When I was a kid, we had a Manchester Terrier who would race to the front door and bark during severe thunderstorms. She’d bark and race over to us and then back to the door as if she thought someone was knocking. Distant thunder didn’t bother her, but loud and close thunder did. Our two other dogs would sleep right through a thunderstorm. Why does thunder and lightning scare some dogs and not others?
Lightning is formed when ice and water particles inside a cloud are compressed by warm air currents. Friction from the quickly moving currents causes electrical charges to form within the cloud. Negative charges build up at the bottom of the cloud and positive ones go to the top. When there’s a large buildup of negative charge, a feeler is sent towards the ground where it meets up with a positive streamer reaching up from the ground and causes a lightning strike. The negative charge descends rapidly, heating the air surrounding it to around 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit and creating a shock wave – thunder.
A low pressure is when the atmospheric (barometric) pressure is lower than the surrounding area. Lows produce snow, rain, wind, humidity, thunderstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes. A change in barometric pressure can bother some dogs more than others, especially arthritic pets that can experience more pain and stiffness in their joints during storms. Lightning is a natural source of nitrogen oxides, and dogs that are sensitive to storms may be able to smell these odors from the atmosphere as well as the ozone.
Dark clouds and thunder rolling in signal a change is coming. Thunder that booms so loud it shakes the house and rain pounding on the roof can be scary for a dog. Hail can be another frightening sound. For some dogs, sudden flashes of lightning, thunder, strange smells from the atmosphere, the smell of approaching rain and the wind can all cause them to become anxious.
It’s not just the visual effects, smells and sounds that bother some dogs, however. Storms also create a static charge, and dogs that squeeze themselves behind the toilet tank, jump into the bathtub or lie next to pipes or metal radiators seek these places out because they are grounded and stop the buildup of static electricity on their coat.
Fear of storms is found more often in working and sporting breeds than other breeds. Shelter or rescue dogs are more prone to storm related phobias that may have developed in their old home. An abused, abandoned or poorly socialized dog that wasn’t exposed to different sights and sounds may have storm issues. A bad experience from a past storm can trigger a fearful reaction in some dogs. About 30% of all dogs show signs of storm related stress which could be caused by being caught in a storm, left outside during a severe storm or home alone when a bad storm occurred. There are plenty of early warning signs of an approaching storm that dogs notice long before we do.
Dog owners who are afraid of storms can also cause their dog to be anxious – the dog’s fear could be from watching how their owner or another pet reacts. It’s not always easy to remain calm, especially if a severe storm heading your way has produced tornadoes, but it’s important to stay calm to assure your dog everything is fine. If a dog’s fear isn’t severe, when you stay calm it helps him learn there’s nothing to be afraid of. However, it can be more complicated for some dogs.
Some dogs find comfort in a safe area where they can’t see the lightning or hear the thunder. A basement is a good place to create a space in a windowless room, or set up a covered crate that’s den like. Provide food, water, favorite toys or blanket and some of your dog’s favorite CANIDAE treats. Only reward positive behavior so he learns to associate the treat with the behavior you want.
Playing classical music just loud enough to block out the storm can help calm a scared dog, and playing inside games can help distract your pet until the storm has passed. Storm jackets may be beneficial for some dogs, especially ones that have an anti-static lining. Studies have shown these jackets do have a positive effect. In extreme cases, medication may be needed.
Why some dogs are afraid of thunderstorms and others are not isn’t something scientists fully understand. If your dog is afraid of storms, be patient and understanding. Don’t punish or try to soothe him. Give him a space he feels safe in, where he can wait out the storm. It should be a place he can get to even when you aren’t at home.
Top photo by Edd Prince
Middle photo by Alicia Nijdam
Bottom photo by Maja Dumat
Read more articles by Linda Cole