Many dogs are terrified of thunderstorms and fireworks. A dog's senses are very sensitive. They can feel, hear, smell and sense things much better than a human can and those loud booms, flashes of light and in the case of fireworks, the smell of gun powder, can be very intense for a dog. The following pictures of lightning strikes on this page were captured by our webcam. Some of them show the strike touching the ground in my own backyard. While it is not healthy for a dog to walk around in fear, I can certainly understand where the fear begins. It is how we humans handle their fear that makes the difference.
A dog can get over fear issues, but it often takes time and the success depends upon the humans around the dog. The key is to understand the difference in how a human thinks vs. how the dog thinks. The dog is afraid because at some point a storm or firework scared it and at the time it did not get over the event for one reason or another. Often this is because of the way the humans around it reacted to its fear.
When a dog is afraid it needs a being stronger than itself to help it feel secure and know there is nothing to be afraid of.
People usually unknowingly make the mistake of petting and comforting the dog while it is afraid. That psychology works on a human but what most people do not understand is a dog thinks very differently than a human. When a dog is afraid of something and it is given affection while it is afraid, the dog interprets that as the person saying “good dog for being afraid,” which intensifies the dog's fear. What the dog needs is someone to show it that they are strong enough to handle what is going on so the dog can feed from them. Dogs can sense how a human is feeling, therefore if you are afraid, upset, nervous or feeling sorry the dog knows it. Without a strong being around the dog to feed from, the dog can become even more afraid.
An example is Bruno the Boxer. He does not care for storms. We were at an amusement park when he was a pup and a storm passed through. Strangers walked up and petted him during the storm. I had picked him up and held him. From that point on he was afraid of storms. He got to the point where he would run and hide, shake and drool if a storm passed. We helped him with this issue by putting him on a leash and walking him out to the porch during a storm. We did not talk to him, just stood there confidently. That improved his reaction, but what really helped was when Amie took him jogging during a thunder storm. I had not found out until afterwards or I would never have allowed it. From that point on he stopped hiding, drooling and shaking. He still does not care for storms but he just calmly lies down next to me no longer shaking and drooling. Amie jogging him kept his mind moving forward so he didn't have time to be afraid while he burned up his excess energy and at the same time she was confident and not afraid. It did the trick, but it was still not a good idea to jog in a storm!
Walking a dog helps it snap out of its fear. I do not recommend taking a dog out for a walk in a storm, but if you have a treadmill and are able to teach it to walk on it, you can get its mind moving forward by walking it while it is afraid.
Taking a dog for an extra-long walk beforehand greatly helps and is sometimes possible if you have ample warning that a storm is coming or fireworks will be set off. When a dog is tired it has less energy to put into its fear and it can relax much easier.
A lot of people try using a Thundershirt during storms. The shirt fits tightly around the dog and the idea is to slow the dog's breathing, helping it calm down. When used correctly this sometimes works; if you put it on the dog while it is calm and the humans around it are calm. If you put the shirt on it while it is already afraid it will associate the shirt with the fear and it will have the opposite effect. When and how you introduce the shirt makes a big difference.
Keep in mind that the age of the dog does not affect their ability to adapt and change; another difference between a human and a dog. Dogs live in the moment.
Written by Sharon Maguire© Dog Breed Info Center® All Rights Reserved