Veterinarians don’t know all the triggers for anxieties related to storms and celebratory fireworks, but they suspect the dogs are set off by some combination of wind, thunder, lightning, barometric pressure changes, static electricity, and low-frequency rumbles that humans can’t hear.
According to one theory, dogs experience painful shocks from static buildup before a storm. The anxiety often gets worse throughout the season as storms become more frequent.
Herding breeds and dogs that might exhibit fearful behaviors such as separation anxiety seem more prone to panic. Some dogs are also frightened of other loud noises, such as fireworks or gunshots, but others are only afraid of storms.
What to do? There’s no easy fix, and unless your dog is only mildly affected, it can be difficult to treat, vets say. But there are lots of tools to reduce your dog’s distress during storm season.
Many owners make the mistake of trying to console and pet a fearful dog that’s whimpering or climbing on them, but rewarding it just encourages the panic. Instead, practice getting your dog to relax and lie down inside. Have the dog wear a leash inside and be still by your feet where you are sitting.
Praise the calm behavior. Practice this when there is no storm so he gets used to the routine. During the storm you can try distracting the dog by playing with a favorite toy, playing fetch, petting it, and giving treats as long as the dog remains calm.
Another option is to create a safe space for the dog to go in a storm. It might be a crate or an interior quiet room with no windows, or you can turn up the TV or play white noise. Let your dog decide by noticing where he goes during a storm or fireworks and allow access to it.
Do not let your dog have any access to outside. Dogs take off and get lost during these times. Some are better loose in a room while others do better confined. Snug-fitting shirts and wraps, like a Thundershirt, designed to calm anxious dogs are also worth a try.
Play a CD of thunder and firework recordings at low enough levels that don’t frighten your dog, while giving him treats or playing a game. Gradually increase the volume over the course of several months, stopping if your dog shows any signs of anxiety. The goal is to get your dog used to the sounds and associate it with good things.
Experts caution that desensitization can have limited success in an actual storm because you can only recreate the noise, and not the other factors that might be bothering the dog, such as the static electricity or changes in barometric pressure.
Lastly, ask your veterinarian for advice on calming medication, both holistic and prescriptive, that might help.
Abby Bird is owner of Alphadog Training Academy. AlphadogTrainingAcademy@gmail.com