Afraid of Thunder

a close up shows cali's nose. Cali is a golden retriever.


Lots of dogs are “afraid” of thunder. Or, to be more precise, they become anxious during thunderstorms. Some become anxious well before the storm starts (they are far more reliable than the weather forecasts; Weather Puppy should consider hiring Cali, for example, to improve the accuracy of their predictions …).


Not all fear and anxiety is alike and therefore it cannot be treated in the same way.


Cali is afraid of thunderstorms.

Cali is not afraid of loud noises. The thunder itself is not what bothers her. But she can anticipate a storm that is miles away and hours in her future. She senses the approaching storm and paces, clings, and shakes. When the storm starts, she drools and shakes harder. She’s miserable. She is helped by aromatherapy, melatonin, CBD cookies, and lots of hugs and cuddling. Fortunately, we have all of those options available.

Cali’s fear of thunderstorms does not transfer to anything else. She regards fireworks with mild curiosity and hardly reacts to other loud noises.

Cali’s friend is afraid of thunder.

Cali’s friend shall not be named, as they fear career consequences if their (mild) phobia were to become known. However, this friend fears thunder. And fireworks. Presumably, the sonic booms and air raid sirens Jana grew up hearing frequently (in Israel) would send this dog around the bend.

It’s the noise. CBD cookies and melatonin don’t help much. Aromatherapy is hit or miss. Cuddling does help. So does hiding in the basement. This dog is grateful that they were not destined to become a gun dog.

It can be challenging to figure out what, exactly, a dog is worried about. Both dogs act the same way — clingy, trembling, maybe drooling. But they’re not reacting to the same thing. When the noise stops, “friend” is fine; when the air pressure changes back to non-storm normal, Cali is fine. Different problems; different solutions.

Actually, different problems, same solution: Cuddling!

Aromatherapy for Dogs

Cali’s favorite way to relax is curling up with her beloved tennis ball.

Aromatherapy for dogs seems like an obvious idea, but it’s only recently been formally studied as a way to calm dogs in  a stressful environment.

A small study looked at the effects of four scents: Coconut, vanilla, valerian, and ginger, on dogs in a shelter / kennel environment, a noisy and stressful environment. All four scents were found to reduce activity and vocalization; coconut and ginger also increased the amount of time dogs spent sleeping.

It was a single, small study, and I hope that more research is done on whether scents can calm dogs and which scents are most effective. I have some products that are intended to calm anxious dogs, but I don’t know that they’ve been particularly effective with my own dogs. One is lavender and chamomile. I’ve used T-Away, an essential oil blend, with Cali, and it sometimes calms her right down, but other times doesn’t seem to have an effect. I think the difference is whether she’s excited (no effect) versus anxious (seems to help a lot), but I have not done careful enough study to be sure. A DAP diffuser seemed to help with Jana’s anxiety, but again, my study of one dog doesn’t really say much about whether this is an effective treatment.

But, given the way most humans respond to scents — some are calming, others are irritating — along with dogs’  sensitivity to scent, it seems likely that aromatherapy could work for many dogs. I’d love to see something as easy to implement as infusions of relaxing scents become a standard protocol at kennels and shelters, maybe vet clinics — anywhere that stressed-out, anxious dogs are likely to be found.

Aromatherapy might also be a nice, easy way to help dogs with noise and thunderstorm anxiety. That would be a great direction for some additional research. I have a growing personal interest in this topic, as Cali has recently shown some anxiety during severe thunderstorms. I don’t think she’s reacting to noise, but rather to changes in air pressure or something else that started quite a while before the actual rain, thunder, and lightning. Melatonin helps, but it would be nice to have some other ways to ease her anxiety.

A caveat: The scents that tend to be soothing to humans might not have the same effect on dogs, and scents that they find calming might be unpleasant to us. Even if that turned out to be the case, it would be interesting to know more about how scent affects dogs’ moods and energy or activity levels.

In addition to calming them, scents could probably be used in other ways to work with dogs or influence their moods and behavior. I learned a lot about dogs’ sense of smell from Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, but I don’t remember any mention of scent as a way to calm (or energize) dogs.


Melatonin Might Soothe Your Anxious Pup

As she ages, and perhaps as her hearing and eyesight fade, Jana has become more anxious and reactive. She gets startled easily and barks when cars come up behind us on walks; we avoid busy streets. She barks at anything wheeled that moves toward us — bikes, scooters, hated skateboards and loathed minivans (and joggers, even though they lack wheels) — but that’s always been true to some extent.

What’s harder to figure out is her evening anxiety. She often (well, it used to be often) would start barking in the evenings. Anxious, high-pitched woofs. The barking sometimes went on for several minutes. Woof. Long pause. Woof woof. Long pause. Etc. Not much fun for me. Or for Cali. Definitely not for the neighbors.

I’ve had some success with the Comfort Zone DAP plug-in. Sometimes a wrap would calm her. But some evenings, nothing worked. When I asked Jana’s personal physician for ideas, stipulating that I wasn’t yet ready for hard-core anti-anxiety meds, she suggested melatonin. A good friend had also suggested melatonin that same week!

With this weird coincidence striking me as a good omen, I decided to try it. It’s not addictive, it doesn’t cause liver damage or other health problems, and it’s not expensive. And, it does seem to help. I started with a single 3 mg. tablet in the evenings, and, with Jana’s doctor’s agreement, recently upped that to 3 mg. morning and evening.

It’s not a miracle cure; Jana’s not a new dog. She still gets anxious sometimes. She still hates skateboards. But the melatonin does seem to take the edge off. She relaxes some evenings. Yesterday, she actually rested her head on my knee and let me stroke her for about 20 minutes. Yes, it really was Jana. No, I did not mix her up with Cali. True to her “no-touch cuddling” credo, she did get up an move after I petted her too many times.

Seriously, though, it is nice to see her relax; maybe a larger dose can relieve more of her anxiety. Maybe she’ll turn into a cuddler like Cali! (OK, let’s not get too carried away…)

Melatonin might have other uses for anxious dogs. The Whole Dog Journal, which tops my short list of highly trusted dog magazines, recommends melatonin for dogs who are afraid of thunderstorms (the linked story might be available only to WDJ subscribers). Some websites (none that I know well enough to put on my trusted list) say melatonin can reduce the number of seizures in epileptic dogs or help with separation anxiety. Fortunately, I don’t have either of those problems, so I can’t comment.

Whatever issue you think melatonin might help your dog resolve, check with your vet first on whether to try it and how much to give.

Also, and this is essential: Check the label. A helpful reader of the xylitol post noted that her brand of chewable melatonin tablets had xylitol! That dog poison seems to turn up everywhere, so reading the label on anything you plan to share with your dog is essential.