Crash! Boom! Bang! Addressing Fear of Thunderstorms with Systematic Desensitization

Every year as thunderstorm season rolls around, I get a flood of calls from concerned dog owners whose beloved pooches are chewing through beds, clawing at crates, or drenching themselves in drool while the thunder booms and the lightning flashes. In some cases, mere raindrops are enough to send a dog into hysterics. In fact, some dogs begin acting nervous – pacing, whining, panting, and shaking – hours before the storm even rolls into town!

Fear of thunderstorms is common in dogs and likely begins with a natural startle response to the boom of thunder. Loud noises are startling to many animals, and the bangs of thunder are unpredictable and can be loud enough to shake windows and floors. In nature, animals might hunker down or dig into the earth to avoid the thick of the storm, and dogs may feel exposed and unable to settle when a storm rattles. For many dogs, an aversion to thunderstorms is exhibited with milder responses such as trembling, pacing, or hiding. Many owners find these responses manageable and sometimes a little cuddle or offering a dark open crate for a dog to cozy into is enough to do the trick.

In other cases, including most of those for which animal behaviorists are called, the responses are more intense and can include destruction of household property, including any enclosure the owner uses to try to contain the dog. I have seen many cases where dogs have broken teeth and nails attempting to escape from a crate, kennel, or house during a storm. I have even seen cases where dogs have crashed through glass doors and windows in their panic.

To address serious fear responses to thunderstorms, owners often must implement a systematic desensitization program. Such a program, developed originally in clinical psychology for use with human patients, involves exposing the dog to gradually increasing levels of the fear-provoking stimulus while ensuring that the dog remains calm at each stage before the intensity of the stimulus is increased. Human patients are taught to be calm in this process by asking them to imagine relaxing scenarios and using muscle relaxation exercises. Because we have no such instructional control with dogs, we often use food, petting, and toy play instead to evoke and reward relaxed, content behavior.

There are different ways to conduct a systematic desensitization program, depending on which elements of the thunderstorm are evoking fearful behavior. If the audio of a storm is an important element in the dog’s fearful response, then we can utilize a thunderstorm audio track to great advantage. We begin by playing a thunderstorm sound at the lowest volume on our stereo while providing the dog with a high-value edible such as a stuffed Kong or bone. If the dog merrily eats this over a period of 10 minutes or so with no signs of tension or fear over several sessions, we then increase the volume on the audio track and continue to provide the bone or chewable item over further sessions. At any point, should the dog show signs of increased tension or fear, or seems to disengage from the bone or belly rubs we are providing, we must re-evaluate the intensity of the stimulus and work at an easier level until we again see reliable, sustained relaxation.

In some cases, we need to utilize other stimuli associated with storms. For example, some dogs are made nervous by the sound of raindrops on the windows or roof, so we will set up a sprinkler facing the house and again work on pairing this sound with the presentation of a high-value item that holds the dog’s focus and keeps the dog relaxed as we gradually increase the volume of the “raindrops”.

Systematic desensitization programs typically require direct instruction from a board certified animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist because individualized steps and timelines based on each dog’s ongoing responding are essential to their success. Some dogs respond well to behavioral medications during this process, and pet owners should speak with their veterinarian if they are interested in pursuing pharmacological intervention in addition to behavioral intervention.

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