New Mexico's Pet ResourceFALL 2005



by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Q: My dog Dewey has a terrible reaction to loud noises like thunderstorms. He gets so upset I am afraid he is going to have a heart attack or something. Is there anything I can do to lessen his fear and keep him calm?  

A. A few nights ago one of those fantastic New Mexico thunder and lightning storms moved over our house. It was about 3 a.m. when the thunderclaps woke us. After the first rumble, I heard a wee voice whining close to my ear and felt hot doggy breath on my face. Standing up with her front paws on the bed right next to my head was my 13-year-old terrier cross Bella “asking” me to rescue her from the evil storm. Without making a fuss, I put her on the bed. She curled up against me with her little head tucked over my shoulder, and rested there until the storm passed. When it was over, she jumped down, and promptly went to sleep in her own bed.

I do not make a big deal out of my dogs’ reactions to thunderstorms, fireworks or other infrequent, loud events. I recognize that the events both frighten them and hurt their sensitive ears, but I keep my reaction calm. That way my dogs remain calmer and I do not encourage them to heighten their fear reactions. If I were to make a big fuss about their fear responses, I would in essence be rewarding them for being frightened.

Because such events happen infrequently, it is somewhat difficult to train dogs not to be afraid. There are several training techniques like desensitization that use recordings of noises like thunder, fireworks or sirens to gradually train dogs to be less fearful of the frightening noises. This type of training is best undertaken with the guidance or help of a professional dog trainer because it needs to be done just right to work.

In severe cases, there are both over-the-counter and prescribed remedies that can be given to your dog during a thunderstorm. Consult with your veterinarian regarding what would be effective for your dog.

One of the best things you can do is allow your dog to find a secure place in your house to ride out the storm. My 10-year-old greyhound Timber goes into our darkened walk-in closet. The closet both muffles the sound of the thunder and eliminates the sight of the lightning. Dogs definitely learn that the bolt of light precedes the thunderous noise. Playing music can also offer distraction from the thunder. So if your dog’s safe haven is under the kitchen table, behind the sofa or in his crate, let him or her stay there for the duration of the storm.

A few more precautions help in keeping your dog safe during a thunderstorm or fireworks. If you know your dog is fearful of these noisy events, keep your dog inside the house. A frightened dog may bolt from your yard or porch. Keep an ID tag on your dog in case he or she does flee in fear. It will help expedite your companion’s safe return.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

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