The celebration of July 4th and all things loud and noisy has already begun here in Wisconsin. And so have the thunderstorms. We’ve had at least three major thunderstorms so far, and no doubt more are to come. That’s why the next section summarizes a post from 2009 with specifics about helping noise phobic dogs:
First and Foremost, try Counter Classical Conditioning: In this paradigm (described in a general sense in The Cautious Canine), you pair something the dog adores (food or play best) with a damped down version of what scares him. Your goal is to condition your dog to associate thunder with something he loves, so that his emotional response to the loud noise is “Oh boy!” rather than “Oh No!” To get this to work, you need to start at whatever stimulus first elicits any sign of fear in the dog. Don’t wait til they are terrified and then offer food—it won’t work.
Pheromone Therapy: I’ve had several clients who had good success with Dog Appeasing Pheromone, or DAP, which is an artificial replicate of the pheromone produced between the mammary glands of a lactating bitch. It is species-specific and has no detectable odor and has the huge advantage of requiring you only to buy it and plug it in. Period.
Acupuncture/Acupressure: I’ve never used this specifically for thunder phobia, but as I’ve said earlier, I have used it for a variety of problems with good success.
Wraps: The theory here is that swaddling provides a sense of comfort and safety. More specifically, the speculation is that the continuous neuronal stimulation of the wrap on the dog’s body at minimum distracts him from his fear (a process often called “overshadowing,” in which one stimulus modality dominates an animal’s nervous system) or at best, creates the production of endorphins that de-activate the amygdala and create a sense of calm.
A Safe Place: I wrote in For the Love of a Dog about a dog whose job was to protect acres of vegetables from deer, and who became so afraid of thunder he’d run through the electric fence and risk his life on the county highway. I designed, and the owners built, a ‘safe house’ for him. His dedicated human, Barb, spent many a wild night hunkering in his straw-covered cave giving him chicken in storms. It worked incredibly well, but it took one amazing woman about two months of dashing 200 yards across the lettuce and beans to get to the safe house before the thunder started!
Safe houses can be created inside houses too… I’ve had several clients who did the counter conditioning in a roomy closet or sound-insulated dog house, and ended up with a dog who was still a bit nervous about thunder, but simply went to her safe house and curled up and slept through the storm.
Eliminating Static Electricity: Nicolas Dodman suggested a few years ago that part of a dog’s fear of thunder storms could be due to static electricity. One of the blog readers commented that she, in desperation, wiped her dog’s coat with an anti-static dryer sheet, and that it seemed to help. Interesting… I know that Tufts was doing a study of Storm Defender (a wrap that is designed to dispel static electricity), but I haven’t seen the results yet. Any one seen any studies on this?
The list goes on.... there are so many things that people have tried. Claudeen McAulifee has a good booklet on treatments from homeopathy to flower essences to melatonin, etc. It’s called the Big Bang! and it’s the only booklet I know of exclusively on the topic of noise phobias. She doesn’t talk about counter conditioning, but goes through many different kinds of non-intrusive treatments (including the use of pink light…… interesting!).
And last, but not at all least, Medication: Serious cases of thunder phobia can be life threatening. I’ve had clients whose dogs ran away, and weren’t found for days, and clients whose dogs jumped out of second story windows, mutilating their bodies in the process. I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that someone talk to their veterinarian about using medication as a supplement to counter conditioning or other methods if their dog has a serious case of noise phobia. In the most serious cases the veterinarians I’ve worked with have prescribed both a tricyclic antidepressant (like clomicalm) and a fast-acting tranquilizer (like diazepam).
Again, for more specifics, go to the original article. (I should add that I mention the CDs of Leeds and Wagner with music supposedly designed for dogs. I’m more skeptical now than before, but welcome your input here.)
You might also want to read my post from last year, which begins with the story of how Pippy Tay possibly saved my life after it was hit by lightening. It includes standing semi-naked in the driveway and realizing that all my volunteer firemen neighbors were about to pull up. What to do? Stand my ground or run back in the house for clothes? My decision is described here.
By the way, right on schedule, and in spite of “thunder treats”, Maggie did indeed develop a fear of thunder. (Thunder phobia develops most often between the age of 3 and 4.) However, the good news is that I linked thunder and treats again this year, and after panicking at the first blasts of thunder, she settled down and slept through the rest of the storm. I would never say that she, or any of my dogs are “cured,” but I do think we’ve dodged a bullet by working on it before it became so bad she was too frightened to eat anything. Same with Tootsie, who used to be so terrified of thunder that she quite literally tried to crawl into my mouth to get away from it. (Film at 11.)
Please add your voice to this conversation. Noise phobias can be at least exhausting for dog and owners, and at worst, life threatening. As always, I’ll add this blog and your comments to the Learning Center so that people can get help and advice for years to come.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Maggie and I were lucky to get a spot in the Scott Glen clinic this weekend, and iced the cake with a private lesson on Monday. Maggie is gradually getting her confidence back after being attacked by a ewe and also having my flock make learning to shed into a dog’s nightmare. (I should be clear here–sheep are not the sweet, docile characters that people often imagine. They have heads like anvils and are perfectly capable of injuring a dog. However, the best sheep dogs are aware, in some canine-ish-metaphysical sense, that they have weapons in their mouths. Just like paper beats rock and rock beats scissors (remember that game?), teeth beat hard heads every time. That is, if a dog knows she has them to use. Maggie does not. She is also what we euphemistically call “soft”. “Not brave” is another way of putting it. That’s just who she is. As someone who is not particularly brave myself, I have lots of empathy. And so she and I are working on it, trying to be the best we can be.
Scott’s primary lesson for me this weekend was “Maggie needs to learn it is okay to make a mistake.” If she busts in on the sheep in a somewhat panicked attempt to get them to move, so be it. Good girl for giving it a try. Although I got Maggie at 14 months, I don’t think anyone “made” her afraid to make a mistake. That’s just how she is wired. She gets caught up in her head and lets herself get overwhelmed with worries about what she should do, what is best to do… rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. Of course, I don’t know what is happening in her mind, but that is my best explanation for her behavior.
Most importantly, she gained a lot of confidence this weekend, and we had truly wonderful fun–working, learning, and spending time with good friends.
Here she was on Monday, when we were working on helping her be less cautious and push the sheep a little more. Scott’s primary message to me today: Be quiet and get out of her way. (Hear me sigh.) And it was working–look at how she is putting pressure on the sheep, without causing any trouble. You go girl. (Please send duct tape for my mouth.)