Thunderstorms and your dog

dog-cartoon

I woke up this morning with my husband lying next to me, my dog lying peacefully at the foot of my bed, the sound of Coyotes howling and thunder rolling in the distance.  I thought to myself, “Nothing gets better than this.”  You see, I love my husband, my dog, Coyotes howling in the distance, and I love Thunder storms. Put all four together and I’m in heaven.

Did I say “my dog lying peacefully at the foot of my bed?”  Yes, I did. Our dog is not afraid of thunder.  My husband and I have had six dogs together and none have been afraid of thunder.  They also do not respond to coyotes howling or neighborhood dogs barking.   Actually, the only things our dog responds to with ferocity is delivery men or if any strangers show up unannounced. As a Boxer, he takes his guarding responsibilities very seriously and we like that.   Even then, he is controllable once we give him the thumbs up that everything is O.K.

A common dilemma we hear from our customers is about their dogs’ fear of thunder.  In fact, someone just mentioned it to me yesterday. It is something that is very upsetting for dog owners and something that many people find difficult to deal with.  After all, no one wants to see there little furry friend in a fearful state. Sadly, it is something that many people unknowingly foster and may have even unknowingly caused. Yes, that means you. It is hard to hear but the truth hurts.  How can you be causing or fostering your dog’s neurosis you ask?  Below is a list of several ways you may be causing Fido’s fears.

·         You don’t like storms (or are afraid of them) and you know one is approaching, you become nervous or anxious which changes your cortisol levels and stress hormones, your dog senses your nervousness and assumes there is  a threat so in turn starts becoming anxious.  Dogs make associations and learn from cues.  Just as with clicker training, the dog learns that the sound of the click means he did the right thing and that a reward is coming.  He associates the click with the reward.  If and when he hears thunder, you become anxious or nervous; he will associate the sound of thunder with impending doom.   Dogs cue into our senses much more than people realize.  If you doubt that, the next time you get angry, nervous, sad, upset or even excited, watch how your dog behaves and responds accordingly.

·         If your dog becomes nervous or anxious, YOU get nervous and anxious (or maybe even a little angry) which in turn makes your dog more nervous and anxious. You may even anticipate your dog getting anxious at the first sound of thunder. This confirms the thought that thunder is something to fear.

·         You coddle your dog when he is anxious by petting, cuddling and telling him, “it’s o.k.”   All though well meaning, to a dog, petting, cuddling, and talking are forms of reward.  If Fido gets anxious and you are petting him, you are in fact telling him “Good dog, be nervous, you’re doing the right thing.”

·         You do not walk your dog.  A dog has 4 legs and is meant to walk.  In the wild dogs travel for miles every day.  A tired dog is a good dog.  A daily walk burns energy.  If your dog has pent up energy, he will be more reactive to many things.  It is in your dog’s DNA to walk.

·         You do not provide consistent leadership for your dog. Anyone who knows our training philosophy knows that it begins with leadership. This is no different. The common denominator to prevent any form of anxiety in your dog is providing your dog with consistent leadership from the beginning. Many people give their dog a lot of love and affection without setting clear rules and providing leadership.  In the dog world there are two positions, the leader and the follower.  If you are not one, you are the other.  A dog that senses no leadership may try to assume the leadership role; if he is not a born leader (which few are) it will create anxiety, fear and frustration.  Even if he doesn’t assume the role, he will sense no leader which in turn creates anxiety, fear and frustration.  If anything out of the ordinary happens, it will cause anxiety in your dog.   If a stranger comes to the door or a strange noise occurs outside or other dogs are barking in the neighborhood, or thunder?  What about thunder?  A dog that senses leadership can relax because the leader has everything under control.  If the leader is relaxed, the others will follow. 

·         You have never made a positive association with the sound of thunder. Since my husband and I both love storms we have always socialized our dogs to the experience in positive ways. With all of our dogs, both those we adopted as puppies and those we adopted as adults, we have went outside in storms, played with toys,  worked obedience , went for car rides and walks, and ultimately made storms a fun time for all.  Our dogs love spending time on the porch with us during a storm.

Many of you may have inherited a dog with a phobia of storms or don’t believe that you are contributing to the problem but I will say, If you do one or all of these things, you are. I know this not only from my 20 years working with dogs  but also when I see the behavior change in storm phobic dogs that have boarded with us. When they are home, they are afraid of storms and when they are boarding with us they are not. Why is that?  It is because of everything in the aforementioned text. We provide the same consistent leadership to our boarding dogs as we do with our own dogs. Since we enjoy storms and our personal dogs are not nervous, the boarding dogs generally follow suit.

You don’t see storm phobic animals in the wild.  When a storm approaches they will den up or hunker down and let it pass.  It appears only dogs that interact with humans have a fear of thunder which is another reason to believe it is human induced.

So what if you obtained a dog that came with a fear of thunder?  There are a few things you can do to help with the transition.

First and foremost, check your own feelings about the approaching storm as well as your thoughts toward your fearful Fido.  Do not make a big deal out of it; act as if it was another sunny day.  Do not reward the fear by coddling the dog.

Provide consistent leadership.  Have consistent rules the dog follows daily.  Teach basic obedience commands such as sit, stay and down.  Have your dog work for food and affection and teach proper leash walking.  All of these exercises help establish you as the leader. 

Walk your dog daily – to the point of being tired.

Turn up the radio or television to mute the sound of thunder.   During storms Play games, work on obedience and only reward calm behavior.

Before Fido gets nervous, give him a treat that will keep him occupied for some time such as a new chew bone or a stuffed Kong.  Many dogs fail to notice thunder if they are busy with something else.

Provide a kennel for your dog to den up in.  Dogs are den animals and like the safety of confined spaces.  If your dog is kennel trained, he will naturally go to his kennel to rest or have some private time.  A dog that is kenneled will not be able to start pacing or working himself into frenzy.

Play sounds of thunder at a very low level daily and go about your daily business.  Start creating positive associations with the sound.   Reward only calm behavior.

Some dogs that have been storm phobic for years will have a harder time changing behavior and may need medication from your Veterinarian along with the behavior modification techniques listed above. 

If your dog is afraid of storms implement these techniques and you may be surprised at not only how quickly they work but also find that other unwanted behaviors disappear as well.  Still having trouble?  Consult with a leadership based dog trainer to help.

Cindy Quigley is a Canine life cycle coach, owner of Super Mutts Canine training and author of Puppy Montessori. She has 20 years’ experience professionally working with dogs.  She has worked in grooming shops, boarding facilities and veterinary hospitals, all of which taught her how to read canine body language and understand dog handling. As boarding and daycare facility owners together with her husband Kenneth she has cared for thousands of dogs and has thousands of hours observing, studying and modifying canine behavior. She is an AKC/ CGC, CGCU, Community Canine and S.T.A.R. puppy evaluator and a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

You can read more or purchase her book at www.supermutts.com

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