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DarnFar Ranch LLC Professional Dog Training
Changing the actions, aptitudes and attitudes of dogs and their people

The Thunder Phobic Dog

Fear is a good thing. It helps us to stay alive. It alerts us to impending danger so that we can take action to protect ourselves from the threat. It is a vital part of survival. Of course, if it becomes the status quo, it no longer serves such a function and can eat away at us physically and psychologically. But, an occasional heightened state of anxiety is part of life. I meet all sorts of people who own dogs. There is a subset of individuals who are so worried about their dog’s happiness that reason and common sense sometimes fails them. These are the folks who fret more about how the dog “feels” than how it behaves. Sadly, I don’t think that they are actually very good at truly determining how a dog is feeling, anyway. Folded back ears of submission are misinterpreted as fear. Sulking behavior is seen as anguish, rather than the truly anti-social act that it is. Submission is a good thing. If the dog doesn’t submit, then the dog is the dominant one in the relationship which is not only unnatural for the dog, but dangerous for the human. Sulking is a way some dogs try to get the upper hand in the relationship, and therefore can be considered a precursor to dominant type behavior. Brooding is best ignored in the same way that the behavior should be disregarded when children feel sorry for themselves, lest you create a terribly spoiled kid. We all get afraid sometimes. I was anxious for a few months before my birthday that coincided with the renewal of my driver’s license. I was going to have to take “the test” and it frightened me. The fear of failure helped me to prepare for the test and eventually succeed. When triggers in the environment cause angst, it’s prudent to take heed and sometimes take action. When a thunderstorm is brewing in the distance, my sheep walk back to the barn and hold up there until the bad weather passes. Who says sheep are dumb? The reason that I refer to fear-based behaviors as anti-social is related to how I describe the term social. Social doesn’t mean friendly. Consider a big Golden Retriever that overruns your personal space, shoves his muzzle into your crotch or leaps upon you all with a quite gleeful, friendly disposition. Yet, in doggie-terms, he is acting anti- social, since a higher ranking dog would never permit him to invade his personal space in such a rude manner. To be social is to understand one’s position in the society (family, pack, work group) and respect that order. In a social species, such as humans or dogs, the lower ranking individuals will typically look up to the higher ranking ones in a time of crisis or a situation that triggers fear. In species that are not social, by nature, an individual usually chooses fight or flight when it becomes frightened. A squirrel simply takes matters into his own paws and either runs or stays to fight when threatened. When an individual in a social special chooses fight or flight, it can be considered an anti-social act, as it is not recognizing the hierarchical society in which it resides. During a walk with its owner, a dog that lunges or barks at a neighboring dog is acting in an anti-social manner. This is not so much because it is acting ugly towards another dog, but because his is not recognizing his owner as the “top dog”. He is not permitting his owner to assess and address perceived threats. He is usurping his owner’s authority. When that same dog chooses to bolt from (rather than aggress towards) perceived danger, he is also disrespecting his leader’s position. In either scenario, the dog should be corrected for such behavior. Choosing fight or flight is anti-social. Typically, people can understand that a dog which presents with excessive exuberance (such as the Golden Retriever described above) or aggressive behavior (like the lunging, barking dog) should be corrected for the anti-social act. However, in my experience, many people do not understand that behaviors rooted in fear demand the same intervention, or the unacceptable behaviors will probably continue. That means that I am suggesting correcting a dog that is presenting a fear-based behavior, if that behavior is deemed undesirable. It’s very important to understand that the dog is not being corrected for his fear. He is being corrected for bolting from his leader, for example, which is a disrespectful act. Any times that a person corrects a dog, she should remain calm and relaxed. Correcting a dog that chooses to run off and leave his handler’s umbrella of authority is a way to explain to the dog that his behavior is unacceptable. If a correction is performed properly, the behavior will change. He will learn quickly that bolting is not appropriate. A dog that was once shaking and afraid can become calm and relaxed so long as the handler remains composed and sends the proper message to the dog. A troubled or worried handler will create a psychologically unbalanced dog. The problem that arises when working with a dog that is afraid of thunderstorms is that the owner tends to be unable to separate the behaviors that are acceptable versus those that should be corrected. There are people who simply don’t want the dog to be afraid and focus on that more than anything else. Here’s the reality. You cannot fix fear or make it go away. It is controlled by the autonomic nervous systems. Autonomic means “automatic”. The dog does not have control over whether he will feel fear or not. However, he can control other behaviors that tend to present when he becomes afraid. It is those behaviors on which the owner should focus. As an example, I do not mind if the dog drools. He cannot control it, anyway. And, if that is how he is going to manifest fear, then, that is how he is going to manifest fear. I do not mind if the dog quivers or shakes for the same reason. Many people are very unnerved that their dog drools or trembles when he is nervous or anxious. I have news for you. We humans perspire when we get worried. Asking a dog to stop drooling is like asking a human to stop perspiring. In both species, it is a way of dissipating the heat that may be built up in the body during stressful situations. I would rather my dog drooled than over heated. Fix the behaviors that you don’t want – ignore the behaviors that you don’t mind. I don’t mind if my dog decides to hold out in the bathtub during a storm. I have had more than one dog choose that location to wait for fairer weather. That’s a behavior that I tolerate. If he’s going to drool, I cannot imagine a better place for him to hang out. I don’t mind if the dog goes under the bed, in his crate or curls up next to my feet with his paw over the top of my shoe, yes, even if he is quivering all the while. If that is what comforts him when it rains, I’m cool with that. I do not expect my dogs to remain outside during a storm. I think that’s ridiculous. While I happen to love weather, and I find watching a front come into the area beautiful and exciting, most experts would tell me to get inside before the lightening could strike me dead. I think it is unreasonable to expect a dog to go outside during a storm. But, that is me. Everyone needs to determine what behavior they choose to tolerate and which ones they need to resolve For example, I will not tolerate a dog that tries to climb up my body when he is afraid. I do not want stiffened claws digging into my flesh anytime, regardless of the weather. I do not allow a dog to go under my desk where he can pull out the cords of my computer equipment. I don’t want a dog to try to escape the door or a window during a storm. I had a dog, once, that chewed out of his crate, opened the back door with his teeth (the door knob still has evidence of his behavior) jump out of our 5.5’ fenced yard into a pasture that had 4’ high perimeter fencing out of which he jumped, as well. He ran two miles away and we did not recover him for four days after posting many “lost dog” signs. So, escaping behavior is not tolerated, regardless of how frightened the dog might become of a storm. Once the list of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviors is identified, one can begin to tackle the behaviors (not the feelings) that the dog is presenting during storms. If the dog feels safe in his crate, I manage the whole situation by simply crating the dog. I have had a number of dogs that fit this scenario. When a storm is threatening, I simply put the dog in his crate and ignore him until the bad weather passes. He can shake, drool or whine and be safe, all at the same time. If the dog feels unsafe in his crate, but safe near me, then I permit the dog to be with me. If he feels best touching me, in some way, and I don’t mind that level of touch, I permit the dog to put his paw or chin on my foot, for example. I will gently pet, but not coddled, a dog in this situation, too. But, if he begins to push deeper into my personal space, I correct him the same way that I would correct him if it wasn’t storming outside. This article is not designed to teach a person how to correct a dog properly. I have written a book on that (which you may purchase at Amazon.com. A correction is not paired with negative energy, it is sufficient to change the dog’s behavior, but is not excessively harsh. A correction is defined by the recipient, not by the one administering it. It implies that the behavior has been “corrected” or “fixed”. If the behavior continues, again, the action was probably not a correction, regardless of what the person who delivered it might think. If the dog paces around the room and I find that unacceptable (which I would), I would demand that the dog sits or lies down and stays, “no matter what”, and I would correct him if he thought about getting back up, again. I would do so promptly and without any anger. In my opinion, it would be unwise to try to train a fearful dog during a storm. So, clearly, the training must happen before the dog is asked to behave properly during a storm. That is a very good reason to practice high level obedience to authority on a daily basis; it becomes very useful during times when the dog would be more apt to disregard commands. A solid, “down no-matter-what” command is probably the most useful behavior for thunder-phobic dogs. Permitting the dog to lie close to you, but not on top of you, when he is afraid gives him something to do besides thinking about the electrical storm. He cannot pace if he is lying down. He cannot try to climb out of a window, if he is lying down. Regardless of what other behaviors he may be presenting (such as drooling or quivering) simply choose the behavior you expect and reinforce that behavior. Acknowledging that the dog is afraid does not mean that you need to acknowledge the cause of his fear. Doing so will probably validate his feelings that thunderstorms are very dangerous. Ignoring the storm, rather than startling to every boom or lightening bolt is prudent, even if you do have a fear of storms, yourself. When taking a kid to receive a vaccination, it’s best to refrain from showing your own fear of needles to the child, if you want to help her through the experience. 1. Recognize that fear is natural and that it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. 2. Do not attempt to control fear. 3. Recognize that excessively excited, balking or bolting behavior, even when the dog is feeling fearful, is still disrespectful and unmannerly (anti-social). 4. Focus on unacceptable behavior rather than how you think that the dog might be feeling. Address Behavior Not Emotion. 5. Manage the dog by putting him in a place he feels safe (such as his crate). It may be a very viable option for handling some fearful dogs. 6. Train your dog to a very high standard of obedience to commands in the presence of distractions. Use that training during a storm – reinforcing your expectations, even if the dog is presenting other fear-driven behavior. He only has lie down - not stop drooling or shaking. 7. Remain calm. Refrain from becoming frazzled, anxious, frustrated, disappointed or nervous as a handler, especially if your dog is experiencing fear. ©2011 Tammie Rogers