Show me a dog that in his owners’ absence crashes through a second story window and runs to the next town and I’ll show you a dog with thunderstorm phobia. For reasons unknown some dogs develop such extreme fear of storms that they turn into jumpers, willing to risk all to escape the horror of nature’s fury.
I have been seeing cases of thunderstorm phobia in dogs for the past 25 years and think I have acquired something of a handle on managing it. Early on in that time frame I saw a German shepherd suffering from this refractory condition and during the history taking section of the behavior appointment the owner related that her dog jumped into the sink during storms. An odd sight that must have been, an 80 pound dog sitting bolt upright in the sink!
I didn’t think much about it until the next dog I saw, which was also a German shepherd. Again the owner reported that her dog jumped into the sink and sat there until the storm had abated. Then I saw a third storm phobic German shepherd sink sitter. Three out of three began to seem like a pattern of behavior rather than just odd chance circumstances.
I began to ask clients if their storm phobic dog ever sat in the sink during storms. Some said “No, but he sits in the bath.” Others said their dog sat in the shower pedestal or Jacuzzi. One owner said her dog did none of the above but would beg to go outside and then stand ankle deep in water in a child’s play pool.
The penny finally dropped. These were all electrical grounds, connected to earth through wetness and sometimes hardware. Since the early days I have added pressing behind to toilet tank, moving on to uncarpeted conductive floors, and leaning against radiators to the list of electrical grounding sites sought for relief during storms.
So what was going on? What made most sense was that the dogs were getting charged with static electricity during storms and that grounding brought relief from random receiving static shocks during storms. Storms are associated with electric field changes, which is how weather buffs track storms and know precisely when to release meteorological balloons for research purposes. Also, in relating the static theory to dog owners, several have reported getting shocks when they touch their dog during storms.
Other animals get charged with static during storms so why not dogs? Texas Longhorn cattle display the flickering candle-like leak of static electricity from the tips of their horns during thunderstorms. Cowboys know that this signals a massive storm and possibly a stampede.
Tall ships show “St. Elmo’s fire” on the tips of their masts before violent storms and airplanes have a mysterious glow of static discharge around their wings and windows (anything edgy or pointy) as they fly through electric storms.
When you think about it, a large double-coated dog with thick insulating foot pads is an ideal receptacle for accumulating static charge, and that’s what appears to happen. Two studies have shown that thunderstorm phobia is first noticeable in dogs at around 1 to 2 years of age. At this stage storm phobia is often mild, perhaps indicating some sound sensitivity in a sensitive dog who is unnerved by the sounds and commotion associated with a severe storm.
But it is when the dog is between 5 and 9 years of age that storm phobia suddenly exacerbates and owners seek help. This exacerbation is often sudden during a particularly violent storm. It is then, I hypothesize, that they receive their first serious static zinger and the mild fear develops into a full-blown weather phobia.
Stormy conditions now herald a much worse fate than they did before. The dog becomes conditioned the dog to expect random painful shocks while the storm rages. “Fear-conditioned startle” is a laboratory test used to evaluate anxiolytic medications. A neutral or mild stimulus that precedes a particularly aversive one makes mild fears orders much worse because of the addition of an anticipatory component.
Rats that have been subjected to unpleasant electrical mini-shocks quickly learn to jump onto a safe shelf, if one is provided. Anxiety about their predicament is heightened if a light is flashed before the shocking begins (think lightning). It’s not a far cry to imagine that super anxious storm phobic dogs, once cued, might seek and find a safe place, too, whether a sink or bathtub, in which the aversive stimulus is avoided. That is negative reinforcement at work.
Years after I first wrote about the “static electrical theory” of thunderstorm phobia in dogs, I was approached by the late Mr. Tom Critzer, a phobia specialist, who on the strength of what I wrote, said he had developed an anti-static jacket for dogs. He called it Storm Defender. We tested it and found it to be affective in the majority of storm phobic dogs, producing an overall 70 percent reduction in panic behaviors associated with exposure to storms. It didn’t work right away, not during the first storm, because the dog obviously could not know he was safe. But on subsequent storms the phobia lessened as presumably they learned the shocks were no longer coming.
One dog in our study, during the second application of the jacket, stared longingly at his Storm Defender cape hanging on a hook until his owner finally got the message to put it on him. Another dog, after two applications of the cape (one unsuccessful; one successful), ran and grabbed his cape from another room and brought it to his master.
Unfortunately, Storm Defender is now hard to get because the company is not doing well, but the successful application of the cape does at least help substantiate the role of the electrical aspects of storm phobia.
I do not believe that static shocks account for all the terrors of storm phobic dogs, but they do contribute. The sound of thunder on its own is disturbing enough to some dogs. Pure noise phobias do exist. Interestingly, noise phobias do not track precisely with storm phobia, though there is considerable overlap. Some dogs terrified of thunderstorms can tolerate the booming sounds of fireworks. For others, the sound of fireworks is their nemesis but they remain indifferent to thunder.
Treatment of thunderstorm phobia in dogs entails training them to go to a safe place where they will be spared the full brunt of the sight and sounds of storms. Anti-static measures, like employing Storm Defender or even wiping the dog down with anti-static laundry strips also seem to help.
Finally, there are anti-anxiety medications, like Prozac or drugs that block neurochemicals that propagate fear, for example nor-adrenaline. To block the release of nor-adrenaline and mitigate fear, we have mostly used clonidine, a so-called alpha-2 agonist. Recently trans-mucosal version of the same type of drug, trade name Sileo, has been released. Sileo does the same job quicker as it is rapidly absorbed through oral mucous membranes.
The one thing that doesn’t work for thunderstorm phobia is desensitization to thunderstorms by incremental exposure to recordings of the sound of thunder. That’s because storms are multifaceted. The sky darkens, the wind picks up, the rain starts, lightning flashes across the sky, the thunder rolls—and then there’s static issue. Dogs are getting signals from all the cues that it’s time to panic. So desensitizing to sounds alone just won’t cut it. If you successfully desensitize a dog to the sound of thunder during the non-storm period of the year (the only time when it might work), when the real storm arrives the wheels fall off!
That’s why a safe place (akin to a tornado bunker in the tornado belt), anti-static measures, and medication is the way to go. Incidentally, changing static fields may be how dogs pick up on storms long before we can or the skies darken. The static theory explains a lot and helps us address this debilitating condition more effectively.