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'.
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.
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|
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. :)