Last Sunday night, after a day of wind, cold, heavy rain and pelting hail, the whole miserable day came to a climax with a dramatic thunderstorm. At which our senior dog, who is a terrible worrier at the best of times, shrank beside the sofa, trembling and whimpering; while the junior dog, who is so laid back – or possibly just totally unaware of his environment – that you could drop a bomb on him and he wouldn’t notice, lay in front of her with his head on his paws looking sympathetic but bewildered.
It’s strange how some dogs are astraphobic (astraphobia being the technical name for fear of thunder ) and others take no notice at all. Taking an admittedly small and random sample, it seems that small dogs are less likely to be scared than larger ones, but perhaps that’s because small dogs seem to have more confidence generally. There is a theory that the electricity in the air gets into their fur, but to a layperson this sounds highly unlikely.
Thunder is created not by clouds banging into each other, as we were told when we were children, but by lightning, which is why we always hear the thunder after seeing the flash of lightning. Lightning is caused by a build-up of different charges in a storm cloud, which results in a discharge of electricity. The bolt of lightning that results from this produces a stream of electricity that heats the air around it to incredibly high temperatures – over 30,000 degrees Celsius, hotter than the surface of the sun. This heat makes the air expand, and when it contracts it creates a shock wave which we hear as thunder.
It’s a myth that lightning can’t strike the same place – or person – twice. There are many accounts of people who have suffered several strikes, including an American park ranger who was struck seven times, and who, one would imagine, had good cause to feel somewhat paranoid. There’s even a support group for people who have been struck by lightning: Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International, which aims to provide support and education for survivors.
Thunderbirds are go!
But perhaps it’s actually more noteworthy that some animals (and most humans ) aren’t afraid of thunder and lightning: after all, it’s a pretty dramatic, powerful, uncontrolled and uncontrollable event, which has over the centuries been subsumed into myth and legend in many countries. The power and mystery of thunder has led it to be personified in many cultures, for example as Zeus in ancient Greece and as Indra in Hindu mythology; and we’re all aware of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, after whom Thursday (Thor’s day ) was named. He was a figure of huge strength, who flashed lightning from his eyes, travelled through the firmament on a chariot pulled by goats, and who created thunder by throwing his hammer, Mjollnir, through the sky.
But there are many other manifestations of thunder gods, perhaps the most interesting of which is the thunderbird of the indigenous peoples of North America. This was a huge bird that lived in the mountains: sheet lightning flew from its eyes, it brought storms as it flew through the sky, and the beating of its wings made thunder. It carried messages through the spirit world and was best avoided by humans, though the fact that it could shape-shift and appear on the earth in human form presumably made this rather hard to do.
I’m not sure how to explain all this to my dog, but I can only hope that she’ll develop some method to cope with it all: the way this winter has gone so far she might need to.