Our dog Quixote is terrifed of thunderstorms — and it’s fear that’s very common in dogs. When a reader asked me for help for her dog, I recruited my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker, to share some tips.
Q: It’s thunderstorm season, and my 3-year-old Australian shepherd has become so afraid of the noise that he tries to jump out the window. I’m really afraid he’s going to hurt himself. He has never seemed afraid of storms before. Is there anything that can be done? — via Facebook
A: Many dogs are fearful of the sound of thunder — and possibly the accompanying lightning flashes, loud wind, and changes in ozone levels and barometric pressure. Research has found that herding breeds like your Aussie seem to be more prone to this type of fear. In these breeds, at least, the fear may have a genetic component.
Signs of this type of fear usually begin with barking, seeking attention (pawing at people, for instance) and pacing. The signs can swiftly escalate to trembling, panting, howling, destructiveness and attempts to escape, even if that means jumping through a window or chewing through a door.
Those early signs can be subtle. People might not notice them, or they think their dog will outgrow the fear as he matures or becomes used to thunderstorms.
Unfortunately, repeated exposure simply makes the problem worse. If you notice that your dog is fearful during storms, talk to your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist right away. Medication in the very early stages with drugs that help to reduce panic can make the fear easier to manage, but it’s essential to give it before the storm starts. Often, the best solution is medication combined with snug-fitting shirts and capes, which have a soothing effect, and canine ear muffs and eye shades, which help to limit the dog’s exposure to the frightening phenomena. It can also be helpful to teach your dog to go to a place where he feels secure. That can be a closet, a crate lined with a towel or blanket (keep the door open), or a bathroom or bathtub.
Read more in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.