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Donna finds shelter from Thunder Phobia

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.

Thunder Phobia
The fear of thunder that descends the dog into terror that looks like this:Dog with thunder phobiaEars pinned back, whale eyes, tense mouth, pacing, climbing on furniture and humans, yawning, drooling, violent trembling, peeing and pooping.

Solutions we have tried

We’ve tried some products that are said could help with Donna’s thunder phobia – the Thundershirt, DAP collar and crate training.

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.

Thundershirt, collar, lead

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.

Counter conditioning
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.

waiting outside while I am busy with her food in the kitchenDonna with her ThunderShirt which helps to lessen her pacing agitatedly about the flat when it rains.

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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.

Thunder phobic dog is unhappy but no longer panicking, even without thundershirt.
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

laughing cow cheese

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.

The dog decided that it was more efficient to scrape the cheese off with her paw and then lick the cheese off her paw.
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.

I think the rain has stopped!
Goes out and looks left, right... and returns back into the room.
Goes out, licks butt, looks left, right… and returns back into the room.
safer to stay in the study

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20 Comments

  1. Poor Donna! I hope the day comes when her anxiety is put to rest, and that you hold out long enough to reach that point! It is commendable, though, that you are documenting the steps you’ve taken and her responses so that other pets and pet owners can benefit, maybe share their ideas with each other and you so that the Donnas of the world can finally find some peace from this particular anxiety.

    • Thank you, although I guess this is really just me mucking around trying things out and others may have more results if they consult with qualified behaviourists or trainers! :P

  2. Poor bug…you are so dedicated to helping her and she’s obviously feeling some relief. Brilliant with the cheese on the nose!

  3. That’s a really tough one, but it seems like you are doing a good job and making progress. I have heard of folks that made a ‘safe’ spot in a closet (leaving the door open of course. The dog was conditioned in a similar way as you are doing with Donna, with the addition of music or a noise fan to lessen the sound of rain/thunder. I believe the concept was to train the dog to go there when they hear the beginnings of the storm. The person would leave the noise fan/music on during the day and when the dog hears the beginnings of storm, they would seek out the closet. We had a large dog that was afraid of thunder when I was a kid. He needed to seek out people and lay on top of them!

    Good luck with Donna, I’m sure you will keep us posted on your progress and thank you for joining the blog hop.

    • LOL laying on top of people! I do believe Donna is naturally being trained to seek out the study like you say about the other dog with the closet. It’s a tiny flat so there really no closet space for her to crawl into. Perhaps I should try to clear some stuff and see how she reacts to it.

  4. savedbydogs

    Dear Donna – our little Schnauzer brother used to have this problem too, never learned to love the thunder. Our person said it was a blessing for him to loose hearing as he aged, because he would often sleep through storms that used to agitate him. Glad your people are finding better solutions than just waiting for you to get old!

    • We are forced to I think, since it is really disruptive of our lives. I hope it gets better before we have kids. It can get difficult if you have a crying child and a panicky dog with you alone in the house at the same time. I would rather she be comfortable than plague by fear every time it storms. That is not the way to live, not for me and not for her. :P

  5. FleaByte

    The study makes a lot of sense, given the glass doors. Our dog jumps in the tub during storms and fireworks. It’s enclosed and probably a little insulated from the sound. She can’t see the lightning strikes. It’s like her personal den.

    • I think I read something about how bathrooms having electrical grounds that remove static or something like that so dogs like them. Doesn’t seem that way for Donna. We don;t have a tub so she just goes in there to do her fear peeing and come out again :P But its cool that your dog finds it comforting.

  6. We’re used to it and don’t get bothered by it. If it involves cheese, I might start getting bothered.

  7. We tried the music CD and to some extent it works. We don’t have as much trouble with day thunder as with night thunder and of course that is the time Mom and Dad most want to sleep. Mother nature can be cruel.

    • Mother nature can be cruel indeed. Kind of strange that you differentiate by day and night though. Time doesn’t make a difference to Donna, when it thunders its bad.

  8. jan

    Poor baby. It’s too bad we can’t just explain the scientific causes of thunder so she would understand that they present no threat.

    • Even for some humans, you can explain it to them but they will still be afraid of dogs. Fear is just irrational. :)

  9. Thanks so much for joining the hop. You really have made very good progress. Baby steps. I hope one day soon she will be able to stay by herself. :)

    • Thank you, it is a long process so there are times when I have a lot of self-doubt. So blogging about it and getting encouraging comments help. Haha! I will go check out the canine calm since it helps Thunder :)

      Thunder, how can you be scared of thunder when you are called Thunder!?? *sorry, couldn’t help it.*

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