Training Advice for Positively Good Dogs
by Kelly Spring, CPDT
The warm weather has rolled in – that’s good news and bad news at my house. While we’re all enjoying the longer days and opportunities to hike and play outside, my little Lab mix, Tallula, is scared of the thunderstorms that have rolled in with the season. Poor Tallula starts panting and fidgeting hours before I see any sign of a storm. When it arrives, she huddles up against the tub in the bathroom – unable to move until it’s over.
I know Tallula isn’t alone in her fear of thunderstorms. Every year at this time, I start hearing from clients who are concerned about how distressed their dogs become when it’s storming out.
Like all fears, dogs’ fear of thunder storms can range from mild discomfort to outright panic. If your dog is uncomfortable, scared or panicked by thunder storms, you can help her feel better!
Here is a list of strategies that have proven effective in making storms more bearable for fearful dogs:
• Provide a safe, comfortable place for your dog to hunker down. Put a blanket or bed in that spot and include a pillow case or t-shirt that has your scent on it. Good ports in the storm include basements, interior rooms, closets and bathrooms — the fewer the windows, the better.
Bathrooms are often a good choice because many dogs seek refuge in or near bath tubs and behind toilets. Some veterinary behaviorists theorize that the increased static electricity in the atmosphere during thunderstorms can cause painful shocks to dogs — particularly those with long or heavy coats. Dogs seeking safety may learn through trial and error that these surfaces provide grounding and prevent the shocks.
• Cover the windows and turn on all of the lights, so that lightening is less noticeable.
• Calmly comfort your dog. The science is very clear: comforting a scared animal (dog or human) does not “reward” fear. Fear is an emotion that is not within the animals’ control and therefore can’t be rewarded or punished away. Just like a child afraid of thunderstorms, dogs are often comforted by the presence of their family members. Follow your instincts and snuggle up – if that’s what your dog needs.
• If your dog is comfortable enough to take food, introduce a “thunderstorm treat” – something your dog is nuts about (marrow bones, stuffed Kongs, etc.) as soon as a storm begins. If the sound of thunder is the scariest part of the storm, give her a piece of chicken, cheese, hot dog, meatball, or something else she LOVES immediately after each clap of thunder.
• Play Through a Dog’s Ear music http://www.throughadogsear.com/. This series of CDs features classical music that is acoustically-engineered to be soothing to dogs. Studies have found that this particular music is more relaxing to stressed dogs than regular classical music or no music at all (as measured by physical indicators, such as heart rate, respiratory rate and brain waves).
Not only is the music relaxing, but it can help drown out the sounds of thunder. Be sure not to play this music only when it’s storming or your dog will associate it with storms – and it will lose any relaxing effect. Try playing the music several times a week (when it’s not storming) while your dog is chewing on something really wonderful and special, like a marrow bone or a Kong stuffed with his favorite canned dog food. The association of this music with a really happy activity will carry over and help your dog feel less distressed during the thunderstorms.
• There is evidence that the over-the-counter supplement melatonin can ease a dog’s anxiety around thunderstorms. Many veterinary behaviorists recommend this for dogs with mild to moderate thunderstorm fear. Check with your veterinarian to make sure this is appropriate for your dog and to get the proper dosage.
• Try dog appeasing pheromones (DAP). DAP is the scent of the pheromones that canine mothers produce while they are nursing their pups. DAP comes in the form of room diffusers, spray (for bedding) and collars. There is considerable data and anecdotal evidence that DAP can be helpful in calming anxious dogs. (Humans can’t smell it at all.)
• Try a Thundershirt. Thundershirts and other anxiety wraps soothe dogs in the same way babies are soothed by swaddling. The exact mechanism by which it works is not fully understood, but we know that for some people and animals, this snug pressure on the body reduces anxiety. Again, don’t use the wrap only when a storm is rolling in. Make a practice of associating it with good things, like walks, dinner, or great chews – more often than you use it for storms.
• Work on desensitizing and counter-conditioning (D/CC) your dog to the sounds of thunderstorms. In order for D/CC to be effective, you have to ensure that during the process your dog never experiences a thunderstorm at an intensity that exceeds her capacity to cope. Each time a real thunderstorm puts her “over-threshold,” the work you’ve done to gradually decrease her fear will be undone. So practically speaking, this strategy is most likely to be effective if you start it in the fall or winter when thunderstorms are rare.
The D/CC process:
• Play a CD of thunderstorm sounds at a very low volume while your dog engages in something that she LOVES – eating, chewing a marrow bone, playing fetch, playing tug, etc.
• With each successive session, turn the volume up (just a little bit) while doing the FANTASTIC activity. The volume should always be low enough that your dog can hear it but is not bothered by it all.
• Repeat until your dog can listen to the sounds at a moderately loud volume with no sign of stress while engaging in her fun activity.
• You’ll know that you’re changing her association of the sounds of storms when you turn the CD on and your dog gets excited for her fun activity. Think about the way your dog gets excited when you pick up her leash, that’s the kind of happy excitement you want to eventually see when you start the thunderstorm CD.
• And last, but certainly not least, talk to your veterinarian! For dogs who are highly distressed by storms and don’t get relief from other options, your veterinarian may recommend behavioral medication to ease your dog’s anxiety and improve her quality of life.
My spring and summer days always start with checking the weather forecast, so I can thunder-proof Tallula before she starts to get nervous. I give her melatonin a few hours ahead of time, close the blinds, turn on all the lights, play Through a Dog’s Ear, and get ready to snuggle up with her next to the tub. She may not love the thunderstorms, but our little ritual helps both of us relax until the weather clears.
Kelly Spring owns Spring Training, LLC (SpringTrainingForDogs.com). She is a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant serving the metro DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia area. Kelly lives with her four rescue dogs and cats, including her devastatingly handsome K-9 Lifesavers alum – Hooch.
Contact Kelly at 202-664-4206 or Kelly@SpringTrainingForDogs.com