Monday, September 12, 2011

Solving Fear of Thunderstorms in Dogs

Mrs Dog and I were walking this morning at Sunrise, as is our habit.  We had gotten to Wilton Manors City Hall on our way back and I spotted one of the ladies around here that I see from time to time with her two dogs and we stopped and chatted for a while on Wilton Drive under a tree at Hagen Park.

Nice way to start the day.

While our dogs sniffed around and tangled me up, we got onto the subject of her dog's behavior in storms.  She has an older Golden Retriever who is allergic to the heat which is a difficult thing for a dog living in a luxury apartment in Florida.  The Golden also has a terrible fear of loud noises such as Thunder and Lightning.  The big dog has figured out that the flash of the lightning will be followed by the boom of the thunder very shortly and will hide under furniture.  The other thing that this dog will do is to climb on top of my friend's chest. 

At two in the morning having a 70 plus pound dog standing on your chest in fear is a rather loud wake up call.

She asked me what I had done. 

Simply put, my own dog is getting older so her hearing is getting worse.  It's not as much of a problem as it was when I had first gotten my black and white bundle of energy.  However before she lost most of her hearing, I had gotten her abject terror of storms down to a manageable wariness. 

How I did it is that I "Make Storm Time Play Time".  I don't remember where I got that idea from, but it works.  My own girl would freak out and display behavior like barking at the sky and running around like mad when the thunder would approach as well as whining and other fear displays.

That had to stop.

Living near parks meant that I would have a ready supply of tennis balls handy.  Knowing a Mc Nab Dog or any other herding dog like Border Collies and German Shepards simply enjoy chasing tennis balls, I started to work.

I had found a CD of sound effects one day and got a repeating track of Thunder and Rain and put it on the stereo at a low volume to simulate a distant storm.  Since my dog is usually within 10 feet of me, she was easy to distract.  

I stood there, on my tile floor and merely bounced the ball.  Catching the ball repeatedly while the simulated storm sounded in the distance, I had her attention. 

Bounce, Boom, Smile, and finally she caught the ball.  We bounced it a number of times and while she'd pay attention to the distant storm on the boom box, she had most of her attention paid to the fuzzy green ball in her mouth.

When she dropped it I picked it up again and bumped the volume up a little and continued the game.

It didn't happen immediately but over the months of this game, by the time the next real thunderstorm hit, she had began to calm down.

Since Thunderstorms are born here in Florida, we have the six months of the wet season to practice this behavior.  The end result is that in my Mc Nab Dog's mind, she has made the connection.  Close lightning strikes that would startle me still get my girl to barking but hey, they're loud!  Over the weekend we had a particularly close storm that showed on the radar as a big red blob parked overhead.   Lightning strikes were within four blocks, 1/2 mile.   Lettie handled it well, she only barked at one strike then grabbed her favorite soft toy and came over to me for attention.   I had the luxury of calming her down while she wanted her back scratched, something that she normally will not allow. 

I can't figure out why I can only scratch her back when she is fearful, but I can accept that behavior since it is merely odd and not self-destructive. 

When I told my neighbor of this, her blue eyes lit up and said she would try this and was very excited.   I suggested she go back to the volleyball court since there are normally tennis balls that go astray and her Retriever would enjoy the activity.

"Best of luck, I'll see you later!"

After all, her dog needs the help.  Mine as in this picture above has her toys to pick from when the storms start up.

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