The forecast calls for scattered, severe thunderstorms with a great deal of cloud-to-ground lightning. Whether or not you personally like a good storm, you feel a lump in your throat knowing that Teddy is going to be very upset. Whenever the rains come, Teddy turns from his normal sweet, calm, well behaved pooch into an anxious, terrified dog who does things he would never ordinarily do.
As the storm approaches, Teddy begins to pace the house, pant and get very clingy to the humans that are around. He nearly trips his person as he tries to maintain himself right between her legs as she walks from room to room. If the human sits at a table or desk, Teddy is quick to try to squeeze under the desk and under his human’s legs. You may find he’s drooling excessively or digging at the floor, a rug or his bed like he’s trying to create a den he can crawl into. Or, you may suddenly realize that you haven’t seen Teddy in quite a while and search the house only to find him hiding: under furniture, in a closet, in the bathtub, in a room that he knows he is not allowed in. When he sees you, he looks at you with imploring eyes that seem to beg, “Make it stop. Make the Thunder Monster go away!!! Pleeeeeeaaaaase……..” He may begin to pant upon seeing you and then begin the clingy behavior described earlier.
All of these are classic anxiety/stress signals that dogs display when they have a fear of thunder or storms. Many people are surprised at the sudden onset of this fear in a dog they’ve had since puppyhood. A lot of puppies, mine included, seem to find storms interesting and even exciting for their first year, only to suddenly get the canine memo that they are supposed to be afraid of this natural wonder. Suddenly, they begin displaying all of these signs that you thought you might have avoided with this pup.
An extremely common issue that many, many dog owners have to face is “How do I deal with Teddy during a storm? My heart breaks to see him so scared. All I want to do is sit with him and reassure him and hold him and tell him it’s OK and it’ll all be over soon.” This instinct is certainly one option.
There is a school of thought that says you should NOT coddle fear because it will reinforce the fear. But, in my experience, and in the view of many of the finest canine behaviorists in the nation, it is actually NOT POSSIBLE to reinforce fear. The simple fact is: when you soothe and comfort a frightened individual (human or animal), the fear subsides because the individual feels safer. If the fear subsides, then you can’t reinforce it – it’s not there anymore. So, if you haven’t done any other training to help your dog feel comfortable during a storm, then comfort away. Make sure that you’re quiet and relaxed about it. Make sure that you aren’t scared yourself, as the dog will feel your calm, confident comfort and be reassured by it. If you’re also anxious – if you jump every time the thunder rolls through – then you may increase your dog’s anxiety at which point you’d be providing more to help your dog by having someone else comfort him. But if you’re comfortable and relaxed, this will help your dog feel better about it as well.
So how do we help Teddy overcome his fear so that he doesn’t need to be soothed because he’s actually not frightened?
There are a couple of things we can do, and a combination of both is the best way to manage his fear.
The first step is to desensitize Teddy to the noise of thunder. Thunder is loud and sporadic with no rhyme or reason as to when it will suddenly be there. Even the flashes of lightning only tell us it’s coming; it doesn’t tell us how quickly it will be here, nor how loud it will be.
Dogs may learn to associate changes in barometric pressure and ozone levels with impending storms. Unfortunately, we cannot easily address these issues in our homes. But we can address the noise of thunder itself.
To desensitize your dog to the noise of rain and thunder, you will need a CD player that has a continuous loop feature and one or two CDs of thunderstorms that run at least one hour. It’s important that the CDs do not have music overlapping the rain and thunder. These should be straight thunderstorms, preferably with a few really good, sudden, loud thunderclaps. Play a CD at the absolute lowest volume the CD player has. You should have to put your ear directly up to the speaker to hear the rain/thunder. Put the CD player somewhere fairly central to the house so that the dog can hear it from most anywhere. Put the CD player on continuous loop and allow it to play 2 or 3 times through each day for a couple days.
Each day you’ll play the CD for a couple hours – ideally at different times of the day so that Teddy doesn’t learn that every day when the sun is highest, this thing happens. Every 2nd or 3rd day (as Teddy demonstrates he’s ignoring the sounds of the storm) you will nudge the volume up a little. Perhaps only half a step if you are able. As long as Teddy is not reacting to it – completely ignoring it, you are doing great! If, after several days and several nudges in volume, you find that when you go, say, from volume level 4 to 5, Teddy begins to show signs of stress/anxiety at the noise, bring the volume back to level 3. That’s right, two full steps back. Leave it at this level for 3 – 5 days, until Teddy is clearly comfortable again, then try to increase the volume at a slower pace. Instead of going from 3 to 3 1/2, try going from 3 to just barely more than 3 – if your volume knob allows you to make such small adjustments. If you can’t be so finely tuned in volume adjustment, you may go from 3 to 4 and they lay a large folded towel over the speakers. Instead of nudging the volume up again, you can just unfold the towel one layer so it’s slightly less muffled, and continue this way until the towel is gone. Then when you’re ready to go from 4 to 5, you can bring the towel back to muffle the volume a bit if necessary. The goal is to get the CD playing at the top volume available on your player without any reaction from your dog.
You may want to switch the CD from day to day so that the dog doesn’t just learn the pattern that every hour or every 90 minutes there’s a loud noise and then it’s softer again for a while.
If your dog can live with the noise on the CD at full volume and not react to it, he will then be less likely to react to the natural noise of a real storm. It’s not a cure-all and there’s other work that will need to be done, but it’s one step in helping Teddy overcome his fear.
COUNTER CONDITIONING OR DISTRACT/REDIRECT
When you begin the desensitization with the CD, be sure to get in at least 5 minutes every day of training and 5 minutes every day of game play – in the house where he can hear the CD player (although you may need to work in a different room from the CD player). Use these opportunities to create happy, fun times with Teddy where he is getting a lot of positive attention and treats and praise. Training can be simple – going through his already learned commands, or more complex – teaching him new commands or tricks. so long as you and he both stay positive. Play should be his favorite games (in my house that’s catch/chase with a racquetball). You can even intermix the training with the game whereby you play the game for a couple minutes, and then tell Teddy to ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’ Then you count to 10 and toss the toy, telling him “Teddy, go get it!” Provide big praise when he does his commands well and gets really involved in his game. Every moment that he’s focused on games, skills and earning treats/attention/affection, he is NOT focusing on the scary noise and this is a good thing!
If you have begun to learn the CD and can anticipate when a particularly loud thunderclap is going to happen, use this to your advantage. Put Teddy in a ‘sit/stay’ command just before the thunder and wait for it to hit. Then, when the noise starts, start the game again, or give him 5 or 6 treats one afte
r the other in quick succession so he can associate the scary noise with the awesome food.
You will do this same process during an actual storm. Use the lightning as your guide to when the thunder will come. The more focused Teddy is on obeying a command or on his favorite game during the noisy parts, the less he will react to the noise. Treat him and praise him when he does well. Be extremely proud of him when he shows no reaction to the storm.
What you are doing is distracting him from his fear and creating a new association for him. Up until now, Teddy has associated all the signs of a storm with fear and anxiety. He has associated all the parts of the storm with being afraid and so he becomes afraid every time there’s a storm. By distracting him, he is forgetting (even momentarily) to be afraid. Despite his best efforts, Teddy is actually having fun. This is the process of redirecting his behavior. We are creating a new association for Teddy that fun things happen when there is a storm overhead.
It will not be necessary to play/train for the entire duration of the storm. That could be exhausting. But, if you can do some play or training (or both) during the first 10 minutes of the storm, and then some reinforcing play/training say, every 60-90 minutes throughout the storm or during particularly heavy moments during the storm, you will be teaching Teddy that storms are things to be enjoyed because he has fun during a storm. You can also feed Teddy his meals during the storm so he associates happy events like mealtime with the rain and Thunder Monster.
In between training, you should provide him with something to soothe him like a Kong loaded with cream cheese or liverwurst or peanut butter (or a combination of these) mixed with yummy treats. You can also provide him with a marrow bone, bully stick or antler if these are things he enjoys. Chewing can help relieve anxiety for some dogs. Let him be wherever is most comfortable to him. If you don’t have the energy to train right through the storm (some storms last hours, so it’s just not practical), then you can offer up gentle stroking and speaking softly in between playing/training. Whatever helps him feel most secure is fine.
TOOLS AND TIPS TO HELP THE PROCESS ALONG
At bed times and quiet times (when there are no storms) play a CD that’s designed to soothe dogs. There are several out there. These CDs are usually of classical music pieces which have been chosen specifically for their pitch and rhythm. There have been some studies done that demonstrate that certain pitches, melodies and rhythms will calm a dog while others will agitate them. I have and use Through a Dog’s Ear. By listening to it at sleepy, relaxed times when there is no storm, it helps to create a very relaxed association for Teddy. Then, when there is a real storm, you can pop in this CD and play it loud enough to be heard over the thunder and it may help soothe Teddy during the storm.
I have also had excellent luck with the Thunder Shirt. This is about 80%-85% effective, meaning that roughly 80-85 out of every 100 dogs will show a decrease in anxiety while wearing it. The effect of the shirt only lasts about 30-90 minutes per wearing. But taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on will re-establish the effect again. Again, I’d suggest having Teddy wear it for 10-60 minutes at a time several times per week even when no storms are happening. If the shirt only ever comes out after he’s frightened, then he may become frightened of the shirt itself. But if he has a chance to experience the comfort of the shirt when he’s calm, then he may actually see the shirt as extremely soothing during a storm. Of course, everything has its limits and if there is thunder close enough to make your windows rattle, the shirt may not keep Teddy from becoming nervous. Please see my blog Chewie’s New Thunder Shirt for an in depth review of my experience with this product (and links to the company’s site).
When trying to play games and do basic obedience commands to distract Teddy, take note of how comfortable he is taking treats. If he’s using his normal soft mouth to take treats from you, he’s doing great! If he becomes rather snappy in his efforts to get the treats, this is a sign that his anxiety is increasing. You may need to switch to a different activity, put on his Thunder Shirt if he’s not already wearing it, or turn on the CD if it’s not already on. Or you may just need to stop and soothe him with gentle stroking and sweet talk for a minute. If he actually refuses to take treats or seems unable to do very simple commands that you know he is expert at, then this is a sign that he’s in full panic mode. At this point your only goal should be to make him feel better. Try a higher value treat. If you’re using a crunchy dog treat, try hot dog or string cheese instead and see if he’ll focus for that. Or, just let him decide where he wants to be and go sit quietly with him. We had a very rare thunder storm in Southern California this last year and my sound sensitive dog, Chewie was very distraught by it. I put on his Thunder Shirt and hauled all 35 lbs of him up into my lap. He actually slept through about an hour of the storm this way, while I was busy on the computer. The combination of the shirt and my lap was enough to make him feel safe and secure enough to actually go to sleep. It was a great afternoon!
RETRAINING EVERY WET SEASON
Since most places do not get thunderstorms year round, it will likely be necessary to do this retraining at the start of the season each year. But if you do both the desensitization and the Counter Conditioning exercises, Teddy will be much calmer overall throughout the season. It may never be a complete recovery and he may continue to startle when there is a particularly loud thunderclap, but that’s normal. Even I jump when it makes the windows rattle…
Hopefully with consistent practice, both you and Teddy will get to enjoy the wonder of a good thunderstorm.