While many dogs don't pay much attention to thunderstorms or even unexpected nearby lightning strikes, others exhibit behavior ranging from mild anxiety to terror as a storm approaches. This reaction is based in the dog's normal survival instincts, but it can rise to a phobia due to the dog's sensitivity to changes in atmospheric pressure, electric static in the air, and the crash of thunder.
Severe thunderstorm anxiety can endanger a panicky dog's life. Many dogs are lost, injured or killed in traffic each year as they try to flee storms. Some suffer heart attacks. If your dog is anxious during thunderstorms, be careful that the things you do to calm him don't actually increase his fearful reactions.
Be calm. You may find your dog's anxious reaction to even the smallest storm annoying, but anger will not help. Yelling at him will not calm him; anger from you will greatly increase his anxiety. His comfort ultimately lies in his confidence in you. Before attending to your frightened friend, take a breath and gather your own calm around you.
Offer silent support. Go on with appropriate normal indoor activities, perhaps reading, quietly working or taking a nap. Ensure your dog is safe and presents no danger to himself or others, then just let him take a cue from you and weather the storm on his own. Be available if he needs to be stroked or a lap to sit in, but going overboard with calming help may encourage your dog to act more afraid than he is, just to get attention. Unusual attention also may convince him that something really must be wrong, especially if you yourself are a bit jumpy.
Start early. Waiting until the dog's fear reaches fever pitch and then trying to distract him will make it harder for you to calm him. It also may encourage fearful behavior by reinforcing it. Start your calm procedures as early in the storm as possible. The dog may not regard the things you do as a direct response to a storm or a reward for anxious behavior if you start before he gets too nervous.
Hold him. Your touch can be very calming to a pet, and holding your dog or wrapping him in a soft towel can offer soothing pressure that helps reassure him that he is safe. A product called the “Thundershirt” is an easy way to supply this kind of soothing pressure during storms and at other times of stress. Speak in soft, soothing tones to offer kind and encouraging words, such as “It's okay,” “You're being so good” and “You're safe inside.”
Offer a safe place. Many dogs instinctively want to be in a den-like space during a storm, so create a safe place away from the noise of the storm for him to take shelter. Any dark, quiet place will work, such as a covered dog crate, dark bathroom or closet. Place blankets, soft pillows and chew toys in his safe place to help him feel snug. Offer occasional treats to encourage positive associations with the spot.
Try calming alternatives. Many health-food stores, pet supply retailers and veterinarians offer products that mimic dog pheromones, which can help alleviate feelings of anxiety. Products such as Rescue Remedy and Comfort Zone offer a calming effect and are available in plug-in, drops, or spray applications. Use relaxation CDs to simultaneously cover the sounds of the storm and decrease anxiety symptoms.