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My Experience With Thunder Phobia

By Myra Soden

Thunder phobia is unfortunately quite common in Border Collies. It is well documented that dogs who never previously displayed fear of thunderstorms can BECOME extra sensitive as they get older. Whether it is due to a "bad experience" or just something that comes on later in life is not clear.

I have a 10-year old dog who was never bothered by thunder. But when she was 7, a huge bolt of lightning struck a large tree located only 30' from the corner of our garage where our kennel was. The noise was horrible and the electrical charge in the air was intense. Since then, forget about thunderstorms for her! I think she is more afraid of the electricity in the air and low barometric pressure she feels when there is a storm than the noise but, of course, she associates the noise with the storm, too. But she is not nearly as nervous if the thunder isn't too loud and she is worse during a storm with a lot of lightning. She cannot be left alone, she can escape from any kind of kennel and she becomes a whirling dervish in a crate. Luckily, I have the kind of job where she can come with me to work if I think there will be a storm. As long as she is with me, she usually doesn't have to be crated. During an especially bad storm, I do have to crate her but if I am home, she does okay. It's just being left alone that is the problem for her. Of course, at no time does she get any "comforting" or reinforcement when she is acting fearfully.

I had another dog who was always a little nervous during storms but he got much worse after the age of 5. Fortunately by that time, he was very accustomed to being crated during a storm and that's all I ever had to do for him.

I have a 6-year old dog who never was bothered by thunder. However, living with a couple of thunder-sensitive dogs has made her nervous just in the past 6 months, but she is controllable. Actually, she BARKS when it thunders. I actually think she is trying to TELL me that the other dogs are acting up - she's always been a little bit of a "tattle tale." I crate her and ask her firmly to be quiet and she does okay. If I am not home, she and two other dogs who are not thunder phobic are in my kennel. If it starts to storm while I'm gone, they do fine. No one tries to self-destruct and when I come back, they're fine. They get a lot of praise. This gives credence to my theory that my little tattle tale goes into her routine only for my benefit.

The very first step in handling a thunder phobic dog is CRATE TRAINING. Even dogs who are used to being crated might need a few additional "lessons" so the crate can be used more effectively. Consistency is a good idea and trying to leave a dog loose (at least at first) is probably not a good idea. The dog can be given a Kong with peanut butter, hard bones, favorite indestructible toys, etc. to make being in the crate a positive thing, not punishment. After a while, perhaps a dog could stay in a "dog-proofed" area (utility room or bathroom) if the dog can "graduate" from being in a crate. The goal is safety and security of the dog and protection of your house and furniture from destructive chewing.

Another step further in crate training is actually feeding a dog its meals in the crate. The crate should be located in the dog’s "favorite" room - definitely where he/she can see the family members going about their business. Working with the dog and the crate while you are home will lessen anxiety about the crate being used only when the dog will be left alone. You can start out by meal times in the crate. Then you can also have the dog take a "crate nap" at some point on a daily basis when someone is home. The dog can be put in the crate for perhaps 1 hour a day when someone is there. If the dog fusses, he/she needs to be told gently but FIRMLY to "be quiet" and "lie down." Never EVER let a dog out of the crate unless he/she has been quiet and peaceful in it for at least 10 minutes. You may have to sound a little "mean" when you tell your dog to be quiet. The dog needs to know that you do not feel sorry for him/her and that you do not like the nutty behavior.

When it comes to acting up during a storm (or being crated), it is EXTREMELY important to understand that "comforting" a dog when he/she is being fearful and nutty only makes that behavior MUCH much worse. A dog perceives "comfort" as "praise" and it reinforces the behaviors. The dog thinks you WANT him/her to act that way. The proper way to deal with a dog's fear is to act like NOTHING unusual is wrong. Go about your business as usual and, if necessary, crate the dog in the same room where you are and remind him/her to "be quiet" and "lie down."  Going about your business as usual and laughing off a storm (or other fears) is the best thing to do around the dog.

I have an older dog who came to me at age 8 or 9 with extreme separation anxiety and extreme thunder phobia. Tess almost has no teeth left from years of chewing her way out of crates and kennels during her panic when it thundered. She would claw and bite through wire until she was bloody. She would claw and destroy wooden doors, door frames, window screens and window frames,  and shred paper and plastic if anything was left within her reach. When I rescued Tess, I was married and my husband was retired and home most of the time. So this helped us over time to rehabilitate her from the separation anxiety. There was no option to keep her in a kennel or a crate, as she would destroy anything we tried to confine her in and hurt herself in the process. Over time, we would leave her alone (not during thunderstorm season) for short periods and slowly increased the time until she could be left alone successfully for an entire day. Tess does not have to be crated and can destroy just about any crate.

After some more crate training, very short periods of leaving your dog alone, even for just a half hour at first, and then returning might help.  You'll build up her trust that, if you leave, you'll be back soon. Make absolutely NO issue of leaving or returning. No goodbyes when you depart - give the dog a Kong or a bone to occupy itself and quietly leave with no fanfare. When you return, do not give any no petting or greeting. Basically ignore the dog for at least the first 5-10 minutes of coming home, let him/her outside to potty and after that, you can pet and greet. But make no big deal about comings and goings. You should crate your dog 10-15 minutes before you actually leave the house, making sure he/she settles down nicely. Then "sneak" out quietly so he/ she doesn't hear you leaving.

I still do this with Tess all the time. She doesn't get crated but I do my "departure" routine ahead of time - closing windows, turning on the fan or A/C, putting my purse with my keys by the door, closing the bedroom doors. Then I do something else for about 10 minutes (finish fixing my hair, finish my coffee, etc.) and I very quietly slip out the back door out of her sight. Sometimes, Tess is already napping on her dog bed and actually doesn't notice me leaving but not always. I "mix up" my departure routine so she doesn't get used to any certain things that are done right before I'm going to leave. It will be easier for you to do this with your dog since he/she will be in a crate and you can use an exit door out of the dog’s sight.

For my Tess, her anxiety during thunderstorms is still there but has improved GREATLY. I feel a large part of her problem was due to her separation anxiety because she had been a dog who was left loose or penned outside and increasingly became terribly frightened during storms. It is clear that, at times (perhaps when she was very young), she got "comforted" during storms which made her reactions to them worse as well. Once she got attention and was living as a part of the household, her anxiety about being left alone was greatly reduced. She is 13 now and still with me. She can be left alone successfully for 8-10 hours while I am at work. I make sure not to leave anything within her reach that she might decide to shred - the mail on a low table, any plastic grocery bags in reach, etc.

She still reacts badly when it thunders HOWEVER - she sometimes hardly reacts AT ALL as long as I am with her during a storm. For some time, I did have to sedate her and put her in a crate during a storm. She'd need to get her pill about 30-45 min. before a storm and I'd try to get her the pill on time. Usually, one can tell when a storm is coming - the sky gets darker, the leaves are turning backwards, the weather forecast predicts late afternoon storms, it's been hazy and humid all day and then starts becoming overcast and breezy. Giving her a pill was usually the safest bet and if it ended up not storming, no harm done. If I didn't get her the pill in time, I'd still crate her IN THE SAME ROOM WHERE I AM and I'd sternly tell her to "Be quiet!" and "Lie down!" if she started clawing to try and get out of the crate. She'd be able to watch me going about my usual routine like nothing strange was going on, in spite of a bad storm outside. She learned to tolerate being crated and would stay quiet during a storm. After the storm passed, she'd be let out (with no fanfare), let outside to potty, and petted after that. Now, she does not even have to be crated or medicated during a storm. As long as she is with me, I can tell her firmly to "go lie down!" if she starts pacing around, digging in corners, and panting when it thunders.

My lifestyle allows for a few things that most people don't have - I have a job very close to my house and if a storm is coming, I can run home and pick up my 10-yr old dog and Tess and bring them back to my office with me. Some days when I am not certain if it might thunder at some point during the day, I just bring them both with me to work. Tess is also getting a little hard of hearing so unless the thunder is really, really intense, I don't think she hears it as well as she used to so sometimes it doesn't even wake up if she's napping. When the thunder is louder, I turn on my air conditioner and a radio or the t.v. and this background noise seems to block out a lot of the thunder noise, which helps the dogs.

Most dogs will probably never completely get over their fear of thunder - many, many Border Collies have this problem for life. But you can hope for a dog who is not in a state of panic during a storm and who, at the very least, will stay quietly in a crate during a storm, if you are home or if you are not. So institute a "program" of better crate training and more trust that your comings and goings are no big deal and that you always come back. At first, if you have to go out, putting your dog in a crate in a very quiet, semi-dark place if you think it might storm while you're out is the best idea. Leave a radio or a fan on to make some background noise.

As for medications – here’s what’s worked for me and other people I know. First, you can try Melatonin. It is a natural supplement you can find in the vitamin section of the drugstore. Get the 3 mg. tablets. Give one pill 30-60 minutes before a storm. This works well for some dogs (it worked really well for Tess). I give pills in a blob of peanut butter - surround the pill with peanut butter on a spoon and the dog licks off the blob and swallows the pill with the sticky p.b. You can also stick the blob of peanut butter to the roof of the dog's mouth and they eat it and don't spit it out. Melatonin is sometimes completely ineffective for some dogs but it's worth a try. Melatonin works on the body's natural sedative reaction to reduced light. When the sky starts to darken (before a storm or at night), the body naturally relaxes and Melatonin enhances this response. That's why having a dog in a darker room will help during a storm and if the Melatonin is effective for your dog, it may be all you'll need. You should give one 3 mg. pill 45 min. before short trips out for errands, too, then crate the dog about 10 min. or so before you actually leave. If the place you choose for the crate is a fairly bright, light room, you can cover the crate with a blanket to block out light (practice this when you are home first!). If you think it might storm and then it doesn't, all the Melatonin will do is give your dog a nice little nap with no side effects.

If the Melatonin does not help, then ask your vet for something. Do NOT use acepromazine (this is the "old-fashioned" drug). This is merely a sedative and does nothing to reduce anxiety. So a dog sedated on "ace" will still feel just as much anxiety and fear but will just be too physically sedated to do anything about it. In the long run, it actually makes the dog MORE afraid of storms. If your vet insists on prescribing ace, QUESTION this or go to another vet. So it is NOT a good medication for thunder problems. You need something that actually reduces anxiety such as Valium or amitryptilene (sp? Elavil is one of the brand names). I have also heard about great success for thunder phobia with Xanax.

One last suggestion - if your dog has a favorite toy or likes to play ball, you can also try playing with while it is thundering. I do know of a few cases when distracting a dog who LOVED playing ball worked very well to reduce thunder anxiety. However, these were younger dogs with a lot of play and ball drive and focus that were SO interested in fetching their ball (little tosses in the house, playing "hide and seek" indoors with the ball) that it really did distract them from the storm. One of these dogs now actually goes and brings her owner the ball the minute she hears a little rumble of thunder. She associates the storm with doing something really fun. This might not work with an older dog.

If you have small children, their response to thunderstorms can seriously effect your dog. If your little ones are also afraid of thunder or react in some way to it (shrieking, crying, etc.), this will upset the dog very much. Try to keep things as quiet and low key as possible and perhaps you can distract the kids from reacting to thunder and lightning by making it a "family effort" to help the dog get over its fears.

Thunder phobia and the abnormal behaviors it produces in many dogs can make living with a dog very challenging. In rescue, we often have a large influx of new dogs during thunderstorm season! The BEST approach is to never ever "coddle" or "comfort" a puppy or a young adult dog if they show any anxiety during a storm. If you have an older dog who has become increasingly worse about storms, taking action as soon as possible is absolutely necessary to make sure your dog will be reasonably under control and feeling reasonably safe during storms.

Happy Weather Channel watching and have patience until the fall!