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!

1 comment:

Jess said...

Hi. How has the progress been with the pheromone collar? My dog Betty got attacked about a year and a half ago by a dog that used to live right beside us. She basically has PTS syndrome now and freaks when anyone comes out of the house....enough that if they get close she'll pee out of fear. It just breaks my heart. Any advice would be great. I'm at Thanks!