There’s nothing more stressful than seeing your dog in distress and feeling like you can’t do much to help. When dogs are anxious during a storm owners may feel that the only way to help is to try to comfort their 4-legged friend and wait out the storm. This week’s post attempts to help identify storm phobia, review environmental causes, and provide a solution for what to do during a storm.
Storm phobia refers to a wide range of behaviors that correlate with the timing of a storm or storm-like conditions. Behaviors often include shaking, pacing, panting, and attempts to hide in small areas. Dogs often seek out their owners and make attempts to be comforted with attention. Typical onset occurs a bit later in life at approximately 3-5 years, but can occur in much younger dogs as well.
Environmental Causes of Storm Phobia
The initial trigger for storm phobia related behaviors can be relatively obvious—-loud crashes of thunder, heavy winds, or a downpour of rain. In future storms, any weather that precedes the storm can begin to trigger the behavior as well. Once your dog begins engaging in the panicky behavior, the behavior is susceptible to what happens environmentally.
Although genetics certainly plays a role, there is little we can do about how it affects a current dog aside from preventing in more “at risk” breeds. And although it’s difficult to pull apart genetics and other sets of problem behavior, it does seem that dogs who engage in separation anxiety are more prone to storm phobia. It’s unknown whether or not the breeds are more susceptible or if there is simply a correlation between behaviors. The latter wouldn’t be surprising given the environmental causes are similar, if not identical. And, not surprisingly, dogs who have been exposed to extreme living conditions (e.g., tethered outdoors for life, homeless) are often more susceptible.
As a behaviorist, I like to look more closely at those more immediate environmental causes that can be controlled to some extent. And, from my experience, dogs usually behave in that panicked way with a result of two things, both likely happening concurrently. First, the storm may lessen, go away completely, or your dog may be able to escape to an area that helps shield the weather. Second, like any caring owner, you may try to comfort your dog. Both the removal of the storm/escape from the storm and comfort provided reduce the panic in the moment, but strengthen it over time. Even in a matter of 2-3 storms, dogs begin to show extreme storm phobia.
Storm Phobia Treatment
Reducing the motivation for the removal of or escape from the storm.
The first step in treatment is to prepare your dog for a storm and lay the groundwork for treatment. Your dog will need to eat during future storms and measures will be taken to encourage that so it’s important that you consult with your veterinarian before training and all diet changes be okayed first. It’s important to not give your dog free access to their food at all times in an attempt to encourage eating during the storm. If you’re in the habit of sprinkling their food with tasty extras like cheese, meat, canned food or yogurt, that should stop. The more tasty food you offer for free, the less likely they are to eat when they’re distressed.
Instead of offering tasty morsels for free, offer things like chicken or hotdogs when your dog notices a storm and ideally before they begin to panic. Treats should be small and should be delivered quickly and at a high rate. You’ll need to pace the rate of feeding because you should continue feeding throughout the storm. If your dog is eating and appears to be relaxed, slowly start to reduce the rate of feeding. If you notice an increase in panicky behavior, begin feeding faster. I prefer to toss the treats onto a hard surface floor so that it isn’t coming directly from me.
During this training it’s important to expose your dog to levels that increase in intensity, but aren’t too intense. A good indicator of appropriate levels is that your dog continues to eat. If they stop eating, it’s likely that the intensity of the storm is too strong. Making too big of a jump in intensity can push your dog into panic and eliminate their motivation to eat. Once a dog is overly stressed, it may be hard to recover so be cautious with any big changes. For the first few storms try feeding early and in an area that is “safe” for your dog. Praising (not petting) as your dog shows interest in the first few treats can also encourage them to eat.
Over time, the rate of feeding decreases and an edible bone or stuffed Kong can can be offered in place of you. When making the adjustment from delivering the treats to a food-stuffable toy, attempt to decrease the intensity of the storm by giving your dog access to a “safe” place.
Overall, the goal is to pair the presence of the storm with something very pleasant. In turn, the motivation of the storms and storm like conditions to be removed or escape from it is reduced and the panicky behavior is reduced or eliminated.
Removing attention for panicky behavior.
Although it may be difficult, it’s important not to provide lot of petting and comfort in the form of attention to a panicked dog. Sadly, providing such comfort will strengthen the panic in future storms. It’s also important not to keep your storm phobic dog completely isolated. This large jump could be dangerous as their behavior intensifies in an attempt to find comfort. Instead, allow your dog to be near you, but keep them on the floor and avoid physical contact. If they attempt to climb into your lap, paw at you, or engage in other attention seeking behaviors, stand up and even walk around if necessary. If they are leaning against you, allow if for a bit and slowly create some space between you and them as the storm progresses. During this, be sure to continue pairing the storm or storm-like conditions with tasty treats.
The goal is to not pay the behavior with attention. Don’t worry, feeding a panicked dog reduces panic rather than increases it. This is likely the case because food isn’t something that is maintaining the behavior, environmentally. The same can not be said about attention.
Although it is intense and may be difficult to run, this treatment is incredibly helpful in reducing or eliminating storm anxiety. In some cases, a dog’s behavior can be caught early and easily treated. For individualized help, contact Beyond the Dog or a local CAAB to help ease your dog’s stress during thunderstorms.