Fear of thunderstorms is a common problem among dogs and is thought to have a genetic basis (e.g. herding breeds such as border collies are more prone to this).
In most dogs, this phobia is usually related to the noise component (i.e. thunder) rather than to the rain or flashing lights. However, in some dogs, it is the combination of lightning, static electricity in the air, low barometric pressure and noise that causes anxiety. Recent research has shown that static electric shocks during electrical storms may play a significant role in the formation of storm phobias.
You should also be careful not to send any wrong signals to your dog during these stressful times. For example, rewarding your dog when he is anxious, whether with petting or treats, can send the signal that this behaviour is acceptable and even rewarded. Likewise, punishment is inappropriate because it only serves to increase your dog’s level of anxiety even more.
Some basics steps can help minimize your dog’s stress levels and hopefully help him cope with thunderstorms. For example, a change in his environment (e.g. staying in the basement or in another location with no outside windows or doors), playing calming music or turning on the television during a storm, and providing exercise and playtime as a diversion may all prove helpful.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), which goes under the trade name Comfort Zone, is a synthetic hormone that mimics the comforting and calming hormone that is released by canine mothers during nursing. It was developed to help reduce anxiety associated with storm phobias, separation anxiety, excessive barking and several other behavioural disorders. It is available in a collar, spray, & room diffuser here.
The Thundershirt — a tight, snug and stretchable fabric and velco garment for pets — is available online and at many pet stores. This type of product was developed for pets after autistic children and adults showed comfort being swaddled or “squeezed” by a tight garment. This product is most effective when used with behavior modification and sometimes, anti-anxiety medication. It can be found online here.
Behavior modification is the most important step toward a solution. We recommend a consultation with a behaviorist (much different than a “dog trainer”) who can help you redirect and eliminate your pets fear. We recommend Dr. Vanya Moreno, PhD. Her website can be found here.
As a last resort, your veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety medications. These medications are not without risks or side effects. Your veterinarian works in combination with a behaviorist to determine what medications at what dose would be ideal for your pet.