There’s a product on the market called a Thundershirt™ . It’s been out for over a year but I only recently discovered it. When I first read about it and watched some video of dogs wearing it, I was skeptical. The video I saw was of a Boston terrier during a thunder storm. The poor little guy was shaking and trembling and just looked miserable. The next scene was the same dog wearing a Thundershirt™ , supposedly during a storm. He was calm and looked relaxed. His eyes were even heavy and he was starting to doze off. Of course, it was inside and not near a window so there was no way to really KNOW if it was actually during a thunder storm. I thought “Well, that seems too good to be true,” and I moved on.
I didn’t understand the science behind the theory and to me, it didn’t seem like putting what looked essentially like a t-shirt with Velcro on a dog could calm it or help it in any significant way.
In October of this year I was able to attend the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) annual conference. At the trade show there was a Thundershirt™ booth. I heard lots of other trainers and industry professionals raving about it and ordering 5, 10, 20 shirts to have on hand for use with their clients. I remained skeptical.
At this point, you might be wondering why I’m writing a blog about a product for which I seem so skeptical. Well, it’s because as part of this conference I participated in a hands-on workshop for some training techniques. Since we did not travel with our own dogs, we used local shelter dogs during the workshop. One dog, Gretchen, was so scared of all the people, other dogs and new environment that she was trembling from nose to tail and refused to come into the work space. Someone declared that a Thundershirt™ was needed and one was quickly made available. I thought, “Whatever. We’ll see if that really makes any bit of difference.” There was a second dog, Pong, with whom I was working. He was very friendly but very, very hyper. He was literally bouncing – and at roughly 50 lbs that’s a lot of dog to have bouncing at your face. He was in a constant state of motion trying to see and say hello to every other dog and every other person in the room. He sometimes glanced at my partners or me if we called his name, but would not give us his full attention. We could not lure him into a SIT with a treat. We could not even get him to focus on treats we were tossing on the floor right at his feet. Again, someone made a request for a Thundershirt™ and one magically appeared.
I watched as it was put on Pong. I stuck a finger under the shirt, against his body, to feel how loose/snug it was on him. He didn’t seem to really even notice that he was wearing it. I was not going to hold my breath for any great miracles.
In the meantime, I was paying attention to the wonderful women leading this great workshop and wishing I was working with a calmer dog so that I could practice some of the techniques they were teaching us. About 5 minutes later, I realized that Gretchen had not only stopped trembling, but she had led her handler into the room and while she was still near the door, she was focused and her handlers were working with her. I thought, “Wow. She really has calmed down. Maybe she just needed a few minutes. But that is a really big difference in her behavior.”
A few minutes after that, my team and I noticed that Pong had stopped bouncing. He was now sitting next to me. We started to work with him again and this time he looked us in the eye and sat when we asked him to. He was still very interested in everyone else, but we could distract him from all that and get him to focus on us. The four of us who were working with Pong were each able to ask him to SIT and get a positive response from him. We were able to play a round-robin game with him to focus on us each in turn, come when called and to ‘find it’ when we tossed treats behind him. I thought “Wow! Now this is a great dog. He could be trained really well and be a really great companion for someone! Is this the same too-hyper dog that I was trying to keep from jumping on my partner’s pregnant belly 10 minutes ago???”
With that I was impressed enough that I decided it would be worth trying this magical device on my own dog. Chewie will be 3 years old in December. He is very sound sensitive. He jumps and trembles with loud noises. We’re currently laying a new bamboo floor and so there is lots of sawing, hammering and general banging around by three big, strange men (Chewie’s description, not mine). So I stopped by the trade show booth and picked up a shirt for Chewie.
Chewie sports his Thundershirt™
When I showed it to my folks, they chuckled and said, “That’s supposed to make him feel better?” I said, “I know, it seems unlikely, but it works.” At least, the official Thundershirt™ comment is that it is 85% effective – meaning that roughly 85% of dogs will experience a decrease in anxiety when wearing the shirt.
So, when the flooring guys were next scheduled, I put Chewie’s shirt on and waited. I was still skeptical, but now at least open to the idea that this might really work for him. When the flooring guys arrived, he barked and barked. This was typical. I thought, “Great. My dog falls in the 15% category,” but I left the shirt on to see what would happen. Well, about 5 minutes after the guys arrived, I realized that Chewie was NOT upstairs in my bedroom – as far from the activity as he could get – sitting on the floor looking pathetic and trembling every time the hammer banged. He was in the room right next to where the guys were working. He was still very alert. His ears still twitched and his head cocked when the hammers went nuts, and when a guy appeared out of nowhere (from a hallway), he did still bark at them for a moment. But it was not nearly like before. He calmed down as soon as they spoke to him. He was not backing off or running away. He was allowing his curiosity to win out. I thought, “Hmmm….. interesting.”
The next few days, I repeated this exercise and it was the same. He would still announce that there were strange men in the house, but calm as soon as they spoke to him. He did not run away in terror, but hung out wherever I was, his body calm and relaxed. Well, this was definitely interesting for me. My little guy has spent most of his first 3 years hiding in my bedroom (whether I’m home or not) whenever anything “different” happens in the house that does not involve steadily handing him food.
I did another little test this past weekend. We were having part of the house measured for new carpet. I put Chewie’s Thundershirt™ on in anticipation of the arrival of this new strange man who would be wielding a tape measure that would be stretched to more than 20-feet long. When the carpet man arrived, Chewie announced it with his usual sense of urgency. The man came in and we all stood there a moment discussing where to start measuring. Chewie got quiet. He followed, at a distance, as we went from one room to another. The first time the tape measure was pulled out, he trotted up the stairs. But here’s the kicker – he stopped half way up the stairs and watched. He didn’t go hide in the bedroom. He gave himself enough distance to feel safe, but stuck around to see what was going on. Then he RETURNED TO THE ROOM!!! He stayed one step ahead of us – out of the way – but he was calm and quiet and not hiding in a closet. This was HUGE!!!!
This morning, the flooring guys were back, so Chewie was sporting his Thundershirt™. Something unexpected happened, but a little back story is necessary for your understanding. Chewie loves and worships my older dog, Cashew. But he’s also a little bit afraid of her. He readily submits whenever there is food nearby. He will back up several feet, sit and wait politely until Cashew has decided that she’s done getting treats. I usually make a point of offering treats simultaneously, but at a distance from each other. This morning I had indulged in a cup of chocolate milk. As a treat, I let the dogs enjoy the remnants of the milk. I wet the back of the spoon and let Chewie lick the spoon while Cashew gets the inside of the cup – then I switch so it’s fair. This morning, Chewie licked the spoon and then licked the outside of the cup while Cashew’s face was buried deep within, getting the last of the sugary milk. He did this three times – licking the cup and Cashew’s face in his efforts to get some too. In three years he has never dared get closer than 2 feet to Cashew while there’s any kind of yummy in the vicinity. But this morning, while wearing his Thundershirt™ , he was brave enough to get right in there actually touching her and the treat receptacle, requesting his share of the sweet remnants. Cashew was totally calm about it and Chewie acted like he does this every time there are treats to be had. I watched, quietly stunned.
So my official comment on the Thundershirt™ is this: If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, crate anxiety, thunder storm anxiety, fear of loud noises, car rides, new people, new places or changes in his environment, then you should absolutely try this product. I expect it is only 85% effective, as the company claims. I expect that it is not going to work with every single dog or in every single situation, but when 85 out of every 100 dogs do experience a benefit from wearing it, it’s certainly worth the time and money to try this product. If it does work, well, think about your dog’s emotional wellbeing; he will be so much calmer, more relaxed and in fact healthier. Yes, healthier. Anxiety releases adrenalin and cortisone into the system. If a dog (or person for that matter) is anxious a lot of the time, then that’s a lot of adrenalin and cortisone flowing through the body a lot of the time. That can lower the immune system leading to more frequent illnesses and it increases the chances of developing various cancers. So for your dog’s health, it’s best to help him be less anxious whenever possible.
HOW IT WORKS
And with a little research I learned how/why the shirt works. It is based on the same theory that recommends weighted vests for children with ADD, ADHD and autism. The concept of the weighted vest is based on the sensory integration (SI) therapy technique of deep pressure. Deep pressure is often used to assist children to self-calm and relax so that sensory stimuli can be processed. The use of a weighted vest provides the child with unconscious information from the muscles and joints. (http://www.weightedvest.com/why_use.html) By this same theory of unconscious sensory input to the body, the Thundershirt™ provides gentle, consistent pressure around the dog’s core. By providing that subtle stimulus, it allows the dog to calm enough to process the more obvious environmental stimuli and thus not be totally overwhelmed by it.
I was very skeptical to start. I needed proof and I got it. In my case I saw 100% effectiveness in that all three dogs (my own included) that I witnessed wearing the shirt were able to calm down and be more relaxed in a highly stressful environment. I believe this is a valuable tool to be used with any dog that experiences anxiety or fear at sudden or loud noises (thunder, fireworks, hammers, etc.), being left alone, riding in cars, going to the vet’s or some other new environment, or any time that the dog seems overly anxious. We may not always know exactly what is causing the anxiety, but a product like this can certainly help to make your dog more comfortable until the scary thing has gone away.
UPDATE: WINTER, 2012
We got a new puppy just before Thanksgiving. An adorable 7-week old Westie Mix. As all new puppies, he wanted to put his mouth on lots of things that he shouldn’t be chewing on. He also wanted to scratch at/dig at lots of things he shouldn’t. And then there’s potty training…. So in those first several weeks of new puppy ownership, there was frequent, sudden “No!” being spoken in a firm, somewhat loud voice by me – and frequently in the vicinity of Chewie. For Chewie, these reprimands were sudden, out of nowhere and quite disconcerting because it seemed he either didn’t understand that they were not directed at him, or just the sternness in my voice was unpleasant for him, no matter who it was directed at. Whichever the reason, Chewie’s potty training regressed and about a week after Hagrid (the puppy) joined the family, Chewie began peeing in the Family Room and the Entry Hall – on 6-month old, expensive area rugs, of course! Initially, it was just once, then a week later it happened again, then it became daily. Ugh!!!! After about 10 days of Chewie peeing in the house, it finally dawned on my to try the Thunder Shirt. I put it on him in the morning. Sometimes it just stayed on all day, even though I knew the effect had worn off after a couple hours. Mostly, I’d put it on for a few hours, take it off for a few hours then put it back on for a few more hours. He wore the Thunder Shirt every day for 3 weeks. From the day I put it on, he stopped peeing in the house! The effect was instant. I still had to correct Hagrid, but Chewie no longer peed in the house, and no longer vacated the room just because I’d reprimanded the puppy. After 3 weeks of daily wearing, I skipped a day and there was no inside pee! I had him wear it every few days for another couple weeks – just to be sure. But he had totally stopped peeing in the house, so it was just my own sense of precaution.
And, during that process, when the Thunder Shirt was off, it was usually sitting on the back of the couch or a chair for easy access. I found on at least 2 separate occasions, Chewie seemed to request to have it on. He’d approach the shirt, sniff it and look to the human near by. When we picked it up, he stood still and waited for it to go on. When ever I think he might need that emotional support (holiday gathering, workers coming to the house, etc.), I grab his Thunder Shirt. He will come to me and stand still while I put it on and then go about his day.
Cashew calmly laying on her bed while Chewie feels confident in his Thundershirt™