An Easy Way to Help Dogs Afraid of Thunder Sounds

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 29, 2024

dogs afraid of thunder

For this Omaha dog training session we worked with 9 year-old Black lab Corbin; sharing tips to help dogs afraid of thunder.

Many dogs are scared of thunderstorms and for good reason. Often dogs are inside and cant smell the coming storm in the air. Being inside can also block their view, so when the booming thunderclap happens, dogs are caught off guard. When a dog is startled, it’s common for cortisol, the stress hormone, to be released into a dog’s blood. This can trigger or amplify the fight or flight response which is why many dogs escape their yard during thunderstorms.

In Corbin’s case, he has made the association of the elements of an approaching storm which can cause him to start feeling stressed by the storm before it actually arrives. His family had tried many different tips to stop dog fear of thunderstorms; a thunder shirt, petting, playing music, even medications. None have helped Corbin’s family to stop his fear of thunder sounds or thunderstorms.

How to Help Dogs Afraid of Thunder Sounds

I like to use desensitization and counter conditioning to help dogs get over a fear of thunder. Desensitization is simply exposing a subject (dog in this case) to a stimulus (the sound of thunder) over and over until the subject has disassociated the sound from the fear. This is a wonderful approach, provided you dont make it too intense. In order for desensitization to help a dog get over a fear, it has to be at a low enough intensity that the dog doesn’t feel scared.

Counter conditioning is pairing a pleasant thing with something the subject doesn’t like. But just like Desensitization, it has to be low enough intensity that it doesnt trigger a fear response in the dog.

Many dog trainers like to use one or the other. As Omaha’s resident dog behavior expert, I have found that using them together is more powerful. This secret to stopping a dog’s fear of thunder is easy to do, but requires precision. You can’t go over the dog’s threshold (how much it can handle). If you go past that point, you are doing something called “flooding.”

Flooding means immersing the subject (the dog) with the stimuli (thunder sounds) until the subject no longer fears the stimulus. But if it’s more than the dog can handle, it passes a breaking point and causes the dog’s fears to become more intense. Flooding is a common mistake many people make trying to help a dog get over a fear of thunder.

Instead you need to go slow and gradually increase the volume so the dog is aware of it but isnt fearful. When you find this threshold, all the food helps counter the dog’s negative feelings. After a while the dog starts to build a positive association as the sound is now an indicator that something it likes or enjoys is about to occur.

To help you more fully understand how to use desensitization and counterconditioning to stop a dog’s fear of thunderstorms, I shot a free positive dog training video when I shared this tip with Corbin’s family. If your dog is afraid of thunder, check out the video below for tips to help your dog.

Since Corbin didnt respond to the thunder sounds on the phone, his family will need to search for other sound recordings and use a bigger speaker to give the recording more fidelity. I recommended they find multiple different recordings to play at meal time and also go outside when it’s windy to record the branches striking the house. This is another trigger sound that Corbin dislikes and amplifies him being scared of thunderstorms.

When using this technique to helps dogs stop being afraid of thunderstorms, its wise to make a list of all the trigger sounds, then find different recordings of each one. Life is unique and different, it’s important the practice mimics this as much as possible.

However, you want to make sure the sound does match what the dog is responding to. Its not ethical to subject a dog to sounds to prove a response, but in this case, the humans may want to test out each new sound at a medium volume for a few seconds to see if it generates a (hopefully mild) response. These could be the dog ears moving, head tilting or alerting body mechanics to seething as simple as the dog getting up and moving away. If Corbin doesn’t move, they can raise the volume again to confirm it’s not a good sound to use.

But this is a delicate balancing act. You dont want to trigger and upset the dog, but you also need to know the sound is gong to help you fix your dog’s fear of thunder. If you dont test the new sounds you can end up spending a lot of time practicing with a sound that isn’t an actual trigger.

Since Corbin is a bit of a grazer when it comes to meals, I also shared my method of changing over to a structured (scheduled) feeding routine. The family needs to be able to play the sounds and not be confused if Corbin dog stops eating due to the recording being too loud vs deciding he wants to eat later. Plus regularly scheduled feeding can help many insecure dogs feel more confident as someone is repeatedly demonstrating they are taking care of a need.

I also recommended they feed Corbin out of a snuffle mat as this will lengthen the time he spends eating, allowing more counterconditioing to occur for each meal.

It will likely take a few days to switch over to structured feeding schedule, so I hope the family starts that process ASAP.

Id like to to see the guardians practicing this tip to help dogs afraid of thunder with one meal a day, every day once they adopt a new feeding schedule. This is a process and the more quality practice you put in, the better and faster the results.


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This post was written by: David Codr