Sunday night we had some big, noisy thunderstorms. Thunder was shaking the house and the lightning flashes were illuminating our living room. It’s that time of year. Some dogs don’t seem to be concerned about the noise or flashes but other dogs are. I’ve heard from a number of people in the last couple of weeks about their dogs reacting to the storms.
This is a time of year that a lot of dogs run away or get lost, become destructive or even hurt themselves as they panic in reaction to the storms. Most can learn not to react but it takes time and patience. Here’s a process you might try.
First it’s important that your dog has a safe place in the house. It might be a crate or a closet or a bathroom. Its best if the place is in the interior of the house and not on an exterior wall. The darker and quieter the safe place the better. You can have quiet music playing there. Classical music or a cd such as “Through a Dog’s Ear” can help your dog relax.
It’s also important that your dog sees you as the leader of the pack. He needs to take his cues from you and if he’s not doing that when everything is calm and relaxed, he’s not going to when he’s excited or stressed. If he isn’t responsive to you, work on your leadership skills first.
Get a good recording of thunder. You might try “Suburban Thunder”. It was recorded in Tampa, the thunderstorm capital of the world and it is amazing how realistic it is. They also have a recording of fireworks. Typically if a dog has thunder phobia he’ll also react to fireworks.
Start the process when things are calm and quiet. Teach your to go and stay in the “safe” place when there is nothing going on. He needs to be comfortable spending time there by himself. You can leave treats or a favorite toy in the safe place for him. When he goes in there, don’t interact too much with him.
You can give him a calm, quiet “Good boy” when he goes in there but the idea is to get him used to going in and relaxing by himself.
Start playing the thunder recording at very low volume. The volume should be so low your dog does not react to it. Over time, slowly increase the volume. Watch your dog, as soon as you see him start to react, lead him to the safe place and tell him to stay. Again don’t interact with him too much, get him settled down and then just stay near by. Don’t talk to him and do not try to comfort him. Talking in a calm voice and comforting him is often interpreted (by your dog) as he’s doing the right thing. When he overreacts to noise he is not doing the right thing.
Comforting, which is our natural tendency, will make things worse. Your dog won’t understand the words; he only knows the tone of voice. “Don’t worry Max its ok” is the same thing as “Good Boy your right to be worried”. Just stay near by, ignore him, and go about your business. If you can’t get him to settle down you may need to lower the volume or work more without playing the recording at all. You may also need to reevaluate your relationship with Max. Is he really looking to you for guidance and listening to your instructions?
Once you are able to get him to settle down in the safe place, work on increasing the volume of the recording. Each time he starts to react, lead him to the safe place and get him to settle down. This needs to be done over and over until he goes to the safe place without you directing him and you can play the recording at full volume.
This process can sometimes be fairly quick, a matter of days, or it may take much longer. Each dog is different. Again, only give him praise when he’s calm and relaxed.
Once he is going to the safe place on his own and remaining calm with the volume all the way up, then you need to work on separating from him or not going near there. Work up to going outside. He will be home, by himself, when the thunderstorms come. So you need to replicate as much as possible the actual situation.
The best time to work on this is when it’s not storming. If we keep having big storms this summer you may have to wait until fall.
If you start the process now, you may have setbacks as the storms will arrive when you are not home, but it’s still worth working on. The only time you can teach Max is when you are there. There is no magic wand for changing the way Max feels when the storms happen. Patience, consistency, remaining calm and taking the time to teach him is the best solution.
Most dogs can learn to not react to the storms, but Max will only take his directions from you if he views you as his leader. This is where you need to start the process.
Don’t let Max’s thunderstorm phobia continue. It typically won’t get better on its own. Help him learn that it’s just noise and nothing for him to worry about. When he learns to relax and remain calm, you can relax and not worry about what he’s doing when you’re not home. We all know the results.
Happy Dogs = Happy Families