It is the rainy season here in New Mexico (yes, we do get rain in the high desert) and with rain often comes thunder. Deuce has always been afraid of noises such as thunder, gun shots, fireworks and the like.
This is actually very typical especially for working breeds. The reason is frankly not really well known but it appears to have to do with some genetic predisposition.
Thunder phobia- as it is also referred, to can be very debilitating to dogs. They can truly develop a phobia and injure themselves as they try in vain to escape the noise, lighting or any other trigger that they have already learned to associate with a thunderstorm.
I have tried several things in conjunction and I am finally making a dent in how much distress thunder events have on Deuce. Here is a rundown of what I have in place:
1. Use of crate as a “safety/comfort” zone
2. Use of a thunder shirt or storm-defender cape
3. Use of melatonin (I buy a spray that delivers 3mg) delivered prior to storm if I am around and increase dosage based on his inability to cope with the storm.
4. Masking the noise and the visuals of the storm as much as possible
5. Comfort him when he wants to be comforted by proximity and even touch (which he normally can do without)
6. A very relaxed attitude that telegraphs to him that everything is A-Okay
7. PLAY, PLAY, PLAY.
I cannot say enough about the importance of play when it comes to un-sticking this boy from his concerns from a storm. Even though it might not be practical to do this all the time; when I am not at home or if we have a terrible storm at 3 am the effect of engaging in some real fun games during some of the storms will help in building his confidence and erode the bad association surrounding storms.
Sometimes we play outside if it’s just thunder. We might kick the ball or just hang out acting super chill and relaxed. Tug is a super big favorite and he will engage in this game anytime and everywhere.
Lately I have been playing another fun game for both of us in the comfort of the living room. Deuce and I go sheepherding so he not only has the instincts needed to do such an “important” job, but he and I can communicate with the typical signals used while herding.
I use, of course, a ball as stand-in for the sheep but proceed to send Deuce in “out-runs” after his ball just as if he were herding sheep. I can send him clockwise or counter-clockwise, send him off and then ask him to come back to me before getting to the “sheep”.
He has learned to relax so much that I think that he is secretly hoping for a storm to come! We can play like this for a few minutes, take a break and resume. The important thing here is to override Deuce’s nervous system from going into flight mode as if facing what he perceives as an incredible threat.
The best way I can describe this is building resilience for adversity. Similar to any behavior, autonomic responses can be short-circuited so that they hopefully and as a result of many, many exposures, the association to the scary event is lessened.
Perhaps in some cases we can even reverse the response to one of relaxation and play. Play BTW, is incompatible to fear (how cool is this?????) So if your dog can play he is not experiencing fear. Yes, we can build that response as well: build the play slowly and as the dog begins to cope better you can increase the play so that in time it will take the place of the distress under stressful circumstances for your pup.
Good news is, you get to play too and all of it for a good and important cause!