’s because of their pack, and that means whatever their family unit is. Whether it’s just you, you and your partner or children as well – any such issues are a direct link to being parted from their pack when they don’t want to be.
Yes, training can help with some of these issues. Equally so, a dog is likely to develop the same issues if left for long periods of time with nothing to do. Particularly if their territorial boundaries have been restricted in some way.
For example, if your dog has free run of an outside area and garden when you are home, but then you lock them inside your house for long periods when you go away, it’s quite possible they feel unsure because they can’t see their full territory and therefore can’t protect their boundaries.
Let’s also be clear, that different dogs have different triggers and stress points, which can depend on a whole variety of factors – the breed, their bond with you, training, past experiences, other dogs or animals, toys, food, going in the car…and the list goes on. Not all dogs will have storm phobias, and not all dogs will have separation and anxiety issues either.
If you currently have no problems with leaving your dog inside the house, then don’t go looking for a problem – your individual dog may be quite OK with fluid boundaries or being left alone.
Anyway, let’s get back to storms and dogs.
What is normal dog behavior during a storm?
That’s just it – dogs don’t know what is expected, because they can’t see a storm. As we know, dogs’ senses including smell and hearing is a lot more sensitive than ours, so they may also start to experience a storm well before we do. Except of course if we are in tune with weather forecasts and storm warnings!
Many veterinarians have speculated that dogs could even be sensitive to changes in barometric pressure, as a pre-cursor to a storm.
Coupled with their excellent smell, it’s also likely they can get subtle olfactory changes in the air that would also act as an indicator. Then in a thunder storm for example, dogs may hear rumbles of thunder from further away and at a lower frequency than we do.
Who knows – perhaps they also feel vibrations in the earth or air too – we don;t know that for sure, but I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility.
It’s a well-documented fact that before an earthquake, animals exhibit all sorts of strange behavior – birds go silent or fly away from an area and land animals may flee. hence it being quite possible that a weather storm can give out indicative signals that we are just not attuned to as humans, but our dogs might be.
Let’s delve into what they might do once they sense a storm is coming – particularly if they are stressed out by it.
The typical fight or flight scenario
The entire animal kingdom is renowned for it. If an animal is cornered or panicked, do they stay and address the threat, or do they get as far away from it as possible?
Dogs are no different, but let’s look at the storm from their point of view.
“I’m feeling panicked, but how do I fight something I can’t see? I can hear all these noises and feel odd sensations, but I can’t see the source of the threat. What am I going to do?
- Try and defend myself anyway, so I’ll bark to try and scare whatever it is off
- Since I can’t see anything, I better attack my surroundings (dogs have been known to chew carpet, or furniture if distressed during a storm)
- I need to hide from whatever this thing is, and hope it goes away soon
- I need to get away at all costs – even if it means destroying things in the way so I can escape (think of Marley the Labrador in the film “Marley and Me”- he chewed through a section of wall during a thunder storm! )
All of these can be classed as normal behavior, and I think if you put yourself in your dog’s shoes, you can see it is all quite legitimate. How would you act if faced with loud noises, and you couldn’t identify the source? What would you actually do?
4 things you can do to help your dog:
Don’t make a big deal of it yourself
If you start trying to soothe your dog and cuddle them, you are only going to promote his/her feelings of insecurity. They will think you are anxious too, and you are in it together. If you have a dog that is worried about protecting you from this unknown threat, you are likely to increase their stress even further.
It’s important you keep them safe, but as soon as you give off any signals of anxiety yourself, you are only making it worse for them.
2. Make use of calmers or diffusers
There are plug-in devices and collars available that can help calm a pet by releasing certain pheromones. The catch is they usually need a bit of time to work, so you would need to anticipate storms a little or be very attuned to your dog to notice the early signs of stress.
I personally am not a big fan of these, probably because I don’t like the idea of using chemicals so much. However, I would prefer to use this rather than have an animal who is so panicky they may hurt themselves or are so stressed it’s obviously a really unpleasant experience for them.
As with anything of this nature, I would always recommend speaking to your dog’s vet as well. They are usually a good source of information and will have some experience with your dog as well. After all, this is a very common problem dog owners face!
3. Soothing through body contact – THE “THUNDERSHIRT”
I am a great fan of these. The idea is to soothe and comfort your dog through mechanical body pressure. Much like swaddling a new born baby, the pressure can help provide a feeling of security and therefore mitigate the “fight or flight” urge.
Many owners have reported great results through using this. One thing to note is that it might take a few goes to get your dog used to it, so it’s recommended you try it out BEFORE a storm.
Try putting it on, leaving it for a bit, and removing it several times in normal circumstances. This helps your dog equate it with a happy and calm place in his/her brain. If you wait until a storm, and then try and use it for the first time, it’s just one more experience to try and deal with at a time when stress is high anyway.
4. Use diversionary noise tactics
This is also a very common tactic, whether or not you use a thundershirt or a chemical calmer. It’s also a particularly important one if your dog is alone at the time.
Leaving a television or radio on quietly can help some dogs, but is more appropriate for dogs with milder storm phobia. The sound of human voices can help calm them, and it can also promote a feeling of security through normal household activity. Whilst you may be absent, the dog feels they are not entirely alone.
However, please don’t think that by turning the volume up you can “out-noise” the storm and help dogs with severe phobia. This will also do the opposite, and create additional stress! Notice I use the word “quietly” in the above paragraph, as we want the dog to treat it as background noise, not to think the household appliances are shouting at him/her.
So in conclusion, being frightened of a storm is perfectly natural for some dogs, especially if they are predisposed to being anxious in nature anyway.
Primarily they can’t see the threat and therefore don’t know really how to best deal with it, so the basic “fight or flight” animal behavior comes to the fore and may be displayed as attack, destroy, hide or escape the storm – or for some dogs, a mixture!
However, you can take action to help your dog if they experience storm phobias, with my favorite being the thundershirt.
I hope this has helped you understand why your dog may get frightened during a storm, and you have got some good practical advice on what to do. If you would like to share your own experiences, please do so below. Or even if you have any questions, just ask 🙂