Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wherein Bella models her "thunder-wear"

We won't know for sure if we have actually won the war on thunderstorms until we test this combination thoroughly next season but we may have finally found a solution to help Bella cope, at least marginally well, with her unspeakable fear of thunderstorms. In previous posts, I've covered veterinary prescriptions, over the counter medications, scents and herbal remedies but did not mention some of the steps we were using at the same time. This chapter will fill in those gaps as well as review our experience of trying a few 'physical' measures to ease her fear.

Over the 3 and a half years we've had Bella, she has overcome many fears (in fact, I see a list post about that in our future. ;) We've worked with her on some things but also chosen our battles carefully. Bella doesn't have to be the most social dog on the block. Since she's afraid of people, no one expects her to become a therapy dog. But we do expect her to be able to go to the vets without attacking the vet OR the other dogs in the waiting room.

Thunderstorms are a battle we have to, if not win, at least survive. So, like all the battles we have tackled, we used a desensitization, positive reinforcement approach to hopefully change her feelings about the "scary thing". That's a bit tough to do with thunderstorms, however, because, as we discovered along this journey of ours, there's more than thunder involved in a thunderstorm. There's barometric pressure changes, static electricity build up, sights, smells and finally, sounds. Still, we were willing to give it the 'old college try'.

Additional routes

And, once again, it was our blessed trainer, Sheila, who provided us with a tool to help try and desensitize Bella to the sounds of the event: a CD of sounds used specifically for behavior modification in dogs. (Therapy CD For Dogs - Fireworks & Noises Desensitisation Training). Teaching us how to sit in another room with Bella playing with her and feeding her treats while the cd played quietly in another room, we worked with her over a period of time (admittedly not as often or consistently as we should), slowly turning up the volume being careful to always keep her below the 'threshold' or point at which she would react. This has worked well for sounds like fireworks, trucks and horns.

Another tool in our toolbox is exercise. If Bella is tired, she is much less likely to react badly to things that would ordinarily upset her. I have to admit, neither Jan nor I (nor the Energizer Bunny) has the energy level necessary to exercise Bella to the degree she would like but we have found on days when she's been worked good and hard, she is much more likely to be able to "roll with" unexpected events.

Finally, we come to a couple of physical options for dealing with thunder and anxiety that have been introduced in the last few years: wraps and capes. As many of my readers have pointed out, the Thundershirt has been a literal life-saver for many dogs suffering from noise phobia as well as generalized anxiety. Another product we discovered much later in the process is the Storm Defender cape.

My dog is afraid of the thing that's supposed to make her less afraid

First, for those not familiar, let me give you a brief explanation of the Thundershirt. Working on the "swaddling" principle, the idea is that consistently applied pressure envelops the dog making them feel safe and secure. A friend of mine called it "a permanent hug", which is very apt and could partially explain Bella's aversion to it if you consider not all dogs like to be hugged. It is made of a somewhat stretchy material that you wrap around the dog and has multiple panels that allow a snug fit over the dog's chest and body. The panels are secured with several pretty heavy-duty Velcro strips.

The Thundershirt
I know many, many dogs and owners have had great success with the shirt. One of the rescue groups I volunteer with, North East All Retriever Rescue, uses it extensively to great effect with the Labs we bring in. I encourage you to visit the company's web site, watch the videos and decide for yourself whether or not you think the product will work for your particular situation. Just take this input for what it is: one person's experience with a very specifically damaged dog.

When we first got the shirt, as per the instructions, we worked to introduce it to Bella slowly over a period of time before she ever wore it during a storm. We put it on her for a few minutes, fed her treats, took it off, stopped the treats. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The idea is that your dog will come to associate the shirt with only good things.

What we found, however, was, regardless of the quality of treats we were giving her, Bella wasn't "relaxing" at all - she was shutting down.

There is a difference between a calm dog and a paralyzed dog.

There are a few things that might be going on here: Bella, once wild, may not like the "trapped" feeling of the shirt. We know she doesn't like the sound of the Velcro. And since the Velcro is so substantial (one would think that'd be a plus), it frightens her when we pull it off (she also doesn't like to 'pushed/pulled/yanked around'.)

Storm Defender Cape

The Storm Defender
Last fall we began seeing a behaviorist for some of Bella's other issues and were introduced to the Storm Defender cape. The cape works on a different premise. Instead of the swaddling effect, the cape is lined with a material designed to deflect static electricity building up in the dog's fur. The Velcro is only a single strip and not as 'sturdy' (it feels more like the velcro you would find on any dog coat). It fits more loosely and it's obvious Bella doesn't feel as constrained by it.

We approached her introduction to it much as we had the Thundershirt, however, she never had the 'paralyzed' reaction to it she had with the shirt and we only needed to feed her treats a few times before she seemed (almost) perfectly comfortable in it. We have used it a couple of times since its purchase but it has definitely made an improvement in her behavior. Although I should note, it works best if you can put it on when SHE senses something coming (not after you've heard that first spectacular blast of thunder.)

The proof is in the viewing

The video below shows Bella on a bright and sunny day - no storms around for several days. Each section of the video was taken on 2/21/2012 around 8 am or 3 years after having purchased the Thundershirt and 6 months after purchasing the storm defender cape.

Remember - this is after 3 YEARS of working to improve Bella's reaction to the shirt. She has come a long way.

The ultimate combination

It should be noted that we are also using a low-dose of Clonidine as prescribed by Bella's behaviorist during especially extreme events. (Jan calls them Bella's "Be Brave" pills.) Like all the other meds we've had any sucess with, it works best when given prior to the event but it is fast acting. They don't turn her into a zombie and the after effects seem to be much less drastic than some of the other drugs we've tried.

After all is said and done though, sometimes it's just easier and less stressful on everybody to hang out in the basement for a little while. We're lucky that Jan works from home and can generally deal with Bella when storms appoach during the day while I take the night shift. I'm not sure what we would have done were that not the case. We try not to go out on stormy nights but if it's absolutely necessary to do so, at least now we feel we have options that will help Bella cope in our absence.

NOTE: I'm getting more "third party content" messages from YouTube about the video so I hope you're able to see and hear it. Don't worry if you can't hear it. While you'll be missing some awesome music, you're not missing me missing me wax philosophical about the signs of fear in a scared-y dog. If anyone can't see the video though, let me know in the comments and I'll upload a version to Blogger. Oh, and sorry for the shaky hands - not much I can do about that.

Music: "Walk the River" by Guillemots Buy the disc at Amazon. (I don't get anything if you do, I just like the band. :)


  1. What a difference! Poor girl, she looks terrified in the ThunderShirt. Wishing you continued success with her fears - she is so lucky to have you! (p.s. I heard the music just fine - and fine music it is! :D)

  2. Poor baby, she looks so scared in the thundershirt. Glad the other one is easy for her
    Dachshund Nola
    P.S. I can hear the music, and I'm glad I can it's great!

  3. OMG! What a difference when she wears the cape!  She looks so scared in the thundershirt! I hope the cape continues to work for her.  Great music!

  4. Awesome that you've found something Bella tolerates happily and helps her:)  There's a huge difference in her attitude between wearing the Thundershirt and the Storm Defender Cape ... the Cape is much more stylin too;)

  5. the way she looks in the thundershirt is the same reaction Barbie has to wearing a harness... she walks in little steps and is all subdued. I gave up on the harness after a few months - I was hoping to run her in it but we just do the martingale collar for everything now. The storm defender cape looks really nice, and I hope that it helps her :) 

  6. That's really informative. I think we've said it before, but we'd like to say again that we are always struck by your dedication to Bella. She's beautiful, but I guess pretty hard work. Ganny often says to Mum that I'm lucky to have her; anyone else would have taken me back to the kennels. Mum always tells her that pretty much she has it fairly easy, some of the people we know, like you, are truely inspirational when it comes to the love, care, patience and dedication they show their pets. 

  7. BIG difference in Bella!  So glad you showed us the cape!  We just got done putting Bandits Thunder Shirt on him...thunder is heading our way!  If for some reason his shirt evers stops working for him, we will try it! 

  8. Just wanted to send a virtual kiss to Bella - she is one pretty and brave girl! I could really see the difference in her behaviour wearing the Thundershirt vs. Storm Defender - It shows that not all of us doggies are the same and you have to try what works for you *waggy tail*

  9. What a long road you've all been on - Bella is lucky to have such a patient and loving family - she's doing so well!!  Way to go Bella :)

    Sending wags for you all,

    Your pal Snoopy :) 

  10. You can see right away that Bella feels more secure in the Storm Defender cape.
    You are making amazing progress with her all the time.
    I have tried lots of times to leave a comment on your blog so hope I am successful this time!
    Lynne x

  11. She is such a cutie! I'm so happy that you have found something that works for her. It's interesting . . we put a t-shirt on Cali during thunderstorms, and then when she was anxious because she was so itchy and now I think she equates a t-shirt being put on her as "oh no, something bad is going to happen". It's nice that Bella looks so relaxed in the Storm Defender cape (and I love the name!!) makes her look like a super hero!!

  12. I know, right?  How pathetic is that?  And that, actually, is MUCH improved over what she used to look like in the shirt. :o

    Glad everyone can hear the music. I just like it. (And thought it kind of maybe in a terribly abstract off-the-wall sort of way applied to the topic at hand. ;)  

  13. Glad you like the music. 

    And I'm glad people can see the difference.  Her reaction isn't as extreme in this video as it used to be but I think it's still obvious she's not getting much comfort from being in it.  She's just not a huggy kind of girl, I guess. ;)

  14. We hope so, too. Of course, it really only works for thunderstorms so we do still use the Thundershirt on some rare occasions but it's great to have found something that finally seems to work for storms. Now, yes, we just have to hope it continues to be effective.

  15. Oh poor Barbie. I'm glad you found an alternative in the martingale. We mostly use just a martingale for her agility class because the harness is a bit restrictive and the trainer thought it was holding her back. 

    FTR, Bella had the same reaction to her harness and STILL has that reaction to the gentle leader head halter. Thankfully we managed to get her past that one - I think we tried a few different harnesses though until we found one she would tolerate. She's not very good on a loose lead and will go charging off to chase squirrels and other things so we really wanted a harness for our, as well as her, safety. 

  16. It is rather "stylin'", isn't it? ;)  I like Bella in red, personally. But mostly I just like her in anything that works! lol

  17. You're very kind. Your mums are pretty terrific, too, Deccy - remember that next time you decide you don't want to sleep through the night. ;)

  18. Hi - thanks for visiting. I'm so glad the Thundershirt exists for dogs like Bandit who benefit from it. But I'm sorry he needs it and is afraid of thunder. Give him a big snuggle from us. I hope it always works for him.

  19. Thanks and we'll pass that kiss right along. :)  

    What you say is true - just like people, dogs all have their own issues to work through and what works for one might not for another.  I am glad I maybe had some useful information to pass along.

  20. Thanks Snoopy, it has been a long road but worth every step. She's a good girl when you give her a little bit of extra effort.  And just wait, someday I'm going to get video/pictures of her doing agility and you all are going to be aMAZed! ;)

  21. Oh no, I'm sorry to hear you haven't been able to leave comments before. Thanks for being so diligent to try again.  If you ever have troubles going forward, please feel free to shoot me an email @ leslieolyott@yahoo.com or, if you're on Twitter, you can always drop me a Tweet - I'm @leslie42363  (That contact info is in the side bar to the right if you're ever looking for it.)

    She is making amazing progress - I wish life was easier for her but we're trying to get it right.  She is, overall, a very happy little girl and a whole lot of fun.  She really is worth this little bit of extra effort. :)

  22. Hi Julie, I'm with you about the name - she's our little superhero in that cape. :)

    It's interesting how quickly animals can make a negative association with something.  We've run into that with Bella numerous times. And since it takes so much longer to undo a bad association than to make a good one in the first place, we're always cursing ourselves when we screw it up. Grr argg.  

  23. What an interesting post! Eleanor's luckily not afraid of thunder, but we've wondered on the "real life" effectiveness of the thundershirt.

  24. Eleanor is definitely lucky to not be afraid - my Lab wasn't either so this has been quite the learning experience.  

    I do know that a lot of dogs are helped by the shirt and I've seen it well-used during stressful events.  It's just our own experience with it didn't work for Bella.  

    (I worry I'm going to be lynched for a negative review of a product so highly regarded in the animal community so don't mind me offering every caveat I can come up with regarding its effectiveness. ;)

  25. We got Bongo an Anxiety Wrap which is similar to the Thunder Shirt - so it probably wouldn't work for Bella. We haven't had a real test yet, since we got it at the end of last thunder season although there were a couple storms that were pretty loud where I was and Bongo didn't destroy the house. Not sure how loud the storms were at the house.

  26. i'm so sorry that bella had such an adverse reaction to the thundershirt. i bet that broke your heart! it's great that you've found a combination of things that works for you to an extent. maybe one day, you'll find something even better. 

    we tried the thundershirt, too, for desmond's anxiety, but after the first few times he wore it, it didn't really do anything for him anymore. and in those weeks, he managed to pull off the velcro a bit, just because he rolls around/moves around a lot all the time, so when he was wearing it and relaxing/lounging/sleeping, it would be pulling off and whatnot. if that makes sense. i just read it back, and it's hard to explain what i'm trying to say, and i think i sound just a touch crazy right now. lol

  27. We've actually tried both of these as well - I think your video is an important reminder that each dog is different and we need to look at cues to see which option is the better one.

  28. Yeah, I think I had seen the Anxiety Wrap and thought it was very similar to the Thunder Shirt so we never even tried it.  I'm so glad you've found something that's working (so far) for Bongo.  You'll have to let us know how it works through the season.

  29. I think it was not only disappointing but almost disheartening - we'd heard tell of it as a cure-all and were so hopeful it would do the trick. I wish I had seen the videos on the site earlier because I would have realized sooner that Bella's reaction was not what we should have expected. 

  30. Hi Pup Fan - did you have success with either shirt?  Thanks - I agree it's important for people to recognize, as you say, the "cues" of how their dog actually  feels about it - I worry that, like me, some folks won't realize when they're not addressing the root cause and only making the situation worse...