Thunder on a Cold Winter’s Night

How to diminish the anxiety level of dogs who are afraid of thunder

Na’ama Rolnik, SPCA Adoption Counselor and dog trainer 

Many dog owners are familiar with the phenomenon: Winter approaches and with it thunderstorms, frightening dogs and causing them genuine panic attacks. The source of their fear can be traced to their sense of hearing, which is more highly developed than ours; they can dismantle sounds, hear things that we cannot even detect, or, to put it in general terms – every sound that humans hear, dogs hear with greater impact.

Our natural tendency as people is to stroke and comfort anyone we see in distress. When our dog hears loud thunder he usually comes to us for protection. Our instinct to comfort, to stroke, to say in soft tones that everything will be fine and to give a tasty treat to take his mind off the fear, actually perpetuates the fear. Our behavior constitutes positive reinforcement to the dog’s behavior and causes the dog to repeat this behavior in similar, future situations. When we pet the frightened (from thunder, lightning, Purim firecrackers, or fireworks on Independence Day) dog, we are actually reinforcing his anxious behavior.

How can we lessen the anxiety level of dogs?
Don’t ignore the problem. It is important to work with the dog, even if you feel that it will constitute an emotional burden for him. Exposure to noise will also improve the behavior of a mature dog.

Allow the dog to expend energy. When it rains we have a tendency to allow ourselves and our dogs to waive the normal, routine exercises resulting in all his pent-up energy being directed in other directions such as destruction, aggression, or, in this case – fear.

Try to accustom the dog to loud noises from an early age. In the case of dogs who are just a few months old, we recommended exposing them to loud noises such as thunder, firecrackers, buses, trucks, ambulance sirens and any other noise that we meet up with during the normal course of our lives (these sounds can be downloaded from the internet).

Try to act against your instincts, ignore the situation and allow your dog to get over the obstacle by itself.