The topic of thunderphobia came up on my drive into work this morning. We've had two thunderstormy nights in a row, and my co-carpoolee Chris was talking about it--it seems that his lovely border collie Lizzie suffers from a bit of anxiety during thunderstorms. (I don't have statistics to back up this statement, but it appears to me that border collies--and herding breeds in general--are quite prone to thunderstorm anxiety, although I know it's common among a lot of different breeds and mixes.) Dogs with thunderphobia may exhibit any number of symptoms, from milder behaviors like pacing, panting, excessive drooling, whining, trying to hide or seeking human company, to severe and dangerous behaviors like attempting to claw or chew through doors walls or floors, chewing through crates and other confinements and attempting to jump through windows. Some friends have a border collie whose front teeth are all broken from her numerous attempts to chew through the bars of her metal crate during storms (they have resorted to valium and have built an enclosure they call "The Rubber Room" for her).
Although genetics may give certain dogs a predisposition to it, no one seems to agree on exactly why dogs develop thunderstorm anxiety. In some dogs it may begin in puppyhood but it can start much later and can get worse as dogs age. Some anecdotal evidence indicates it may be more common among "rescue" dogs, many of whom have had unpleasant experiences in life, but I don't know any statistics on that either. Behaviorists and vets also differ on exactly what part of a thunderstorm dogs are reacting to: lightning, the sound of thunder, wind blowing, the sound of rain on the roof or even the changes in atmospheric pressure or electrical charges in the air that occur with storms. I think it's quite likely there's no one answer and different dogs react to different things.
My own Mr. Gomez, a border collie mix, has mild thunderstorm and fireworks anxiety (which indicates it's the noise that scares him). I used to indulge him a bit--letting him snuggle up to me, comforting him and trying to soothe him (I thought it was kind of cute that my 60-lb dog wanted to be on my lap). Fortunately, he never really got much worse, because it turns out I was doing all the wrong things. Comforting and soothing can actually reinforce fear and anxiety behaviors because they are good consequences from the dog's point of view (or "positive reinforcers," in learning-theory-speak). This can condition the dog to repeat the behaviors. In other words, Mr. Gomez was learning a pattern that when a thunderstorm started he should seek me out, act worried and I would comfort him. Well, this could be a bit of a pain when storms happened in the middle of the night and he wanted to crawl on top of me, and what was he going to do when I wasn't around for him? (I work full time.) Would it progress to the point where he'd try to dig his way to the floor through he crawl space under the house?
Val Olszyk, the owner of Pet Behavior Help (and the person I often refer to a "my trainer"), adopted Kira, a rescued Dutch shepherd with a lot of issues, one of which was thunder/fireworks anxiety. One New Year's eve Val had a party, during which there were fireworks nearby, and the dog went from guest to guest seeking solace. Instead of encouraging this behavior, Val told Kira to go lie down in her bed, and then rewarded and praised her for staying there. This may seem a little uncaring, but Val wanted to give Kira a coping strategy to use when there wasn't a human around to go to for comfort, so she taught Kira that her bed was a safe place to stay during scary noises.
As for Mr. Gomez and his mild anxiety, I found out the first time we had a beginning agility class during a thunderstorm (the class was in a covered but open-sided horse arena) that he was so focused on our training he had no time to worry about the thunder booming around him. So distracting him with other activities seems to work well, as does acting really chipper, as if nothing is wrong. A Penn State study suggest that my response may not be so important, but that having another dog actually seems to have more effect. My other dog, Lucy, remains serene during storms; perhaps that's the real reason Mr. Gomez never got worse despite my early mistakes! (However I know of several dogs in multi-dog households ho have severe thunderphobia, including the broken-toothed BC mentioned above, so go figure ...)
Distraction may be a good technique for preventing thunderphobia from developing in the first place. If you use an approaching thunderstorm as an opportunity for happy, rewarding time--playing with toys, doing positive training exercises, or letting the dog chew on a rawhide or goodie-stuffed kong--then your pup or young dog may learn not to worry about the noises or atmospheric changes. If you're out for a walk and a storm is approaching, don't panic, lest the dog pick up on your stress. Either stroll leisurely to shelter, or if you must run, make it seem like happy play ("Race 'ya home!"). This way the dog may be less likely to read the approach of a storm as a danger warning.
For severe cases, in which the dog may harm itself or destroy a home, the fix may not be so easy. There are a lot of methods to try for dogs with full-blown thunderphobia, including desensitization programs using recorded thunderstorm sounds, herbal remedies, and anti-anxiety drugs. (Links to more information about these are at the end of this entry) People who wish to try these should consult with their vet and perhaps a qualified behaviorist first. From what I've read it seems results with these methods are mixed.
I did read today about an interesting approach: the "Anxiety Wrap." It's based on the theory behind Temple Grandin's "Hug Machine", which is that gentle squeezing pressure can have a soothing, calming effect. Honestly, if I had a dog that was chewing through walls and I'd tried training coping strategies and desensitization, I'd be willing to give it a try for 65 bucks before I put my dog on drugs! I suppose that during thunderstorm season one would just have to keep the wrap on the dog all day while one is at work, or hop in the car and go home to put it on when a storm approached. That seems bit cumbersome, but some people who use drugs to treat severe storm anxiety are already doing the same thing. (If anyone knows someone who has tried the Anxiety Wrap, I'd love to hear the results!)
Here are a few resources for more reading about thunderphobia:
Applied Ethology article Thunderphobia in Canines by Paul Neider
Baytown Humane Society web page: Thunderstorm Anxiety & Storm Phobia by Gloria Manucia, PhD.
Holistic Health News: Spring Rain and The "Booming" Dilemma by Marian Brown
One pet owner's account of consultations with Dr. Nicholas Dodman about her dog's thunderphobia.
PetPlace.com: Fear of Thunder, Sounds or Noises in Dogs--Understanding Dog Anxiety