You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

It thundered last week during a rain storm, and it reminded me how much trouble a storm can be in the life of a dog (and for those of us who love them.) Since thunder season is approaching, this seems like a good time to talk about one of the oft-repeated, and ever-so-inaccurate pieces of advice handed out to dog owners: “You mustn’t pet your dog if he runs to you because he is afraid of thunder.”

That’s just wrong. Totally and completely and utterly wrong, but it has gathered gravitas, as things often do, because it has been repeated over and over again.

There are several reasons why that advice is wrong, here’s one of them: Fear is designed to be aversive, that’s why it is an effective way of affecting behavior and keeping animals out of trouble when they encounter something that might hurt them. Fear is aversive enough that no amount of petting or sweet talk is going to make your dog more likely to shiver and shake when she hears thunder rolling as the clouds billow and the rains begin.

Here’s the example for you of how hard it is to “reinforce” fear. What if someone tried break into your home in the middle of the night? Let’s say they did, and after the intruder left, a friend or loved one sat down with you on the couch, brought you tea and gave you a hug. Would the tea and sympathy make you more likely to be afraid if it happened again the next night? Of course not.

Can you imagine someone saying: “Well, I understand that you are frightened, but I’m going to ignore you because any sympathy that I would give you might make you more likely to be frightened if it ever happens again.” I don’t know about you, but that would be my EX friend.

One could criticize this example as one of misplaced anthropomorphism, but the fact is that this process works much the same in dogs as it does in people. The fact is, it is almost impossible to “reinforce fear.” Fear is highly aversive, and if anything, it works in reverse. I suppose, if you did it often enough, you could create an association between thunder and petting that would make your dog afraid of petting, but it is extremely unlikely to go the other way around.

It is true that you can make your dog more afraid than he already is, by doing something yourself that scares him, by forcing him into situations that scare him already or by being afraid yourself. Emotions are contagious, so if you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, then be afraid yourself! But you’re not going to make him more afraid of storms if you stroke his head and tell him it’s going to be okay.

The bad news is that petting won’t help (him or her) much either, so I’ll write next time about how to help a dog who is thunder phobic, but you might also find some ideas in The Cautious Canine, a booklet I wrote about helping dogs conquer their fears in humane and effective ways. I also wrote about why it’s okay to pet your dog when he’s scared in Bark Magazine in October of 2008, and more recently Pia Silvani wrote a GREAT article about it in this month’s APDT Chronicle.

Speaking of emotions, here’s a photo of a boxer with a lot of expression on his face. What emotion would you ascribe to it?


  1. Sabine says

    Looking in this boxer’s eyes I see sadness and insecurity, mixed with some expectation/anticipation ? Don’t know – that’s what came to mind when I first looked into his eyes. The ears aren’t pinned back and therefore I wouldn’t interpret fear too much into it. I curious as to how you would describe this somewhat sorrowful face.

    Fear and thunderstorms – I used to own dogs who weren’t affected by them at all and others, that disappeared into a dark corner or under a table to be not seen again until the storm had passed. My current pack of three contains of two unafraid and one VERY afraid dog.
    Bicalina starts shaking uncontrollably as the thunderstorm approaches and wants to be near me during a storm. I’ve been giving her Melatonin at the onset of a storm or rescue remedy and that seems to help a little bit. Not much though. What calms her down the most is me wrapping her in a blanket and holding her, preferably with her head undercover.
    Once the storm is over, she’s her old sweet self and life goes on. :)

  2. says

    To me, the boxer looks worried. But I find that they often do, because I can see more of the whites of their eyes on other breeds of dogs. They tend to have “buggier” eyes, if that makes sense, which makes them appear worried. That and the wrinkled forehead.

    As for comforting dogs when they’re afraid . . . it was hammered into me by books I’ve read and trainers I’ve had, so I tend not to comfort my dogs when they’re afraid. But I don’t totally ignore them either. I try to get them to focus on something else that is less frightening (of course, none of my dogs have thunderstorm phobia, so I don’t have to deal with uncontrollable nature). I read your article in The Bark, and I look forward to reading Pia’s article in The Chronicle, because I often get asked by people how to help a dog that is afraid during storms, and I want to have back-up when I tell them that cuddling the dog can help a bit.

  3. CJ says

    Apprehension. Disappointment. Sadness.

    Or it could just be the eyes. lol I generally look more to my dogs’ actions than facial expressions (except for the sloppy, drooling, wide open smile – that one’s hard to mistake).

  4. Robin says

    Regarding the Boxer’s expression: hard to tell in general on those type of faces/eyes and without seeing the rest of the body & posture, but I’d say the dog looks tentative, concerned about something (camera too close in the face? person leaning over top?), also it reminds me of Noodle’s face (my boxer mix) when she’s feeling out of sorts/sore/low energy.

    Regarding thunderstorms: sigh, I had a GSD that was terrified of thunder and I tried everything — sadly, that included ignoring him, but gladly, (thanks to your articles, Patricia!) I stopped ignoring him and started comforting him before he died last year. I live in Tucson where we have a season, like you, of thunder when the monsoon rolls in so it was a bugger to deal with every year. I tried Rescue Remedy, 5 Flower, Benadryl (I didn’t want to keep him on that for an entire summer), an anxiety wrap, steak treats, sitting w/ him wrapped in my lap. The only thing that worked and was the best thing for him and me was a product I found at my compounding pharmacy (specifically formulated for dogs, they also make one for cats) called Nutri-Calm by RX Vitamins. It’s got a base of L-Tryptophan plus calcium and magnesium and herbs. He also was not a good traveler (in the car) so I used this when we went on roadtrips, too. It beat dosing him w/ a drug that knocked him out completely. I dosed him at the maximum for his weight and he was able to function on Nutri-Calm while being relaxed enough. He still noticed the storms, but he was able to hang out with me without drooling a river for an hour or without being completely under foot, and I DO mean underfoot.

  5. says

    I agree with Sabine re: the Boxer’s expression…though my dog gives me that look sometimes if she’s trying to guilt me into feeding her dinner early.

    This was a great post. My girl gets all freaked out by the buzzer on the dryer, which has led to her being nervous any time the dryer is running because she is anticipating the buzzer. For the longest time I would ignore her because I’d always read how you shouldn’t soothe. Finally I got tired of that – now if she wants to cuddle in my lap (vicious pit bull that she is!) when the dryer is running, I allow her to do so. I’m not all, “oh poor widdle puppy dog who is so scared!” and coddling to her, but I do talk to her and love on her. It makes me feel better to think that maybe I’m helping a bit.

  6. says

    Yay! Finally a voice standing up for the frightened dog! I know that a storm fearing dog can drive anyone to their wits end, but even still, it’s become so firmly ingrained into everyone that comfort or petting is Bad, and will teach your dog to act afraid to get attention. If you really think about it…it even just sounds stupid!

    I see worry, saddness and a touch of “won’t my human help me?” and maybe some guilt. I’m bad at reading from pictures.

    We had tried wrapping a dog in either a snug fitting t shirt or a ace bandage, the theory being that the storm causes the hairs to raise and by keeping them flat against the dog, it would lower the anxiety. And it helped…sometimes…about half the time it seemed to really helped lower the stress level, but the other half it seemed to have no effect. HMMmmmm!

  7. Nicola says

    I’ve got one storm phobic dog, one who has learnt to fear storms from that dog and one who (crossed fingers) hasn’t learnt yet. The storm phobic one & the indifferent one are the same age, and have exactly the same exposure to noises etc. Five years ago, one got more afraid of storms, the other didn’t. The only thing that has helped my storm phobic girl was Prozac (prescribed by a vet animal behaviour specialist) combined with Valium BEFORE the storm hits. Then she is relatively calm if I cuddle her – she actually prefers to be wedged between me and the lounge seat. One thing I have noticed, now at the end of our storm season and after 6 months of medication she seems to calm down when I give her the Valium, rather than 30 minutes later when it physiologically takes effect. Given that dogs CAN associate sickness with a novel food, is it possible that my dogs have learnt to associate a tablet with the calmness it brings?

  8. Anon Y. Mous says

    I read the Bark article and passed it on to some trainers I know. I’m glad to have that old chestnut disproved. I have a dog who is fearful during fireworks, gunfire and thunderstorms and another dog who is fearful of strangers, strange places, and other things he should have been socialized to as a pup. I’ve adopted adult dogs with fears! During fire works and thunderstorms I’ve been doing a tight tshirt and ace bandage wrap on my dog Mitzi. I’m thinking of trying it on my other dog, too. I play “Through a Dog’s Ear” on my CD player in the bedroom where they go to their crates during those times. They just want to hide out but be close to me.

    The boxer’s eye shows a little white but I think that is the angle. He looks like my Mitzi when she is tired.

  9. Kate says

    The boxer looks like he(?) saw something that concerned him, a puppy, a kid, something that makes him a bit nervous. It doesn’t look like outright fear, but with the crease in between his eyes and the mouth closed, it seems like concern.

    My own (scared of thunderstorms) dog will give me this look around things that unsettle her. It’s funny, I used to have one scaredy and one not in terms of storms. Then one day, I took my not-scared guy on the porch with me to watch a storm. He was mostly okay, but when a bolt of lightning hit not two blocks away, we both froze and were scared to move for about two minutes. I had jumped over him, as if to shield him, so I definitely reacted with fear, which seems about right considering. :) Anyway, after we both unfroze, he ran to the door and I was right behind him. We haven’t had enough storminess yet this season to know how he will react, but he’s a bit of an elephant when it comes to scary things: he doesn’t forget. Thankfully, we don’t live in the same house, so maybe he’ll be okay. My girl, though, there’s not much help for her. She wants to be close during storms, and I don’t mind. If I see it coming, I’ll try to give her something, but otherwise, we just snuggle until it’s over.

  10. Linda2 says

    I can’t load the photo, but my dog likes a safe place to go during really loud thunderstorms, up on the couch with us. I heard or read that sometimes the change in atmosphere can make some dogs more sensitive to impending storms, is that why all the birds & rabbits disappear before it starts?

    One of the dogs I used to have would woof, woof and that was about it, they all used to look at us (humans) though, as the storm progressed.

  11. says

    If you are planning on writing about how to help during a thunderstorm, it would be great if you could mention any newer things on the market. I’ve tried melatonin, rescue remedy, DAP diffuser and collar, and the anxiety wrap, with no success. I do have my thunder treats, which they eat, so they aren’t too overwhelmed, but sure would be nice to not have to pay so much attention to the weather.

  12. says

    Good article. Pets look to their owners for safety and protection. Ignoring them would leave them with no place to turn and that certainly would not be a good situation.

  13. ABandMM says

    My family’s first dog Spooky was very afraid of thunderstorms and loud noises. She would try and climb up the fireplace, get in between the hot water heater and climb the walls. I remember many a summer evening with her in our basement. She would be sitting on top of me, drooling, and I would have “EZ-Musak” on trying to keep her calm. We had to tranquilizer her for the 4th of July.

    My other dog Morgan was more disturbed by the lightening when she was younger. We lived in the Pacific NW for 4 years and well, only had one t-storm (but it lasted for 4 hours!) while we lived there. When we moved back east, she got freaked out by both the thunder and lightening.

    My current dog, fortunately, just goes and hides in the bathroom. If we are expecting storms, I put one of her dog beds in there. By far the easiest dog to deal with for noises.

    Some of the people I train with recommended peppermint oil, either putting it on the dogs paws or on their tongue. A few friends of mine with noise phobic dogs have said it helps and a calmer dog is worth having a house that smells like a candy cane factory. They said that they would notice an effect in about ~ 20 minutes.

    I too would be interested in any newer products, both commericial and/or more “eastern medicine/homeopathic”. My parents has a dog that goes a bit “snakey” during storms.

    As for the cute boxer: The whale eye seems to suggest something has caught his attention. The jaw seems a bit “set” (kind of like a human gritting his teeth?), so I think that the dog might be in a concerned, cautious state, with a bit of fear, but not all out frightened.

  14. Jennifer Hamilton says

    I totally get the thunder phobia example and how comforting might be helpful and not necessarily a bad thing. But how would you apply the same thinking/response towards the fear-biting pocket pal dogs that growl, snap and snarl when someone tries to approach them while they are being held in moms arms? Their body language looks like fear and all of the comforting from the owner seems to escalate the behavior over time. With these same dogs, if you get the owner to ignore the bad behavior and only acknowledge appropriate behavior, the dog quickly improves after only a couple sessions. Is that because an innate thunder phobia is treated differently than learned aggression, even though the aggression might of originally been rooted in an innate fear? Or is it that the pocket pal aggression is rooted more in resource guarding…even though it may look more like fear from a body language standpoint?

    I think there is a distinction somewhere regarding when to comfort and when to ignore. Personally, I have seen some very fearful dogs be helped by getting the owner to stop rewarding undesired behavior…while I also fully acknowledge that ignoring a phobic dog isn’t helpful either. I have also seen first hand how you can increase a dogs bravery by standing tall and letting the dog work through it’s fears, knowing you are there if anything bad happens. If you don’t let some of these dogs rebound from their initial fear but rather reward it, some tend to become even more cowardly . Again. I do not think this would apply at all in the thunder phobia example. Is that because their are different ways to treat different kinds of fears? Seems to me to be yes. This is also why I think generalizing the response to thunder phobias to other fear responses might be oversimplifying.

    Your thoughts?

  15. Liz F. says

    The boxer looks intimated, with a greater chance of moving away from the camera or maintaining distance than turning towards it. I think the angle of the face (half way between a profile and a straight on shot, slightly tilted downward) as well as the eyes, show resistance and a potential desire to leave the situation. There is a guardedness about the whole image.
    Like many others, I think that the dog isn’t terribly freaked out, and the head may just drop down to lie casually between the legs, but it seems like a moment of “I’m not sure what to do now, but I’ve just been confronted.”

  16. says

    Like Jennifer, I’m curious about this idea from a behavioral standpoint. Perhaps we’re confusing fear (the emotion) with anxious behavior (a symptom of the emotion). Certainly behavior can be reinforced, and I would assume this includes anxious behavior. Petting and soothing might actually be counter-conditioning for some thunderstorm-phobic dogs (“Good things happen for me when the thunder starts”). Whereas for others, the petting — if repeated often enough after the anxious behavior has started — becomes reinforcing.

    Perhaps the level of fear or anxiety and level of comforting plays an issue, too. I would never hesitate to fawn over a dog frightened by an attack from another dog, or a dog so afraid he can barely stand — the dog is in survival mode, not learning mode. Versus for a dog who’s worried about my neighbor’s new garden statue, quick encouragement and an opportunity to investigate will suffice.

    A twist on the intruder example… suppose I’m a child who is afraid of monsters under my bed. I call you (Mom or Dad) in a terrified panic, crying and asking to sleep in your room. You allow me in the bed and soothe me and sing or read to me until I fall asleep. The next time I’m worried about monsters, I do the same thing, and you repeat the soothing, and so on, until bedtime cues are as much a trigger for my anxious behavior as are “monsters.” Mom and Dad have a problem! A counter-conditioning example in this case might have been to allow the child to sleep with a light on or with a special toy that ordinarily lives in another room — but not bring him or her into the parents’ bed.

    Ignoring the child altogether, which I think is the parallel we’re talking about, would be inhumane, and would do nothing to improve the child’s courage OR decrease anxious behavior. The key in Jennifer’s statement above might be “ignore the bad behavior and only acknowledge appropriate behavior.” The owner still must take an active role in ignoring undesirable behavior, while still acknowledging desirable behavior — not ignoring the dog!

  17. says

    I thought the Boxer looked worried, but they tend to have that kind of face- with the wrinkles and big eyes.
    My storm fearful dog really liked to crawl in small spaces- imagine a 60 lb dog trying to fit in the kitchen cupboard with the dishes! If I put him in a crate in the basement he was happy to just go to sleep- I think the thick walls muffled the sound and the crate made him feel more secure.

  18. says

    None of mine are afraid of thunderstorms, but we had a Fox Terrier when I was little who crawled under the bed (with my mother) during storms. Well, Mom didn’t really crawl under the bed, but she clearly passed on her fear to the dog.

    What about the dog who is fearful at the vet’s? I have always believed the “no comforting” thing so I try for “happy talk” there. What SHOULD I be doing?

  19. Bill Olsen says

    I agree – I somehow can’t accept that reminding a fearful dog of your bond between them is in any way counter-productive in stressful situations.
    The Boxer – hmmm. The reddening of the eyes I see so often with this breed in fear or stress situations but isn’t evident here. I agree with people who say concern or worry – definitely not a toss-me-the-frisbee moment.

  20. says

    To my earlier point…here’s my best human (and then dog) example…

    If my daughter was nervous, anxious and had fears about going off to college, I would acknowledge her feelings but focus nearly all of my discussion on why it’s important to go into the world, in the spirit of new adventures, learning, and living…despite her fears. While I would not punish her fear, I would not focus on it either.

    If my daughter had agoraphobia however and was petrified of leaving the house, I would not begin to suggest she just needs to go off to college anyway. I would obviously have to focus on specific techniques and treatments to help her overcome an underlying psychological/medical condition before even considering her going off to school at some point down the road.

    Wouldn’t these same strategies apply to dogs?

    I agree that soothing my dog’s irrational fear of the sound of a live saxophone (how she was born with that one I’ll never know as she can easily sit through an entire fireworks display without issue) is probably the best treatment. Her panic, trembling and drooling clearly indicate an irrational, underlying fear that should not be ignored but will probably never be totally overcome.

    At the same time, I don’t acknowledge her anxiety around intact male dogs (she smells them coming and gets anxious…I suspect she’s worried about them getting near her back end given all of her hip surgeries as this was not an issue pre-surgery.) I do keep her safe from the intact males, however, by not letting them be off leash in her presence and/or make sure their owners do not allow them to get near her back end. Basically, I give her a safety zone, but I let her work through her fears herself. This seems to be working given her anxiety has diminished over time as long as I am in her presence. She is gaining confidence in this department and I’m not so sure this would be the case if I soothed her rather than let her work her issue in a safe way.

    I suspect the question is more complicated then whether fear can be reinforced or not…it seems to me that sometimes it can and sometimes it cannot. While fear is healthy and normal, I also suspect rebounding from fear independently also builds character…unless of course, the fear is at a level beyond the individual’s ability to cope or rebound.


  21. Sabine says

    Sorry for writing another post, but I felt I had to respond to Keli, who is looking for ways to ease her dog’s thunderstorm phobia. I had a foster dog once who totally freaked out by the slightest rumble of thunder – even it was in a song she heard on the radio. (Back then Enya was very popular and one of her songs has a lot of thunder in it.) To make a long story short: I wiped her off with a dryer sheet to ease the static electricity and I put her in my car until the storm was over. That helped tremendously. The car acted as a Faraday Cage ( ) and seemed to take the edge off. While being in the car, I put on very soothing music and even though she seemed still somewhat uneasy, she did not panic anymore. Maybe this is something you may want to consider trying. I have to add that my car was in a garage. I am not so sure this method would work out in the open……..

    This may sound a bit “whacko”, but I was desperate ! That dog would take the house apart during her panic attacks. She scratched up numerous doors and window sills trying to get out. Why she wanted to get out is a mystery to me, but she was the most challenging creature I ever rehabilitated. Thankfully, she turned out okay at the end and I was able to adopt her out after two years of hard work. She never lost her fear of thunderstorms, but the new owners were very understanding and willing to take over my Kelsie-thunderstorm-method.
    Kelsie is now 14 years old and still as nuts as ever. :)

  22. Christine says

    Our dog (not a Boxer) almost looks the same when he is asking “what’s up next?”
    As for the fear of thunderstorms; it can also be just the other way round. Our granddaughters (3and 4) came visiting us when a heavy thunderstorm swept over the region during the night. Both girls began to scream and our good Donar (2 years then) went into their bedroom, putting his head an each bed and then settled down so as to say “don’t be afraid, I’m watching over you”. The girlies slept well that night!

  23. Carolyn says

    Thank you for posting on thunder-phobic dogs. Coincidentally I was researching the issue myself and came across a very interesting article. Below I have quoted a few sentences from the article, but basically the authors think that the the behavior of the owners doesn

  24. Casey says

    Great post, Trisha! After your intriguing hint in “For the Love of a Dog” and the rather fuller explanation in “Tales of Two Species” I’m really glad to see you writing more to debunk the ‘don’t comfort a scared dog” myth. It may have been conventional wisdom for a long time but it never really seemed to fit the behavior I saw from my own dogs and from a moral standpoint I always found it to be such repugnant advice.

    I’ve only had one dog who was scared of thunderstorms and she just developed the fear late in life. In her case it seemed to be part of the whole Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. When we put her on Anipryl for her other symptoms, her thunderstorm phobia also disappeared.

    Although storms are not something my current Lab, Casey, is afraid of, she does tend to be a high-anxiety, fearful type dog. I’ve done a whole lot of counter classical conditioning with her and it’s been amazingly effective. We’ve also tried her on several anti-anxiety drugs (mostly before vet appointments) to which she’s had a paradoxical reaction. And I have a set of the “Through a Dog’s Ear” tapes and have used them with mixed results. My general impression is that they will help her stay calm in an anxiety provoking situation if I turn them on early but they aren’t of much help once her arousal level has started spiraling upwards. All-in-all, the CCC has worked best for us.

    A few years ago I inherited my Dad’s Boxer. After thirty some years of looking at Lab faces, I found I had a really hard time interpreting what the Boxer was trying to tell me although I did get better over time. To me the Boxer in the above photo looks mildly concerned or worried but not yet fearful.

  25. says

    Hard to tell what the boxer is feeling. He has whale eye, which can be an indication of anxiety and his mouth is closed but at the same time I can’t see his commisure (?sp) to see if it is tense. His lips seem relaxed.

    You said: The bad news is that petting won

  26. Trisha says

    Great comments, which I will address in more depth when I post another blog tomorrow. I agree that the issue can get complicated and deserves more discussion. Ironically, I had written quite a bit more in the post about emotions versus behavior, operant versus classical conditioning, the downside of trying to comfort a dog in some situations, but deleted it because it was getting too long and I was too busy with the end of the semester and my 150 students to do a good job of it. Right now I’m up to my ears in writing their last exam… man it’s hard to write a good exam that is fair and comprehensive. The exam is tomorrow, then a week of more grading grading grading (the TA and I just finished grading their second papers, right after finishing grading their first papers) and then I’m done with the class. I truly love it, but love when it’s over too! I’m going to post a few photos today, then will write more tomorrow morning or Friday about the very, very interesting issue of fear, behavior, reinforcement and yes, dogs and thunder storms.

  27. nan says

    I’m with Sabine, some degree of anxiety with some expectation mixed in, I think the white of the eye is more an angle thing. Can’t resist sharing a story. My rough collie had over six years before i knew him and I don’t have that history but with me he is anxious about storms. Usually gets as close as he can to me and trembles and paces. At night though I can anticipate the start and end of storms because of his behavior. Before there is either thunder or lightening he slips off his dog bed and very quietly slips onto my bed pressing quietly against me. He will stay there without moving or making a sound until 15 or 20 minutes after the storm is gone and then very quietly slips back onto his dog bed. Apparently he never read the no petting recommendations, his prescription for himself is contact with his human and his human is glad to give it.

  28. Libbye says

    The first word that comes to mind for the Boxer’s expression is “dubious”.

  29. Rachel says

    Thank you so much for your comments on this subject. I have a munsterlander who occasionally gets spooked by mechanical noises and my husband tells me that i coddle him and that i am making him worse. How can you not comfort a dog shaking with fear? Strangely enough neither this dog nor my border collie are afraid of thunder – in fact if it wakes them up they go to their favorite window and bark the same bark that is reserved for other dogs that have the nerve to pass in front of our house. It is really quite funny.

  30. LynnSusan says

    That Boxer looks like I did while waiting for the Bar results!

    I am so relieved to have permission to comfort Gracie when she needs it— I didn’t know when to feel guiltier— when she paced and whined during a storm, or when I “indulged her” by rubbing her belly and drawing her close. It is nice to know that my instincts are on the money.

    My old Lab/Shep was so gunshy that he would squeeze himself under the bed. In fact, when my mom was questioned as to what type of dog Barney was, she used to say: “he’s a Guzunda—he goes under the bed, under the chair, under the table…” It was amusing, but I would frequently find her holding him and petting him on the Fourth of July or during a bad storm, under the bed, under the chair, under the table…

  31. says

    Interesting but I have to say that I’ve seen more owners inadvertently reinforce the anxious behavior exhibited by their pets by petting or “comforting” them.

    There is a fine line between what an owner thinks they are reinforcing and what they are actually reinforcing–most cases that I have seen gone awry happen to be noise phobia and aggression.

    I’d be interested in seeing your deleted portions of your post.

  32. Ann says

    The Boxer just looks curious. Some just have those sad old eyes. It works well for them when they know a treat might be nearby. Add a small wimper to that dog, and the treat might be given soon.

    With thunderstorms or fireworks, we found a safe place in the basement. The DAP or valium were not effective. We practiced when there was even the inkling of a storm coming. It’s say Boom in a quiet voice, we’d head down the basement steps, and turn on the tv there. It became a ritual. He’d find me, look at my face, and head down himself. Looking in my eyes seemed to calm him.

  33. Mary Lou says

    My Snoopy (not a boxer:-), a mix of who know what (looks like a small Anatolian shepherd to me) has the exact same expression when I’m sitting down and doling out treats … she rests her chin on your leg and gives this pitiful ‘I havent been fed in a hundred years’ look … if she’d only mastered that when she was at the shelter, she’d have had adopters lined up in droves.

    None of my 4 are particularly bothered by thunderstorms … but my cat (Damcat) is totally feaked, he can sense them coming before theres even thunder and disappears into one of his hidy holes. (And no, I’d NEVER attempt to pet a cat who was scared)

  34. A.M. says

    None of our 3 dogs(ages 12.5, 8.5, 8) were afraid of thunderstorms until the oldest one began showing signs of insecurity 4 years ago. It has become so bad … he will shiver and hover near us if the sky just darkens now. I find the Bach’s rescue remedy works, but I spray a good 4 or 5 shots into his mouth, wait 10 minutes or so, and give him another shot of the same. That makes him lie right down and there is no shaking or quivering. He is a big dog … a mix between rhodesian ridgeback and german shepherd. It works pretty much every time. Best is when we know the storm is coming and we do the treatment before it hits us … if we wait too long and the lightening and thunder is there, Napoleon takes a longer time to settle with the rescue remedy.
    And I totally agree with everyone who feels that comforting the dog is the way to go … NOT comforting him would just be worse. Once we weren’t in the house when the storm hit … despite his inability to go down the basement stairs anymore, that’s where we found him when we got home. He was in a terrible state …. much worse than if we had been there to hold him and assure him.
    As I went on this search, I was hoping to find some solution to help deal with this problem, but I realize we’re all at our wits ends with this strange phenomena. I do believe this fear can be transfered to other dogs … our other dogs are showing signs of great unease this summer for the first time. I think it really is a reaction to the older dog’s extreme fear.

  35. Anissa says

    I presently have two young Beagles who are totally unaffected by storms – as in, they will dreamily wander around the yard sniffing every squirrel track while unholy fury rages in the sky above – and two older mixed breeds who dislike storms, but aren’t truly phobic. Funnily enough, one of the beagles was raised by the storm-disliking dogs and did not learn their fear, while they seem to have learned some of her confidence.

    Our usual method of dealing with storms is for all of us to go into the bedroom, where I am available for some low-key comfort petting but not overly fussing over the dogs. I’ll pet them and tell them it’s okay, but they mostly seem calmed down more by familiar safe surroundings and my calmness.

    I think that’s where people mess up the advice about reinforcing the fear – for a dog like my two older girls, who are disturbed by storms but not phobic, if the owner puts too much emotion and excitement into the comforting, it can seem as though the owner also believes that thunder is a Very Bad Thing, and the dog’s mild reaction can escalate. I’m hypothesizing aloud – I’m no expert.

    You are very right that a full-blown fear of thunderstorms can’t be reinforced. Heck, a dog that scared is not even gonna respond to petting! I’m sure owner hysterics won’t help in such a situation.

    Off to read the rest of your insightful articles on the topic – and to add your blog to my favorites.

  36. says

    Hello, my name is Carolyn. I have two Golden Retrievers. The male is not afraid of anything it appears to me. My female is afraid of everything, including storms. Her name is Cassie. I have two shi-tzu’s also. They are both males. They are both afraid of load thunder and lightning.
    I would never ignore them when they come to me for comfort. I will either wrap them in a banket and hold them while I talk softly to them, or I take them to bed with me where they can feel close to me and protected. Alot of their favorite doggie treats sometimes makes them forget what frightened them in the first place. Just because they love to eat, and especially there doggie treats. Thankyou so much for helping people understand in the articles you write. I think your philosphy on dogs is not only correct, but quite wonderful. Dogs have feelings too just like people. Thankyou again for helping people to understand this. Please keep writing your articles about dogs. I not only love to read them. I have also learned alot from these articles. My dogs thankyou and so do I.

  37. says

    Please comment on this exerpt from an article by The American Animal Hospital Association. The last paragraph seems to have misinformation. Am I correct?

    What to do
    Your best bet for helping your pup overcome his thunderstorm fears is to talk to your veterinarian. He or she can help you develop a program to gradually retrain your scaredy dog by gradually, gently helping him adjust to storms through behavior modification. Technically called “systematic desensitization,” this involves exposing the storm-phobic dog to some gentle reminders of a thunderstorm, such as a very soft tape recording of thunder or a flashing light, and rewarding the dog with lots of treats, attention, and other positive reinforcement only if there’s no evidence of anxiety. Over time, the intensity of the stimulus is increased, and only calm behavior rewarded. You should get professional guidance, either from a veterinarian or a veterinary behavior specialist, before you begin this process, however. If you introduce frightening stimuli too quickly or don’t see signs of fear your dog may be showing, you could possibly end up making the phobia worse.
    If gentle, patient retraining doesn’t help your pooch, there are some prescriptions that can. Your veterinarian can prescribe one of several anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications to help your dog remain calm during storms. You can also make sure your dog has a warm, safe “den” to retreat to when the weather gets too scary. You can try padding a crate with blankets or clearing a space underneath your bed. Just make sure that it’s somewhere your pup can get out of whenever he wants. A panicked dog can do a lot of damage to his crate and himself if he’s confined.
    Most important, though, is that your treat your dog gently and kindly when he is afraid. Don’t cuddle and reassure him, because that will reward his scaredy-dog behavior, but definitely don’t punish him for it either. Instead, just be calm and provide him with a safe, familiar place where he can feel secure and ride out the storm.

  38. trisha says

    To Lisa B: The last paragraph you cite is indeed standard in many articles and treatment paradigms. I used to believe it myself, but as I noted above, I don’t anymore. I’m an outlier here though, and because no one has done the research yet, all any of us are doing is just guessing. Anyone for a Ph.D. topic?

  39. says

    The boxer looks normal for a boxer. My dogs (boxers) seem to always have that sad, worried face. When we were choosing a dog at the farm where we got our puppy, we asked the little 5 year old child which one was his favorite “I like the ones that are sad” he said… then his grandma told us that he liked all of them, and to him, that all of them looked sad.

    They do! Which is why my boxers tend to be spoiled… they just give me that “look” and get what they want!! (haha!!)

  40. says

    If I didn’t know the subject here, I would not have picked up on fear in the precious moosh on the Boxer. Maybe the redness a little in the white of the eye would denote it. I’ve lived with a Doppler Dog, who portended bad weather much better than any weather person! I tried everything for him, he was a Golden mix. At first, I was able to comfort him by putting him into my husband’s truck…until he sold it. He used to go to work with him every day. None of the aforementioned things helped him, except for my husband to go lie down in the spare bed and then he’d settle up right next to him. There is one thing in this discussion and maybe I’ve missed someone else saying this, but one of my Goldens now, will get skittish during severe storms, but she won’t freak out. She jumps at a thunder clap and then goes about her business, which is being wherever I am. I do not make a big deal of this. Actually, I jump too and try to ride out the storms. I would never ignore her if she were terrified, but I’m not making a big deal of her behavior. Surely if she were shaking and terrified, I’d sit with her and hold her. Mostly, I think that is what is meant, is not reinforcing sound sensitivity, which is what I rather tend to call what my girl is experiencing now. My other two don’t notice this at all. Lisa B’s article says what I believe to be correct. We cannot always be there for our furfaces and there are pop up thunder storms. When we are there and have a terrified dog, it would be, IMO, tantamount to cruel to ignore them. I’m thinking of people who train in hunting (don’t like it) and have to get the dogs used to gun shots or even dogs who have to be trained in Search and Rescue or partner our men and women in uniform. Some make it…some don’t. I think that common sense is very plain in this scenario, but then that seems to be sorely lacking in so many individuals. Anyhow, I think that Lisa B’s information is right on! All that being said…all of my dogs would serve a burglar a beer;)

  41. Kjell-Olav says

    Great article. We need some focus on this part of dog training.
    I just have

  42. says

    I would say that is the look of a dog who trusts the person they are looking at. S/he is waiting for that person to so something to make it all better, before the dog decides to take matters in her/his own paws and find a safe spot.

  43. Hannah says

    I think Sarah Filipiak nailed it. I LOVE Patricia McConnell, but sorry, I disagree strongly on this one. Aside from what Sarah mentioned – I Don’t think it works to compare the robbery scenario with a human adult to a thunderstorm and a canine. totally different type of event, totally different species and associations made. Humans are verbal, and we move forward and backwards in time in our heads much better – of course a human consoling another human after a robbery works…we are human we both can talk about the robbery, and another human UNDERSTANDS what you say when you say “it’s ok, you are safe, it’s not going to happen again because you are installing an alarm system” The dog has no idea WHAT a thunderstorm is, and when and where it will happen again and how it will effect him, as far as hes concerned his whining and shaking is the only thing keeping it from killing him – no human logic. If this notion is applied to dogs, then it also supports the flipside of people who think coming home 10 minutes after their dog has peed on the floor and yelling at them will work, because they understand whats going on, and why the owner is mad, and not to do it again…and we all know that’s not how it goes down. While it does make total sense that fear is an aversive and you can’t make the fear worse by petting and praising, I don’t think that is what people who say don’t pet and coddle when scared are saying…well maybe it’s what they’re “saying” but I don’t think that’s the science behind it or what they really think. It’s like the cliff notes version. I think the idea (and I think it is a sound one, especially after experimenting with my own dog with completely ignoring, reinforcing calmer behaviors, and reassuring and seeing different results) is that you are reinforcing the behavior associated with feeling fearful which A) reinforces the fear by rewarding the behavior associated with it, for example “feeling uneasy about person outside window, bark, mom pats my head and says ‘that’s alright sweetie dont bark’, felt good, next time ill bark louder and sooner” same premise – the person outside the window is an aversive…the pat on the head doesnt reinforce the intitial fear of the person, but it does reinforce the dog acting on it, which creates a stronger reaction in future. B) feeds fear by not empowering dog to have alternative. If the dog keeps getting coddeled or removed from stress every time he shows signs of stress, the dog will never develop an alternate adaptive behavior to give him the control over the situation and calm his anxiety by empowering him. I think this is more cruel by setting the dog up for a perpetual phobia. It just perpetuates a system of dependence on mom when scary thing presents itself beause no other coping mechanism can develop. I’m not saying ignore the dog and thats that. that’s mean. I’m saying teach it an alternate behavior that makes the stress go away, using luring, shaping or rewarding. its biofeedback sorta-kinda. and it chnages the context of the situation for the dog. that’s how BAT works… dog sees another dog, dog feels stressed, dog whines, stares, etc. the moment dog looks away or offers other calm behavior, dog is instantly removed. dog now has tools to take control of environment. If owner pets on head and says “dont be scared” the dog will likely whine and stare at other dogs for the rest of it’s life, and probably get worse and worse at it. Is the owner reinforcing fear….ehh “no” not directly. But in the long run, YES. because it’s reinforcing the behavior and whole contextual situation associated with it. IF an owner pats and praises the dog right after it lunges and barks at someone, do we then pet and reassure the dog, because the lunging is stemming from fear? no, we don’t – because that would be reinforcing the aggressive behavior. So why is this situation any different? I taught my thunderstorm phobic dog to lie down on his bed by shaping the whole behavior from an initial sit during panick attack. what started out as an accidental sit while shaking and whining evolved into a calm “i can switch off this fear by going and lying on my bed”. I ignored him until he sat, then “switched on” with praise and cheese the moment he sat. He offered the behavior first, which gave him the power, i simply reinforced it, while ignoring all anxious behavior. if I had hugged and petted and reassured him, he would have continued to panick every time and I would have been his sole source of relief, pigeon holed into sitting on the floor with him and reassuring him every time it rained. I dunno, I’m sure Many disagree – and every dog’s different I’m sure theyre are SOME dong out there that get less fearful of a situation the more they are reassured, but I just havent seen one personally…

  44. Hannah says

    oops – sorry to extend an already super long post, but amend “luring, shaping or rewarding”, to “luring shaping or CAPTURING” :)

  45. says

    I’m late to this post, but I am a long time fan of your books and was recently linked this blog post. I loved it and shared it with some other people, and a lovely discussion followed. Thank you for writing about this, I don’t think it can be emphasized enough-especially for new dog owners getting advice that isn’t sound.

  46. MySpyderWeb says

    I hear Thundershirts work really well. Not only with storms but also with dogs that have other anxieties.

  47. Christine says

    Great Article! Dogs are like humans too, they get stress depending on any situations like thunderstorms.

  48. Ruth says

    I’m with Anissa. However, I think you have to distinguish between socializing and training a pup; and de-conditioning an older dog who’s become seriously frightened of storms for whatever reason. The point for me is that if you act normally during a thunderstorm, your young pup will come to consider thunderstorms normal and therefore unthreatening. This is the same as for all other early socialisation, where you are exposing your dog to normal things and events so that s/he doesn’t react fearfully or aggressively to cars, other dogs, the washing machine, doorbells etc. When thus exposing your pup, you’re just walking (or carrying, if vaccinations not yet complete) your dog round and actively demonstrating these things are nothing to worry about. S/he is close to you and you are OK. You’re talking normally and calmly with people, so the world is turning OK. If a thunderstorm starts you calmly turn and walk or carry the dog home or into your vehicle, there is nothing to worry about. You would of course be talking calmly and reassuringly with your dog as usual, plus giving it the occasional stroke/pat/cuddle as usual.

    Where your older dog suddenly becomes scared, there may be an age-related illness or physical problem, so take him/her to a vet.

    Where you adopt an older dog, I would think an individually tailored de-sensitization programme would be best, and of course here starting out at least with some physical and verbal reassurance (cuddles, “it’s alright, nothing to worry about”) would be good. But I really think you can’t generalise with these, everything depends on the individual dog (and their owner/s).

  49. Jacquie Lang says

    About fear… I live in the Netherland with my 7-months-old Shiba Inu Benji. Benji is a brave little fellow; it’s in his breed standard and I have found it so in practice. Few things phase him except sheep (sorry, Patricia!) and clanging iron girders. I admire his pluck but I don’t want to abuse it, so I was a bit apprehensive in the run up to New Year’s eve, the Netherlands’ great Fireworks Festival. Many and various bangs and whizzes went on through the week, apparently unremarked by Benji and I was mentally congratulating him on his successful baptism by firecracker until this happened.

    On the 31st I took him for his afternoon walk in the park (not an option, we live in an apartment), with the by now incessant bangs. Benji was his impervious self, attending only to every pile of leaves, lamppost and rubbish bin as usual. Then he froze, staring at something for a good minute. The park itself had been still, no firecracker to be heard (by me at any rate). Then he started pulling like a locomotive back the way we had just gone, heading for home. Now, admittedly Benji is a lead puller, but this was something else entirely. He was spooked, frantic, tail down. I didn’t understand but I saw that he need to get out fast. So that was what we did. He only calmed down when we turned into our street, six or seven minutes later. There were no incidents during the different evening walk and no fear of fireworks.

    Yesterday, New Year’s day, we went back. I needed to figure out what had happened. Benji knew the park well; only seconds previously he had been basking in the admiration of a party of strollers. He froze and stared at a man and a toddler about 30 yards or so distant, in a play area. ???
    This time, Benji showed apprehension just before the point he had froze before. He wanted to get away again, pulling back and digging his paws in. No man or toddler now, but I suddenly noticed the play area and the climbing frame-cum-slide. He was staring at that now! The horror! The horror!

    Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that nonsense! He had seen the slide before, even sniffed it. Admittedly a couple of months ago, but his memory was well up to the effort. I wrangled him (sorry, Benj) to the nearly park bench so that we could see the slide but not close and I took him through some of his tricks, treating him extravagantly all the while. After a while, when he was more composed, I took him up to the slide and got him to sniff the thing for a few minutes. Then we walked on.

    Interesting, on the way back, Benji ignored the slide completely but against showed symptoms of extreme distress on the section of path where he first freaked. Fortunately, he then encountered more admirers (a regular event), enjoyed being petted and cheered up enormously.

    So after my worries over fireworks, my pup freaked out over a piece of garden furniture. Any insight, anyone?

  50. Sara says

    Having owned Boxers myself in the past, this one could be exhibiting a variety of emotions. A look like that could be nothing more than the dog glancing back towards the picture taker with out moving his head. Thus you see the white of his eye. I’ve gotten looks like this when at play. Just before the dog was about to bark or drop down on his paws and waggle his butt in the air. Or the Boxer may have been wigged out about the flash for a few moments. Hard to say just from a photo as many people here have said.

  51. Sia says

    Re: The fear-aggression/versus fear attention-seeking thing. A dog that runs to the owner because there’s a storm and it wants petting might end up being rude/pushy, at worst but really…it’s not likely to create any real harm, aside from special circumstances like frail elderly people and possibly, children.

    The fear-agression thing is different. Think about the difference between comforting a child after a nightmare and dealing with a child who kicks their friends when said playmates startle them. You comfort both children but in the latter case, you also make sure that the child knows that scared or not, that isn’t the way to deal with it.

    One way of doing the latter with dogs is to give the dog another task to focus on. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly complicated – you can just tell the dog to SIT or PLACE or BED. Anything.

    Then you can praise the dog for performing the command. That also works with dogs digging up garden beds. “STOP- SIT – Good Sit!” That way, you’re avoiding rewarding the intial behavior.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>