Storm Watch & Success, Part 4 – Safe Places & the Mental Continuum

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Storm Watch

As I write this post, thunder is rolling overhead with enough resonance to shake the house. As I write this post, a Doberman is curled up at the foot of my bed. That’s our only storm coping tactic at the moment. How does this work?

Safe Spots

Many dogs, when faced with overwhelming environmental triggers, will choose a “safe place” to ride out the storm. You might see a dog repeatedly returning to or trying to reach a particular area or cubbyhole. Sometimes these choices make sense to us (a crate for familiarity, a closet to block sound and light, a bathtub to neutralize electric charges in the air). Sometimes these choices make no sense at all to an outside eye; Laev always wanted to get high, as if she could out-climb the storm, and would try to climb gates, banisters, etc.

This natural instinct to find a “safe place” is a great tool for helping frightened dogs settle during storms, fireworks, etc. Many dogs will tend to relax in their safe places, and you can use this spot to enhance your counter-conditioning protocol.

If your dog chooses a safe spot, try to use that one, unless it’s really unsafe. Your dog chose it for a reason, and while it might not make sense to you, half your work is done if you will just go with it! I don’t know why Laev thinks height will help, but it apparently does, and who am I to argue?

You can formalize the safe spot; we have a tall bed, and Laev jumps up there during storms. My dogs don’t share the bed at home normally*, but any time there is thunder, she’s allowed to retreat atop the tall bed. She lies down and waits out the storm there. Because the safe spot is so valuable, often by this point that’s the only coping mechanism we need to employ; I don’t have to use any additional counter-conditioning, drugs, therapies, etc. (We didn’t start there! but many less-fearful dogs can make huge strides with just this.)

Laev knows to find the safe spot herself; if a dog jumps up in the middle of the night, I know a storm is coming. We call her the tailed barometer. I used to check the forecast to ensure she wasn’t just taking advantage of a perceived inconsistency, but I think I caught her cheating only once 🙂 and I simply cued, “Off,” and the problem was solved. If she shifts onto the bed in the middle of the night, there is a storm, no question.

If your dog chooses a safe spot, don’t argue about it. I heard the story once of a Doberman who bit a finger off when the owner tried to force it off her bed — insert usual vicious-breed and dominance hysteria here. The rest of the story, though, was that the dog viewed the bed as a safe spot during storms, and the woman, acting on popular wisdom that a dog on the bed is necessarily attempting to dominate the human, attempted to force it out of its perceived safe zone. In its deep panic, the dog bit, and hard. (I’m sure this was actually the finale of an escalating series of pressures and threats, but the moral is, don’t argue with panic!)

Instead, if it’s necessary for safety reasons to move the dog’s chosen safe spot, use counter-conditioning or other protocols to reduce the dog’s anxiety enough that you can invite it to move to a new space, or condition an alternate safe spot in advance. In a true emergency, go ahead and bring the dog out, but recognize that you are confronting a likely-panicked animal (if he won’t come out for your treats and toys, he’s pretty scared!) and that you’re doing damage to your long-term training plan.

If the dog hasn’t chosen a safe spot, or if you need to move an unsafe safe spot, you can start to create one by associating it with powerful counter-conditioning techniques. Use the best food, use associated alternative therapies (more on that), etc. Go ahead and load the place outside of storms and fireworks displays as well, so that the dog knows this is a great piece of real estate! Fill the bank account, so that you can actually draw a check when the triggers start. (If you’ve done matwork with your dog, this is the same type of thing.)

Example: when tornadoes were sighted nearby, I wanted the dogs with me in the basement, but Laev’s safe place was on my bed upstairs. I called her off and gave her a fabulous raw knuckle bone to enjoy downstairs instead, giving her a valuable distraction and a physical outlet for her stress in a different area.

Shakespeare’s safe spot is a crate, something he eschews on most occasions (dog crates are for dogs, not DoberHumans) but finds comforting during storms, fireworks, or gunfire. Sometimes I see Laev bounce back and forth, if the storm is just at her current threshold; she’ll jump on the bed, consider, jump off, pace, jump back on. Is this scary enough to need my safe place? That’s her decision to make, and she gets to make the call.

Safe places are not meant to replace the other protocols we’re discussing, but they are a very simple and very powerful aspect which shouldn’t be neglected. Go ahead and use other tools along with them, but they can be one of the very last to fade out, because they gain the associative powers of the others.

(*This is not for any silly superstition about hierarchies and human beds, but for the simple fact that my husband prefers not to share. The dogs sleep with me when I travel, but not in the home bed. It’s consistent and they are cool with it.)

Movement & Stress

So, clearly a fearful dog is a stressed dog. And we’re talking about ways to reduce the dog’s anxiety. But there’s more to stress relief that often gets overlooked.

Movement relieves stress. I’m not sure of the literature on this, but I’m convinced of its everyday value — movement helps to dispel stress. This is why a lost or escaped fearful dog will often run — not because they think they can outrun the storm, as some say, but because running feels better than panicking! Hard running produces endorphins; smaller movements can still free up tense muscles, improve circulation and oxygenation, etc.

There are a number of small but significant ways to use this to help your fearful dog during your trigger training plan.

Chewing. This one was a lifesaver for me, letting me get through stormy nights — it’s counter-conditioning and stress relief in one! A high-value chew item (I use good bully sticks or raw knuckle bones) associates tasty good food with the trigger while also providing a repetitive movement to exercise the dog’s head, neck, shoulders, and torso. Introducing bully sticks for storms was a key turning point in our household.

Trotting/running. If I’m feeding treats, I don’t have to present them directly to the dog — I can toss them to encourage the dog to jump for them or chase after them. This is a great way to get movement going! if your dog is amenable. As always, work at the dog’s level. But this is a favorite technique with stressed dogs.

Puzzle toys. Most puzzle toys require some movement from the dog, as he pushes it about the room or pulls at it or flips it about. It’s another two-for-one counter-conditioning and stress relief tool in one.

Licking vs. chewing. The act of licking is more physiologically calming than simply taking food and swallowing, I’ve read. I don’t know if this is because of some association with puppyhood nursing or because licking creates more movement through the head and neck, loosening tight muscles, but I’m not going to quibble. Use lickable treats as you’re counter-conditioning during stressful times, or add some gooey treats to the puzzle toy and you’ve made it even more helpful.

N.B. – While movement may help dispel stress, a dog curled into his safe place should not be encouraged to move out of it! I might offer a chew which can be enjoyed in the safe spot, but I’m not going to ask the dog to chase treats out of it. As much as possible, keep the safe spot inviolate.

The Mental Continuum

I have a quick and dirty visual aid for owners of anxious dogs — there’s a continuum running between limbic/reactive and rational/proactive. Genetics drops us within a range on that continuum, and training moves us up and down within that range.

The point is, limbic/reactive and rational/proactive are, for everyday use, opposites. We can’t do both. We get away from one by cultivating the other.

This is true in general practice; the more I train a dog in general, the more I’m helping him to prepare for fearful situations. (Obviously when I speak of training here, I mean good training which engages the dog’s brain in fun puzzles, not training which conditions a mere physical response or recalls a sense of threat or discomfort, which doesn’t help this at all.) Teaching my dog to observe and think, rather than just react, is a great concept for both manners and anxious situations!

It’s equally true in the presence of triggers; a dog which is busy thinking isn’t panicking. This is where puzzle toys and playing simple shaping games during trigger events can be very helpful in both counter-conditioning and desensitization; the trigger means we’re going to play a brain game, and it’s not nearly as important as the game!

Again, work at your dog’s level; a dog who is shaking and drooling is not capable of rational thought, and it’s not fair to expect it. When the dog is taking food readily, you can start to introduce a very simple, already well-known operant behavior such as targeting, and build from there. Gradually make the games or toys more challenging, until the dog is wholly focused on the puzzle and not the trigger. But, always, work at what the dog can do — you want to associate the storm with fun shaping games, not associate the shaping game with scary storms!

Next post: Drugs & Alternative Therapies. See you then!


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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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