Okay, so you’re well into your new conditioning plan, with graduated protocols in place to reduce your dog’s noise fears or phobias. You’re taking it slowly and making good progress. But suddenly it’s Independence Day or Guy Fawkes, with fireworks going off all around, and a thunderstorm rolling in to boot, and you know you’re not ready for all this. How do you survive tonight?
- Be there. If your dog is really frightened, he’ll appreciate having your calm presence there as reassurance.
- Be calm. As we’ve said repeatedly, you can’t reinforce fear by soothing a frightened dog — but sometimes we go overboard in “soothing” and behave so abnormally that we actually add stress to the situation. You don’t need to chant, “It’s okay! It’s okay! It’s okay!” in a frantic tone; just act normal and do normal activities.
- Stay indoors. Not only do walls blunt the physical triggers and provide a psychological layer of protection, they are additional containment for a dog which might bolt if panicked.
- Consider an event drug. Even if you aren’t using drugs in your usual protocol, they might be a good option for an emergency or an extreme situation. Of course, always consult for an appropriate drug — and it’s not acepromazine.
- Pay big. Make sure whatever you’re using for counter-conditioning or distraction/stress relief is an order of magnitude better than usual — break out the raw knuckle bone, the baby food, the stinky cheese.
- Muffle the triggers. Turn on interior lights so that fireworks and lightning are less dramatic. Turn on music to drown out booms and thunder. Through A Dog’s Ear soothing psycho-acoustic music is even available for instant download!
- Pull out all the stops. This is a great time to layer alternative therapies — a Thundershirt along with DAP and psycho-acoustic music, or whatever you have available.
- Don’t ask for too much. If your dog has previously graduated from cowering in his safe place to playing games with you during a mild storm, don’t be surprised if he can’t play and just wants to hide during a larger storm or fireworks display. Work where he can.
- Expect some regression later. When you go back to your counter-conditioning plan, start several steps back, with the CD volume a few notches lower or the games a little easier. A major uncontrolled event can upset your training plan; this is normal! Just build back up slowly.
Where Does Storm Phobia Come From, Anyway?
“Our dogs are descended from wolves, right? And wolves are wild animals? How could wild animals function if they were scared of storms and stuff?”
Well, first off, yes, our dogs are descended from wolves — but there’s a long, long road from canis lupus to canis lupus familiarus. Along the way we’ve changed a lot of behavior and a lot of genetics, so that while the two species can still interbreed, they’re not as much alike as some would think. It’s not at all fair to expect dogs and wolves to behave similarly, or to judge one by the other.
We’re still learning the fascinating ways genetics work, and the many surprises that even a planned breeding can produce. Genes are not independent of one another, and in selecting for one trait we often bring along another we didn’t even think about. It’s very possible that in selecting for traits which we value in our pet dogs — playful neotonization, a preference for cuddling, truncated predatory sequence, etc. — we have inadvertently selected for a predisposition to noise fears as well.
Aside from that, why do we think wild animals are not afraid? Fear of severe weather might actually be a healthy survival trait, and that instinct to find a “safe place” to wait out the storm has to come from somewhere. If herds of bison could be spooked by bad weather and stampede, why couldn’t wolves be frightened as well? (Not only by the storm, but by the danger of stampeding bison!)
Medical issues can affect reactions, as well — a dog which suddenly develops a phobia with no observable cause might benefit by a thyroid check or ear examination, or other veterinary queries.
Of course, dogs can learn from one another — if one dog observes another consistently frightened by a trigger, he may well develop a fear of it as well, through simple social learning. This also was a valuable survival trait, but now it means that if you bring a new dog in to a storm-fearful household, you should include the new dog in counter-conditioning as well to prevent this association.
While noise phobias are scary and inconvenient for us today, they aren’t necessarily your dog’s fault or the product of a bad upbringing. They’re just a factor in the dog you have now, and they’re a mutable factor. With so many options, you can formulate a plan to reduce your dog’s discomfort and make things easier on both of you.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful. Feel free to leave comments or suggestions below. Happy training!