A Matter of Senses
Let's face it: dogs have highly developed senses and they beat humans in many ways. Dogs see better in the dark, their noses are far more sensitive, and their ears can detect sounds that humans can barely hear. With all these sophisticated senses, it's not surprising if they perceive the world differently from us.
So let's start with their sense of hearing. Since dogs hear better than humans and can capture sounds approximately four times as far as humans can and are capable of detecting sounds at above and below our auditory range, it's not surprising why the sound of thunder is more intense for them and easily audible even at a distance.
Strong winds, the sound of hail pounding on the roof and swinging doors, may add to the auditory stimulus package of things going on when a storm is around. Sudden flashes of lightening can be startling too considering that dogs have a history as crepuscular hunters and their vision is adept for low-light conditions.
The reaction of dog owners can play a big role too. If every time a storm approaches you rush to close windows and doors or make worrisome remarks such as "oh my, all the clothes outside are getting wet!" or even a surprised "Wow, did you see just that big flash of lightening?" consider that sensitive dogs can perceive these actions and remarks as proof of something they need to be deeply worried about.
A Matter of Associations
Dogs are masters in associative learning: grab the leash, and your dog knows it's time to walk, put on your shoes, and your dog knows you are heading out, put your arm on the armrest, and your dog knows you are about to get up. So many associations!
In a similar fashion, dogs can learn when a storm is approaching even before hearing the first clashes of thunder. Indeed, dogs are said to be capable of even "sniffing a storm when it's on its way." How do they do that and what does this mean?
First of all, consider that when barometric pressure is stable, this is indicative of nice weather. However, when the pressure quickly falls, that's a sign that a storm is on the way.
Alexandra Horowitz, in the book: "Being a Dog, Following the Dog Into a World of Smell" explains that, when low pressure arrives, the earth begins to exude aromas and "dogs can easily learn that a bouquet from the soil means “a storm’s afoot.”
No Way to Reason
Dogs are creatures of habit and anything that changes their world is sure to upset them, but some dogs get upset to a much greater extent than others. From a dog's perspective, a storm turns their world literally upside down: it smells different, looks different, there are scary sights and sounds and the behavior of humans may play a role too.
Dogs are not like humans who can rationally talk themselves through fears and can be provided with rational explanations.
It's not like you can have your dog sit and you can give lecture him about changes in the atmospheric pressure and provide insights into basic meteorology. All that dogs know is that the world around them sometimes gets darker, louder and just plain odd.
Predisposition to Noise-Sensitivity
Many dogs who hate thunder are also scared of other loud, sudden and unpredictable noises. For example, many dogs fearful of thunder develop fear of fireworks (and vice-versa) because they share some common features such as booming sounds and flashes of light.
The process of when a fear of something expands into other fears is known as generalization. Fear is easy to generalize so it's not unusual for a dog fearful of thunder to start acting scared of other noises too.
Interestingly, it appears that some dogs may be prone to noise sensitivity more than others. According to a survey conducted by the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, dogs prone to being thunder-phobic included mostly herding dog breeds and herding crossbreeds with the age of onset taking place when the dogs were under 1 year old.
Did you know? Many dogs are attracted to bathtubs and showers when a thunderstorm rolls by. This may be due to the fact that bathtubs and showers offer some level of insulation from sounds. According to PennVet Ryan Veterinary Hospital, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, "There is no truth to the idea that dogs seek out bathtubs and showers because the plumbing grounds them offering protection from static electricity. "
Now That You Know...
With all these things going on, it's no surprise why dogs are prone to take cover in a safe, enclosed place such as under the bed or inside a closet when there are raging storms approaching!
If we think about it, their fears are not abnormal at all considering all of the dangers associated with storms (flash-floods, being struck by lightening, trees falling). However, in the home, with a roof over their head, the risks are reduced considerably. So can these thunder-phobic dogs be helped? Here are some tips.
- Avoid ignoring your dog. In the past, there used to be belief that you could reinforce a dog's fear so you shouldn't pet your dog or soothe your dog in any way. A better knowledge into how dogs learn has revealed that fear is an emotion and as such fear in dogs cannot be reinforced. By depriving your dog of your comfort and psychological support during these trying times, your dog will likely feel helpless and scared.
- Avoid punishing your dog. Nothing feels worse than a dog being fearful and being punished on top of that. Don't scold him, squirt him with water, jerk his collar or pull him out forcefully from hiding spaces. When dogs are fearful, they may also defensively bite.
- Create a safe haven. Dogs feel reassured if they have access to a safe place to retreat to if things start getting too intense. A large closet, a basement or a crate or play pen (with the door open) with a blanket on top may turn out helpful.
- Forcing a fearful dog to be enclosed in a crate, pen or other type of closed enclosure (from which the dog cannot get out of) may cause the dog to panic and potentially get injured.
- Make a list of things your dog loves doing and try offering these activities when storms are approaching. Play fetch, give belly rubs, offer interactive toys, high-value chews etc.
- Create positive associations with thunder. Every time you hear thunder say "chicken!" and toss your dog a tasty piece of chicken or any other treat your dog goes bonkers for. Reserve these treats only for these sessions. If your dog won't eat treats or eats them nervously, that's likely a sign your dog is too over threshold.
- Investing in calming aids. DAP collars, DAP diffusers, Thundershirts, Rescue Remedy and calming supplements may help some dogs.
- Buffer thunder sounds using a radio or TV or a white noise machine.
- Use blackout shades to prevent your dog from seeing lightning.
- Severe cases of thunderstorm phobias in dogs may benefit from anti anxiety medications (tricyclic antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and behavior modification under the guidance of a dog behavior professional.