When it’s lightning and thunder outside or there are colorful lights in the sky on New Year’s Eve, it may be a beautiful sight for many people. Especially during thunderstorms, we like to make ourselves comfortable at home. But our four-legged friends are often less relaxed. The dog is afraid of thunderstorms and would like to hide away. Why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms? How do you behave when your dog is afraid? Can you get rid of a dog’s fear of thunderstorms? Here you can learn how to calm your dog on New Year’s Eve or during thunderstorms.
What is fear actually?
Fear is a basic psychological emotion that may feel negative, but is absolutely vital in evolutionary terms. Even in the times of the Neanderthal man, it protected us humans from the saber-toothed tiger by enabling us to flee immediately. And dogs also need the feeling of fear in order not to get into danger carelessly.
Unlike fear, it can also develop without an identifiable trigger and be passed down through generations. But what about the New Year’s Eve – or thunderstorm fear and why is that not a fear? After all, one can assign the trigger. Well, for the dog the loud noises are not assignable, he does not know that they are firecrackers, which we humans shoot into the air for fun.
How do you react to thunderstorm fear in dogs?
Let’s start from the beginning: A puppy comes into the world and is not burdened with any fear of thunderstorms. He hears New Year’s Eve firecrackers or thunder for the first time in his life. Dogs usually orient themselves to their humans, so the question is, how do you behave?
A) You don’t leave your puppy alone, you calm him down (don’t pity him, that’s something completely different) and give him security. The puppy will be able to handle this situation better in the future, because he was protected and the human conveys to him that everything is okay.
B) You are anxious and nervous yourself, feel sorry for the dog and tell the puppy that something terrible is happening. The dog will not be strengthened at the next thunderstorm and will develop or increase fear, in that case he developed it the first time because of the behavior of the owner.
C) “The dog must go through it, don’t make a fuss about it”. In other words, the puppy is left alone in this situation, in the worst case even alone in a room or even worse, alone outdoors. You can imagine how the next thunderstorm or New Year’s Eve will be for the young dog.
A young dog orients itself at his environment. Say, if something worries him, he looks at first to his mother and later to us. Depending on the reaction of the trusted person, he will classify the situation as dangerous or not.
Why does the Thunderstorm fear in dogs get worse and worse?
In the beginning was the fear, further left alone with it this fear strengthens. At the next popping event, the stimulus comes back into the brain and is re-evaluated. The memory says “I know that, that’s terrible” and the fear is there again. But now it is faster and more pronounced. If you continue to play the game like this, you have an adult fear dog that suffers without end every time there is a thunderstorm or on New Year’s Eve.
Letting a dog go through this situation alone, because he has to “learn” it, is like letting a 2 year old child sit alone in the dark forest – all night – he has to learn that darkness is normal, right? This destroys the bond and trust, and it is questionable whether there was any of that when the creature has to gain such experience.
Let’s look at heredity again.
The puppy can inherit fear but not dread. That is, a puppy is not born with dread of men wearing hats. But the puppy may be born with increased fearfulness due to pre-stressed parents and is thus more prone to not cope as well with everyday situations.
The path of fear:
Fear is a subjective sensation. External stimuli enter the brain through sensory organs, via the thalamus (“gateway to consciousness”) and the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system (amygdala), where an emotional reaction occurs (e.g. flight). Alternatively, external stimuli enter the limbic system directly via the thalamus. This path is faster, because reactions to danger must occur quickly.
Everything that is experienced is stored in the brain and constantly re-evaluated. This is also the reason why fears cannot be “forgotten”.
Fear can also become generalized and the fright of a bang becomes a generalized anxiety disorder and the dog is now frightened by many other noises such as cars, slamming doors, etc.
Are you still comforting or are you already pitying?
Before we talk about how you should behave, let’s briefly review the difference between comforting and pitying:
Comforting does NOT reinforce fear but gives the dog a sense of security and safety, which promotes trust and bonding. Pitying, on the other hand, increases the feeling of fear and trust goes down the drain. Leaving the dog alone in fearful situations destroys trust and bonding anyway.
It is a common misconception that you should not comfort your dog. Fear is an emotion and cannot be reinforced by your encouragement, that is only possible with behavior. Comfort creates safety as well as security and must not be confused with pity. What no training can achieve, is achieved through security, trust and bonding. Namely, your dog can relax better in your presence with soothing words or touch.
So if you yourself are relaxed and calmly offer your dog protection, he feels better. If you yourself become hectic, he notices that something is wrong and gets further into the fear.
Why are dogs afraid of New Year’s Eve or thunderstorm noise?
The noise and the light are not assignable, like the fear of a certain garbage can that the dog sees. The noise during a thunderstorm comes from virtually everywhere, they can’t make out a direction. In addition, they feel the vibrations of the ground. Moreover, dogs hear about 100x better and therefore louder than humans.
Some dogs are afraid even before the thunderstorm begins, because they not only feel the pressure drop, but can actually see the thunderstorm through the magnetic sensor molecule. Often hours before it is actually there.
Older dogs often have sensory impairments. They no longer hear or see as well, for example, and are less able to classify what is happening, which is why some animals only become afraid when they are older.
How to behave when the dog is afraid?
– Give security.
– Reassure the dog (do not feel sorry for him).
– Go to a quiet place and darken it (for example, because of the lightning in the sky).
– Offer something to chew or lick or distract him with a game.
– Turn on the radio.
– Pay attention to what your dog needs. Some will do well if you just sit next to them, others will want to snuggle up to you and some will prefer to find a den to retreat to.
– Stay relaxed yourself and make your dog feel like everything is the same.
– Soothing scents can also be used (e.g. lavender). Make sure to use little and if the scent is pleasant to your dog or he will leave the room.
Can thunderstorm fear in dogs be trained away?
No. Fear is a basic emotion and cannot be trained away. However, in the presence of a trustworthy and understanding person, the dog can feel more secure and his fear can be reduced.
Through counter-conditioning, the dog can learn to associate the sounds more positively. To do this, ask a certified dog trainer to assist you and your dog.
What you should NOT do?
– Leave your dog alone.
– Scold or even punish him.
– Giving tranquilizers that only anesthetize the dog externally, but let him hear everything (cruelty to animals).
– Training with noise CDs (there is a risk of sensitization here).
– Taking him outdoors when he is anxious (danger of running away).
Remember that even stimuli that have long been classified as neutral or even positive can later be classified as dangerous through learning processes (such as a direct bang next to the dog)!
Thunderstorm fear in dogs can have many causes. The fact is that you can’t train the fear away, you have to find ways to make the situation as comfortable as possible for your dog. Be there for your darling.