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Thunder Storms and our dogs

On the 9th November, I was on the Mary Harboe show on REM FM along with their Radio vet Nasli from the Pointer clinic. As we are approaching the period of Thunderstorms, the subject was all about how they can adversely affect our dogs.

Following the show, I received many emails and telephone calls from people who either missed the programme or only caught a part of it. Though I recorded the show, for some reason I cannot email my MP3file so I have written this article based on the programme.

Mary asked could dogs inherit a fear of thunderstorms and the answers is no. Whilst a dog will inherit characteristics and facial expressions of its parents, as humans do, they do not inherit knowledge. For instance, all dogs will point at possible hidden game but breeders have developed the Pointer to develop their indication to be so expressive and obvious to the hunter it has found something. This does not mean the dog will look for the correct game without training, as this is knowledge. It still means the hunter must train the dog but by choosing a Pointer, he will probably find these dogs easier to train.

A puppy born of nervous parents may well be nervous in general terms, like nervous of anything, but of thunderstorms, dogs can only learn from experience. One point worth noting is that not all puppies in such litters show signs of nervousness. This would seem to mean that the nervous puppy did not inherit this fear but learnt it from the nervous mother.

My opinion is that dogs do not inherit fear; they only react when they experience them. Hearing a gun shot for instance, most dogs would be frightened, but it then depends if it learns later there is nothing to fear before it next goes to sleep. Once asleep, any such experiences transfer from short term into long-term memory. Therefore, how it reacted before then the likelihood is it will react the same way the next time.

One important point I must make that follows from the previous articles is that owners must not show a caring anxiety towards their puppies or older dogs. Whilst a human child will see this as comfort, dogs do not comfort each other in a human way; in fact, they cower together. Therefore, the puppy would think the owner is also anxious so reinforcing there is indeed something to fear. Such action only makes the puppy become more fearful and the owner more anxious, creating a downward spiral.

The vet did ask me if there still was a belief in an old method of stopping dogs becoming fearful of such storms by chastising it. My feeling is that to chastise a puppy, already frightened of a storm, will only make it more fearful of both the storm and the owner.

Discounting euthanasia there are three options of how to treat a dog fearful of thunderstorms, but first we must know what triggers frighten the dog. For this reason, we first need to understand the elements of such storms.

The Anatomy of a thunderstorm

The problem is there are more elements than in a simple gunshot. First, there is the drop in air pressure that dogs can feel indicating a storm is on its way. Dogs also sense the air and ground pressure waves, again a prelude to an imminent storm. Another is the change in air smell as well as the ionic air change along with the un-nerving static electrical charge that all dogs can feel. As the storm approaches, there is the increase in wind speed along with sound of intense rain or even hailstones. Finally, there is the lighting and the resulting thunder as the storm arrives. Any or a combination of these can be very frightening to your dog.

Method 1 Desensitisation

I think that my first dog Rolly was reacting to the drop in air pressure, as he would wander round the house looking for somewhere to hide a long time before the storm reached us. His usual preferred place was in the dark hallway that had double doors to both the kitchen and front doors that may have helped muffle the sound.

My current dog Winston used to be frightened of both the storms and fireworks. This was possibly because living outside in a shelter for two and a half years can be frightening for a dog, as there is no where to run to. Rolly was slowly desensitised over many years but Winston, I did practice positive desensitising techniques based on using playtime along with food treats.

The most important thing is not to mirror your dog’s anxiety but to ignore your dog’s fear, which I know seems inhuman. You can use methods like playing with your dog and offering food treats whenever there is a storm. I sit outside with Winston throwing him crisps to catch whenever there is a flash of lightening and one for the following bang.

As puppies, it is important to check for things that make them react in a nervous way. Starting from a low height, I always drop a metal food bowl containing appetising food. As it hits the floor with a bang, the food drops out. The puppy may initially hesitate but then it rushes in to eat the food.

When you go round the house, be noisy like slamming doors and then fussing your puppy. Dropping all sorts of things, watching how your puppy reacts, and again offering fun, fuss, and treats. As you see your puppy become use to the noise, gradually increase the sound level. Playing with your dog and fire party poppers is another good method.

Only the other month Winston came into the kitchen just as I shook a large bin liner to force air inside to open up making a loud bang. Winston jumped and ran out of the kitchen. I got some treats, called him back again, and shook the bin liner gently as I gave him his rewards. Gradually I increased the shaking until it was as loud as the first time he heard it.

If you can purchase some paper bags, place food treats in these then partly blow them up. You can then burst them in front of your puppy so it sees the popped bag releasing lovely treats. Again, gradually increase how much to blow up the bag until it makes a louder bang. You can also do this with balloons but modern crisp packets are almost impossible to burst.

For the pressure waves, dropping something heavy onto the ground whilst someone else feeds or plays with your dog will help. Not far away from me there is a quarry where they often set off explosives making both air and ground pressure waves. Some of the dogs staying here do react the first time they hear the explosion but as they are playing with other dogs, they quickly learn to ignore them.

If you put your dog in your car with someone who will feed it titbits whilst you wash your car, this can desensitise it to heavy rain. Also playing music can help. Start with the hosepipe on light sprinkle then slowing increase the intensity so your dog becomes use to the sound of heavy rain.

A car wash is another method as there is the sound of intense rain, the machinery noise, and the thumping of the brushes as they travel up and down the car. Again, if someone sits inside the car offering food treats and plays with the dog, this can be a help.

One other method is if you have a good high fidelity sound system you can use a compact disc that contains all sorts of noise recordings. Such discs do contain different types of thunderstorms that you can keep on replay. Starting quietly you can gradually build up the sound so your dog becomes use to them.

For the electrical static charge, you can walk under power lines or near large transformers as they do create electrical fields that dogs can sense.

The most important thing is not to shy away from experimenting with your puppy to see what may frighten it. If you find something, try to think of ways of making it less alarming whilst gradually increasing the intensity.

To be continued.


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