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How to Help Your Pup Feel Less Afraid

Pets and treats can go a long way to alleviate your pup’s fear (especially when they’re afraid of thunder).

by Patricia McConnell, PhD
March 10, 2021
A woman sitting with her arm around a dog enjoying a view of water.
Chelsea Victoria / Stocksy

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Many pet parents have been taught that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical: Your pup hears thunder, they run to you and you pet them. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what actually happens! First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile for your pup to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse — you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating mint chocolate chip the first time it happened.

Studying Stress

There’s another reason why petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make them worse: Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* The authors measured the production of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. They found that cortisol levels did not decrease when the dogs were being petted by their guardians during storms. (The most important factor in decreasing cortisol was the presence of other dogs.)

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Interestingly, another piece of research on social bonding found that although cortisol levels decrease in people when they are interacting with dogs, cortisol does not decrease in dogs in the same context.** However, in both species, other hormones and neurotransmitters increased, including oxytocin, prolactin and beta-endorphin — all substances that are associated with good feelings and social bonding. So, while petting your dog during a storm may not decrease cortisol levels, it is still possible that something good could be happening.

On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make them more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting them are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.

A Classical Approach

The greatest damage that’s done with outdated “don’t pet the dog” advice doesn’t relate to storms, but to the pitfalls of trying to explain classical counter-conditioning (CCC). CCC can be a profoundly effective way to change behavior, because it changes the emotions that drive the behavior in the first place. A typical example in applied animal behavior is having visitors throw treats to a dog who is afraid of strangers.

Understandably, many humans have asked, “But isn’t giving treats when they’re barking and growling just going to make it worse? Won’t they get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no — not if their behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.

Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach them to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do.

CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change, and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your pup.

Fear Is Contagious

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one way you can make a fearful dog worse, and that’s by becoming scared yourself. The emotion of fear is so compelling that it is easy to spread around. “Emotional contagion” is the term used to describe the viral spread of fear within a group, and it’s a common occurrence among social species. If you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, strangers or other dogs, just get scared yourself. If you’re afraid of storms, it is entirely possible that your dog will pick up on it and become more nervous.

However, if you are freaked out (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body — slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.

*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005. “Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95:153–168.
**J.S.J. Odendaal & R.A. Meintjes. 2003. “Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs.” The Veterinary Journal 165:296-301.

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Patricia McConnell, PhD

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.