The situation with Thunder Phobia thus far
We adopted Donna in January last year so the battle with thunder phobia has been raging for one year five months.
The fear of thunder that descends the dog into terror that looks like this:Ears pinned back, whale eyes, tense mouth, pacing, climbing on furniture and humans, yawning, drooling, violent trembling, peeing and pooping.
Solutions we have tried
I’ve just gotten a copy of the CD Through A Dog’s Ear and waiting for an opportunity to see how that works.
//Edit: Here’s the review of the CD and accompanying book.
The thing working best for us appeared to be counter-conditioning with food so I concentrated on that, using the Thundershirt, her Collar and Crate-training as additional aids.
Counter-conditioning with food
So what happened was, everytime it rained and thundered, I would put a little dish of food in her crate hoping that would create positive associations to the thunder. She was very comfortable with her crate but only when it wasn’t raining. So for her to be willing to go into the crate to take the food was a good step in getting her to be even more comfortable with the crate. But once she took the food, she came out of it immediately.
To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning just means to re-teach the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal. As soon as the dog or cat sees the thing, we give him a delicious treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. Over many repetitions, the animal learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen! Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, animal, event, place or object. – ASPCA
So it became a long, tedious process of scooping out the food, putting it into the crate, taking the dish out again when she’s done and doing that over and over again as long as the thunderstorm lasted. And that could be the whole afternoon or the whole night. So you can see how it would take a toil on the human
The only reason why I persisted was because I could really see a difference. She started anticipating this routine when it rained. And she would bounce to her crate in excitement. Sure she noted the thunder with a frown even while she was lapping at her food, but at least she was no longer trembling violently or drooling or pacing around… for the earlier parts of the storm. She was lying on the floor in the front the kitchen watching me scoop out the food before running to the crate.
Donna with her ThunderShirt which helps to lessen her pacing agitatedly about the flat when it rains.
Read: How to introduce the Thundershirt or any shirt to a dog
before you buy on Amazon
The downside to counter conditioning with food was that eventually she would reach the point of diminishing returns and I had to scoop larger portions to get her interest. And finally that would stop working as well. And if it were still thundering then the thunder phobia would make itself evident.
The good news – the more sessions we went through, the more I could lengthen the intervals between each treat, which means she could progressively stay calmer for a longer time. And at one point, she was calm by herself with low rumbles of thunder from the distance without my intervention.
That is, until we hit the dry season. Good news for me because it meant I could take a break and sleep well and be more productive in the daytime. But that also meant that whatever progress we made backslide-ed when the rainy season came again. Boo.
Finding a safe place to hide from the thunderstorm helps the dog to calm
For the longest time, we have limited her area of activity to the living room and hoped that with all the actions we have taken, she will slowly find it comfortable in her crate in the living room even with the storm.
It just wasn’t happening.
And when something isn’t working, it would be stupidity to continue so I thought I’ll change the venue and let her be in the study with me when it storms.
I did the same thing that I did in the living room. Treated her every time it thunderstorms. It took a bit of work at the beginning but comparatively quicker. Perhaps the work in the previous season helped get us into the mode of think about food and not about the storm so Donna was maintaining calm a lot easier.
She doesn’t look it but this is better than if she were pacing around, drooling and freaking out in general. You can see she is unhappy still. Her jaws are tensed and clamped shut, her ears are pinned back and her brows are sort of frowning. But she is at least no longer panicky, even without thundershirt.
Never would I imagine the difference being in the study could make. The key difference that really showed that location made a huge impact in her behaviour was that once upon a time, she was happy to see her collar and lead when it stormed and now, she looks worried when she sees it!
She would go to the study by herself and look out again to see if you are going in there with her. I can only conclude that previously the collar and lead made her happier because she thought it meant we would go out and escape from the experience of the storm from inside the flat.
But now she has somehow got the connection that the storm was even scarier outside so she doesn’t want to leave the flat. She has started to anticipate the rain two hours in advance and paces about. Even when it hasn’t started raining yet and I thought to take her out for a short walk before it rains, she got worried and was reluctant to come and get her collar put on.
The living room with its floor-to-ceiling glass balcony doors does little to muffle the buffeting wind, thunder and the lightning flashes. So I have to smack myself in the head because it made so much sense now. That once she familiarises herself with the small study she would be more comfortable in it. She feels safer in it.
The study has become her Thunder Shelter.
From her height, it’s almost den-like. All she sees are cupboard doors, books on shelves and some junk we pile on the floor. No windows. Having the door opened makes her nervous when the thunder is particularly bad and she would pace to the door to peer outside. Closing the door helps her calm down even more.
Cheese on nose takes mind off thunder
I didn’t like the smell of canned food in the study, so I switched the treat to slivers of cheese that I cut from a cube and deliver on a finger tip. She liked the cheese. But bringing your arm up and down to feed her little bits of cheese the whole afternoon is again tedious.
I remembered the Peanut Butter series of photographs that I saw on Instagram. Basically these are photographs taken of dogs trying to lick peanut butter off the top of their noses. I smeared the cheese on her nose.
Best thing I’ve ever done.
She didn’t like having cheese smeared on her nose, but it definitely took her mind off the thunder as she focused on trying to lick the cheese off her nose. She took quite a bit of time to clean her nose completely before I need to deliver her next treat to her mouth to make her happier. :P So no, she doesn’t get irritated by cheese on the nose all the time.
She decided that it was more efficient to scrape the cheese off with her paw and then lick the cheese off her paw.
Nowadays, if it’s low rumbling from a distance she can stay on the floor or her bed under the table in the study without pacing or treats as long as there is a human with her. OK, I lie, it is still up and down when it comes to her and her moods so cheese treats are a necessity still.
And definitely when it thunders badly, cheese treats MUST be delivered in more amounts in order to distract her before she goes over threshold. (No wonder she’s gaining weight) Needless to say, we are spending more time in the study with the rainy days we are seeing this couple of weeks.
Still a long journey ahead
However, all bets are off if she is home alone when it starts to storm. The other day I ran home in the rain to find her on the dining room chair panicky and slobbering away. Saliver was all over the room. She jumped off when I entered and the lightweight chair slid away from her. It is dangerous for her to prance around like that especially in a fright. She was a mess.
Getting her to not react to thunderstorms when home alone without humans is a longer journey. But at least Donna has found a shelter in the storm to hide in relative peace but only when the humans are home.
Goes out, licks butt, looks left, right… and returns back into the room.