It’s March and I am beginning to desensitize Deuce to the noise of thunder. Deuce, like so many dogs, is afraid of storms. Be it the noise, the lightning itself or potentially all the atmospheric conditions that accompany a storm.
Deuce’s thunder phobia (or storm phobia, perhaps more accurately) is not really bad, but it is bad enough that it warrants doing some counter-conditioning and desensitization. The poor guy will come to whoever is around in search of some needed comfort. If the storm is really bad he becomes almost catatonic. He won’t move, take treats and on a few occasions he wouldn’t even play tug.
Helping dogs with thunderstorm phobia is actually complicated because there are many factors surrounding this fear that we cannot control. Now, if we do some work before the season begins we might really have a chance at making a dent in their well-being.
The trick here is to create calming & reassuring circumstances for the dog that can be replicated when a storm might strike. If we wait to console the dog once he is afraid, our efforts will probably accomplish very little.
I am beginning my protocol early, before the season is in full swing, by having Deuce wear a ThunderShirt for soothing and fun activities. I put on his ThunderShirt just before serving him a meal, just before we are going outside to play Frisbee or soccer and I remove it afterwards. Deuce accepts the ThunderShirt with no problem, which is great because he is one of those boys that do not like having too much on him. I guess he is not an accessories kind of guy!
The goal here is to have him associate the wearing of the ThunderShirt via multiple pairing with something fun and pleasant so that when the storm season begins, I can help him feel a bit more relaxed by putting the shirt on when I know a storm is forthcoming.
I like to think of and explain it to my clients to make the ThunderShirt become some sort of “magical attire”- almost like a “protection-shield” – embedded with “magical-powers” due to the many pairings made with positive experiences.
In addition to working with this, I will begin working on desensitizing him to the sound of thunder by playing a thunder CD again under pleasant and fun circumstances for him.
Now, the timing and methodology here is crucial! In order for us to have a real chance of pairing together two (or more) distinctive stimuli we MUST set it up appropriately: The scary-stimulus, in this case the sound of thunder, should always produce the fun /soothing stimulus. So I begin to play the thunder CD at a low yet discernible level and after the sound has begun I proceed to engage Deuce in fun & games.
If the CD begins at the same time or just after the game (fun stimulus) our chances of any pairing worth influencing his emotional state will be nil.
It is also important to keep in mind that starting desensitization and counter-conditioning program once the storm season has begun will most likely also disappoint. The dog is already anxious and thus less capable to learn. On the same token if the ThunderShirt is only used when a storm is forthcoming it will only take a couple of times of fitting the dog with the item before he starts anticipating the storm – real bad news for the dog. 🙁
So, do not delay the process of teaching your dog – if he suffers from thunder-phobia teach him or her that storms are not that bad by carefully find things your dog loves to do with the best replications of stormy conditions.