Thursday, June 25, 2009

Summer's Big Bangs: Dealing with Sound Phobic Dogs

My dog looks at me for assurance that everything around her is okay. To assure her of this, I keep a pleasant face and speak encouragingly and pleasantly. If I show fear, she will see and feel this and then she may become fearful as well.

As I told you below, I am going to share with you information from an article from BARK MAGAZINE Sept./Oct. 2008 in the Both Ends of the Leash section entitled: "I'm Okay You're Okay: A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn't reinforce fear, it reduces it" by well-known dog behaviorist, Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. (who must be a great person because she owns Border Collies!)

What caught my attention about this article is the fact that it goes against the typical teaching of not coddling your dog if it is scared of something because you will reward the scared behavior. This never settled well with me. What good would it do my dog if she was petrified of something and all I did was try to drag her up the road and scold her? Would it make her any less fearful? No it would not. It would seem like it would cause the dog to also have bad feelings towards me... maybe lack of trust. Anyway, fear not! Patricia says that this old dog training myth is NOT TRUE!!!

Patricia writes that "it seems logical, in a cut-and-dry, stimulus-and-response kind of way" *** that "your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him," *** thus reinforcing this fearful behavior in your dog. Patricia says that this is not what happens at all. She assures us that "no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked." *** It is not fun for us to feel fear, and worse when someone belittles us for it. Fear is no more fun for dogs either! The reason we feel fear is to inform the body that there is probably danger ahead. This fear feeling helps us to react appropriately to deal with the danger and the accompanying fear. For example: the basic fear responses, Fight/Flight/Freeze.

I love the example Patricia uses to get us humans to see how this really works: She writes this: "imagine you're eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream 'reinforce' you for being afraid so that you'd be more afraid next time?" ***Then she goes on to say that the opposite would probably happen instead... you would "develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream," or even around that time of night. ***This makes perfect sense.

She says a second reason why petting your thunder phobic dog doesn't make him worse is that "research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* In other words, if it doesn't decrease stress, how could it even act as a reinforcement?" She says the authors of this research "measured the production of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. They found that cortisol levels did not decrease when the dogs were being pet by their humans during a storm." She says that "the most important factor in decreasing cortisol was the presence of other dogs. "
She says that another "research on social bonding says that even though cortisol levels decrease in people when they are interacting with dogs, cortisol does NOT decrease in dogs in the same context.** However in both species, other hormones and neurotransmitters increased, including oxytocin, prolactin and beta-endorphin... all substances that are associated with good feelings and social bonding." This tells us that although petting our thunder phobic dog during a storm doesn't decrease cortisol levels associated with stress, some good is coming from it. ***

Classic Counter Conditioning:
Patricia goes on to write about Classic Counter Conditioning (CCC) and how it can be helpful in dealing with a fearful dog. CCC is the technique of throwing treats to a dog fearful of strangers until the dog begins to relate the tossing of treats by strangers with a good thing "(as long as that treat is really really good),"*** she adds. Any of us who are obsessed with the cable channel Animal Planet have seen enough training of fearful dogs to know this technique works well. We can see for ourselves that it does not reinforce growling, barking or lunging behavior. How can we use CCC to help our thunder phobic dog???

Patricia shares with us her experience with her Border Collie who was afraid of thunder. she said that whenever a storm was near, she would go outside and play Ball with her dog. This is getting the dog to associate the changes before a storm to playing. After the storm begins, Patricia goes indoors with the dog and feeds her dog a piece of meat every time there is thunder. She states that she would feed her dog the meat no matter what her behavior was. She says that she "wasn't worried about the behavior, but was focused on the emotion inside that caused the behavior." *** And like training any other trick, she gave this treating for thunder a name: each time there was thunder, she would say, "Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!" *** She did this for 2 summers, day and night, early in the morning and so on until her dog no longer panicked during a storm.

Lastly, Patricia reminds us that our emotions travel down the leash (or make-believe leash if there is none) meaning that if we show fear during thunder storms that our dog will feel that which can make a fearful dog worse. This is true for other emotions as well and in other situations. Patricia tells us that "Fear is contagious. It is an emotional contagion which is the ethological term used to describe the viral spread of fear within a group, and is a common occurrence among social species." *** I can speak from my own experience on passing emotions down the leash. I know when Rosie is unsure of something... a noise, a strange smelling person, an object, whatever, she often looks back at me with this look on her face as if she is asking "Should I be afraid of this??" I respond with an "It's okay!" or "Good Girl" or Go ahead!" while having a smile on my face and in my voice as well. This seems to console her anxiety in these more mild cases. I am sure if she ever looked back at me and saw or felt fear, she may respond quite differently to these situations.

Remember that there are many different products out there that can assist you and your dog desensitize to thunder phobias (or fireworks, what ever the case may be). I mentioned the CDs, and shared with you that in our case, it only made my dog nervous in heavy rain falls IN ADDITION to the thunder. No success on the fireworks CD either. I have has SOME good results with Bach's Rescue Remedy. This product comes in a spray or a dropper bottle. They are glass containers though and I have easily broken one out in public before. They are in little brown glass bottles. There are now pheromone products that are supposed to help improve dog's behavior. I am experimenting with a Pheromone Collar with Rosie presently. The one I have I purchased at Petco. It is called Sentry HC Good Behavior Pheromone Collar for Dogs and Puppies, Lavender and Chamomile scented! (Yum!) This collar is made by Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Inc., Omaha, Nebraska. The URL is Upon reading the box, this collar contains only 6% Pheromones, the other 94% is inert ingredients. People have reported some success with Thunder Shirts, which you can buy at almost any pet store.  They usually sell for $40.  There is a product called an ANXIETY WRAP, which can be pricey, but may be worth it for you and your dog. Other options (would be in the most severe cases, not a first choice treatment) include medications that your dog's vet can prescribe to help your dog until you both have a better grip on desensitization training. You may want to seek out a behaviorist as well as the veterinarian for more help in choosing the best approach for you and your dog. Alternative treatments also include: TTouch, Acupuncture, Acupressure and dietary changes.

Good Luck this summer helping your dog cope with all the big bangs of summer!

RESOURCES FOR THIS BLOG ENTRY: Check these out because there is no way I could have properly explained this all without these resources...

***Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Animal Behaviorist, Ethologist and adjunct associate professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Website/Blog:
"Both Ends of the Leash: I'm Okay You're Okay" The Bark Sept./Oct. 2008 p. 37-39
Particia's resources-

*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005 "Physiological and Behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm phobic dogs and their caregivers," Applied Animal Behavior Science 95:153-168

**J.S. J. Odendaal & R.A. Meintjes. 2003 "Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behavior between humans and dogs" The Veterinary Journal 165:296-301

The Bark magazine, (Dog as my co-pilot) Check them out! Enter a writing contest, send photos of your pups smiling! Learn something new!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer's Big Scary Bangs

Thunder Storms and Fireworks... aahh, the joys of summertime. Some dogs are not bothered by these loud noises. Whether it is their personality or their socializing or breed purpose, there are many dogs who can tolerate all of these loud annoyances. However, for whatever reason, there remains a number of dogs who are totally petrified of these loud noises. I have heard that some breeders play special CDs or expose the pups very early on to these loud noises (like if it is a gun dog breed) that this helps to desensitize the pups for later on in life. I have LEARNED that if the mother is exposed to these sounds and is used to them while she is pregnant, that the pups should have an easier time desensitizing as well. However, if the mother is scared by these sounds, she may secrete hormones (as a result from adrenaline) into her system which will in turn effect the puppies own chemical reaction to stress later on. That is one reason why a good breeder will choose the mother by a calm temperment, and not breed skittish fearful dogs.

Here is my experience with my dog (mind you this is my very first dog ever I have ever owned or trained)... Rosie was fine the first year or so with thunderstorms and her first fireworks. I love thunderstorms, so that was not a message she was getting from me. The first couple of years, she would hear the thunder and look up to try to see it to either follow it or get away from it I'm not sure. But she was curious. With the fireworks, I took her downtown her first summer for the 4th of July fireworks, and though she was not overly thrilled with the bangs that exploded and proceeded to echo off of the side of every building and bridge all the way up and down the river they were fired over, she tolerated and remained under control.

The following summer was just a total disaster. Nothing I did consoled her, so here I was in the middle of a huge crowd of people on the streets of the town I live in and I could not remove her from the situation safely until she calmed down. I made her down and kneeled next to her, talking calmly, rubbing her soft furry ears and trying to shield her from some of the noise and chaos. After the fireworks were over, I had to wait for everyone to leave from all around me until there was just a trickle of people left. So this was no short process at all, but we got home and I managed to get her to play in the yard with me before we went inside for the night.

The following year, I met up with some friends at the parade and I agreed to meet them downtown for the fireworks that night. The firecrackers going off outside were really scaring Rosie, so I set up her crate and lined it with her soft dog bed liner and had her spend the day in there. My new kitten joined her later and lended some emotional support as Rosie waited out the day. I really considered leaving Rosie home that night since I would be just down the road. At the last minute, I decided I would give her a try and we would return home if it was too much for her. We sat further away from the spot where they set the fireworks off, still there were lots of people and still they were loud. My friend and her 2 small boys sat to my right on a hill, and I had Rosie in a down/stay... on leash of course, on my left. I talked softly to her and kept her down and she seemed to do so much better. Perhaps the Rescue Remedy did help a little! I was happy with her seemingly not so terrified demeanor at the night's event. However, she was more than happy to get home and to her crate again.

Rosie spends her third 4th of July in her crate with her kitten, Solace

Year number four, I think a Musket went off a few times at the parade and basically at that point, I called that 4th of July a wash. I did not plan to attend the fireworks. I set up Rosie's crate again (this time it had closed sides) and I shut the windows all day. That night after dosing up the dog with more Rescue Remedy, I proceeded to open up the top of the living room window and watched the fireworks from the top of my desk. I was able to take a few photos of some of the fireworks, and was surprised at how much I could see from my apartment!

That brings us to year number five. Last year I purchased 2 CDs that are supposed to help desensitize dogs (or whoever) to fireworks and thunderstorms. They were recorded live, so they were real sounding indeed. Rosie's result from listening to the thunderstorm CD was less than good. On the CD, there are periods of time where you hear a steady to heavy rainfall. Well, now Rosie starts getting anxious when there is steady/heavy rain falling outside, with or without thunder. I am playing the fireworks CD at a low volume (as I did the thunder CD) as background pretty much throughout the day. I am not expecting any miracles. I may just leave her home this year and attend the fireworks alone. I don't really know yet.

This article is not over yet.

When I finish, I will have discussed how petting, soothing, talking gently to a scared dog does not encourage a dog to be scared. This is a widely believed myth many dog people have that came about from the Victorian age of child rearing and dog rearing. If you get the Bark magazine, I will be using information by reknowned dog trainer/behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Sept/Oct. 2008 "Both Ends of the Leash" article called "I'm Okay You're Okay: A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn't reinforce fear, it reduces it"

This article was a great find for me... a very unreknown dog trainer, as finally I now had proof that this myth was fake! Wait till I told everyone who gave me hell for the way I dealt with my dog during fireworks!