I originally wrote this post in May 2011:
Do you find a summer thunderstorm a delight when snuggled safe in your home? How does your dog handle the light show and percussion? Does he stress out during thunderstorms and fireworks? It’s hard to see your dog suffer fear and anxiety during these events, but you can do something to ease their discomfort. Get started now, because it takes time and preparation.
First, let me put an end to the myth that comforting your dog when they are afraid of something will reinforce their fear. It just isn’t true. Fear is an aversive feeling for a dog. He won’t choose to be afraid because you have given him much needed comfort. So put that old myth aside and provide that support and reassurance when he’s afraid.
Desensitization and Counter-conditioning
Put the power of desensitization and counter-conditioning to work. Desensitization is the process of exposing a dog to The Scary Thing at a level so low that it doesn’t invoke fear, while gradually increasing the level so the dog slowly acclimates to it without fear. Counter-conditioning is changing the dog’s attitude about The Scary Thing, so that he sees it as a much more benign—even positive—event. You first have to understand what causes your dog distress. While it may have started as the loud BOOM! your dog has probably associated other things as predictors of The Scary Thing and developed a fear of them all: dropping barometric pressure, gusts of wind, flashes of light, sound of rain. Make a list of the things your dog shows fear toward and get a CD of those sounds. The “Sounds Good” CD series by Terry Ryan is a great choice (see Resources). Get a lot of high value treats you know your dog will love (hot dogs, chicken, cheese, peanut butter, etc.). Plan to work through the process over several days or weeks, doing a little bit each day. How fearful your dog is of those sounds will influence how long it takes to complete the counter-conditioning.
With your CD player at a barely audible level, begin playing the sounds. When you see your dog noticing the sound (without fear), give a small tasty treat. Increase the level of the sound very gradually. It is important not to go too far too fast and induce a fearful state, or you will have set back your counter-conditioning process. If you think your dog can tell the difference between the CD and the real thing, try this: put your speakers face down on the floor above where you will work with your dog. Follow the same gradual procedure.
This process can be tricky and time consuming, so don’t hesitate to call a professional trainer or behaviorist to assist you with the process.
If the counter-conditioning isn’t yielding great results for your dog, you can try other things in conjunction. An anxiety wrap that offers the acupressure benefits of swaddling is effective with most dogs. Thundershirt is a readily available brand. You can also put on some soothing music to mask the worst effects of the storm. “Through A Dog’s Ear” is a collection of CDs scientifically designed and performed to have a calming effect on dogs—and it’s pretty nice for humans to listen to, as well. Finally, if all else fails, speak with your veterinarian about possible medications to reduce your dog’s anxiety about loud sounds.
I hope you and your dog both enjoy the summer.
Resources at your fingertips
“Sounds Good” Thunderstorms CD: www.dogwise.com; search Video & Audio, “Thunder” (other sound CDs also available from Terry Ryan)
Thundershirt: www.thundershirt.com; also available at area pet stores
Through A Dog’s Ear CDs: www.throughadogsear.com
More information on noise fears and phobias: www.aspcabehavior.org/articles/9/Fear-of-Noises.aspx
Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private in-home training for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2011, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC