Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

My 22-month old border collie is terrified of lightning and thunder. He seems to be afraid as soon as it becomes overcast and when there is thunder or lightning, he trembles, pants, and sticks to me like glue. Is there anything I can do to help him? I stay close and pet him and talk softly to him, but he seems to tremble more when I comfort him. Help!

This is very common problem for Border Collies (and in fact dogs in general). Fear of thunder is quite a common worry of pet owners. The first thing you need to figure out is what is setting the dog off and making him fearful when thunderstorms approach. Sometimes it is the loud noises of the thunder and other times it is the changes in barometric pressure. If it is the loud noises, then it might be possible to desensitize the dog to them. You might want to think about getting one of the CDs that have long thunderstorms on them and continue to play them in your house at very low levels. Once the dog is used to the low levels, you can slowly increase the volume until it is quite loud. I would also suggest doing something to keep the dog busy during that time like playing ball or Frisbee and getting them to associate good activities with the sounds.

If the dog is cueing in on the change in barometric pressure, there really isn't much you can do about it. The best thing to do is to confine the dog to a crate and let it cope with the fear on its own. Put the dog in the crate, maybe drown the sound out a bit with music, cover the crate if necessary, but otherwise leave him be. Being scared in a crate is not the end of the world. Many dogs also like to seek out the refuge of a bathtub or shower. For some unknown reason (and there are lots of theories to explain this - none of which have been demonstrated), dogs tend to seek out bathtubs in thunderstorms. For some dogs, this is safe enough and a reasonable alternative to a crate.

Importantly, make sure you don't coddle the dog because babying him will only make things worse. Many people think that they can comfort their dogs but in doing so they are showing the dog that there is actually something to fear. Basically, by coddling him, telling him everything will be OK, you are letting the dog know that there is definitely something to be concerned about. The opposite approach - ignoring him or even acting a little offended that he would be bothered by such a trivial thing - will help things somewhat. Some people have reported that laughing aloud will help as well. For example... Do people that say "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" during a crisis actually instill confidence in you that everything is under control... or the exact opposite? Or does the airline pilot that acts like it is no big deal when the plane's bumping and jostling, allow you to relax a bit because it's no real big event?

Many people and vets recommend the use of drugs. It is my opinion that drugs should be used only as a last resort - if the dog is harming itself or the owner is in jeopardy of relinquishing the dog. As in airline travel, the usage of sedatives and tranquilizers can be debilitating to a dog. The dog feels "out of sorts" and unable to emotionally cope with the stress of the situation. Instead of reducing fear, some usage of drugs can actually heighten the fear. Imagine if you will, walking down a dark alley, fearing that someone might jump out at you at any moment. Now imagine your fear when you're on medication, not fully capable of responding in your normal manner, and walking down the same dark alley. Which situation would you rather cope with?

There are a few cases where drugs are absolutely necessary, where the stress levels for the dog are just too much to handle. In these cases, drugs are essential to ensure the safety and welfare of the dog. But for the large majority of dogs with fear of thunderstorms, their use is not required. There has also been some anecdotal evidence that the use of some herbal remedies (such as "Rescue Remedy" and the like) are effective in helping the dog cope with the fear. But as with most herbal products, this is only anecdotal and not scientifically valid. And most of all, the use of drugs requires some prep time and the availability of the owner... not very helpful if you're away at work or can't predict the onset of the storm.

Millions of dogs live with fear of thunder and loud noises and yet continue in their happy lives without a problem. Just make sure the dog is safe during thunderstorms and inside when rain threatens, and inside a crate so he doesn't do anything stupid like jump through a window... I, myself, am afraid of swimming in deep water... but life goes on.

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Page last updated September 30, 2001. All material Copyright © 2001 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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