It’s the Season of Boom and Crash

No not the economy. Hopefully not anyway.

I’m talking about fireworks. And thunderstorms. And boats on the lake. And motorcycles on the road. And open windows letting all these noises in.

I enjoy all of these loud things but like your dog, I understand that sometimes they are just a little more than any of us want to deal with. Unlike your dog, I understand that the world is not coming to an immediate end simply because the sky is lighting up and making huge crashing noises.

An amusing anecdote about how thoughtless some dog owners can be. I once took my dog Moxie – who happens to be the most anxious dog I have ever met – with me when I went to see the fireworks over the Charles River and listen to the Boston Pops with my brother and his family. Here’s a picture of Moxie having a great time (why is there no sarcasm font?):

Moxie

As one might imagine, Moxie has zero fond memories of this trip. The stroller belonged to my nephew. We don’t walk our dog in a stroller. Not that I’m judging. We just don’t.

Sure, avoiding one of the largest fireworks shows in the United States is an easy way to help your pet through this season. But what about all the other stuff?

The first bit is the hardest to do. Don’t reward clingy behavior by going out of your way to comfort them and console them. That doesn’t mean you should give your dog the cold shoulder if they come to you afraid and seeking some affection. You are the one who is supposed to make it all better. But remain calm, speak to them in calm even tones and of course pet them. But don’t encourage them to be anxious by seeking them out and making them endure your comforting. If they are in their spot and staying calm, let them be. Instead all year, every day of their lives, reward them for being calm. Someone comes to the door and they didn’t bark? Oh that’s a cookie. A car backfires outside or a gunshot is heard during hunting season? That’s a cookie and a “good dog.” By ignoring them when they are acting anxious and rewarding them when they are calm, we are reinforcing the calm behavior. You are not reinforcing their fear by comforting them or by yelling at them to stop barking when they are startled but it does reinforce the behavior. It takes time but trust me it works. Also, be patient with yourself. This is hard work.

Then when a storm is coming or there will be fireworks or a biker parade, be around. If you are planning to get groceries but a thunderstorm is coming, put it off. The grocery store will still have food after the storm and you won’t slip on the wet floor and hurt your wrist. Be around your dog but don’t coddle them, instead play a game with them or simply go about the business of being calm, indoors and do what you normal do. When your dog calms down, give them a cookie. Reward the good behavior, ignore the anxious behavior. I know, it’s harder than it sounds.

If you can’t be around or if you are around but like to have the radio on, do so. Some quiet music can really help take a dog’s mind off the noises outside. Dogs (and cows and horses) really seem to respond to the tones and cadence of NPR. They also don’t feel guilty during the membership drive. So put on your public radio station and see if your pup relaxes a little bit. I will warn you however, I know at least a few dogs who have learned to associate the radio’s weather warning with impending thunder storms. They hear that buzzing siren sound and run and hide. So there’s that to think about.

Make sure your pup has access to somewhere to hide. Under a bed, inside a favorite crate or the kitchen table are all fine ideas. Just watch where your dog goes when there is a storm and then make sure they can always get there and most importantly, get back. If your dog feels trapped he or she might just recreate the garage scene from “Marley and Me.”

If your dog is really struggling you might think about ordering a thunder shirt. These snug fitting wraps apply a gentle calming pressure that makes your dog feel safe and apparently releases endorphins or something like that. I don’t know how they work, they seem to work and it reminds me of the squeeze chute Temple Grandin describes in her book, Animals in Translation and that’s my favorite part of the book so I have a completely illogical attachment to thunder shirts.

If that doesn’t work. Talk to your veterinarian. They may have ideas I haven’t thought of. If I’m your vet, maybe I’ll have more ideas by then. If I’ve had the appropriate amount of caffeine I might even be able look up other people’s ideas.

Thanks for reading.

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9 thoughts on “It’s the Season of Boom and Crash

  1. I like a lot of your writing but, as a dog trainer, you missed the mark just a bit. Many vet behaviorists agree that there is nothing wrong with comforting an anxious dog. And thundershirts shut down many dogs and do not comfort them. Dr Grandin’s work in this area of study is quite controversial. You should perhaps do some continuing ed in antianxiety meds for very noise phobic dogs. I’m sure your clients would appreciate it.

    And please, go easy on the dog training advice! Like I’ve said to many vets thus far, “I promise to never perform a spay, if you promise to not give out dog training advice.” I come in peace, honestly, but vets giving out subpar behavior advice can grind my gears. Overall, I really enjoy your blog!

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    • Maria I appreciate the feedback.
      In a general article with no idea about the owner pet relationship, I can’t recommend anything that the dog would interpret as positive feedback. Most veterinary behaviorists would likely agree with that. I would consider recommending any medication without knowing the patient irresponsible to a fault.
      I agree one can never get enough behavior CE. I have another 12 hours scheduled for July.
      Remember, you can’t train a behavioral issue.
      Thanks again for reading. I do appreciate your feedback.

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  2. The anxiety and fear are emotional states, not behaviors and thus, can’t be reinforced or punished.

    The anxiety and fear can be mitigated with classical conditioning, not operant conditioning. And of course, sometimes psychotropics may be of benefit.

    There’s nothing wrong with comforting a scared or anxious dog and I wish more clients wouldn’t be told that it’s not the right thing to do. It can make a world of difference to a scared or anxious animal. It’s called social buffering.

    If you’re afraid of the dark and I give you a hug, is that going to make your fear of the dark worse, or is it going to give you some comfort and perhaps alleviate some of your fear? I hope the latter. If anything, at the worst, it’s not going to change anything.

    There’s a difference between comforting and compounding.

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    • Thanks for the feedback. It’s always nice to get another perspective. My point of view obviously differs from your own.
      Hugging for dogs, especially when they aren’t actively seeking contact can be a very threatening gesture. Even a quick google search on not hugging dogs might clear that up for you. If you went over to scholar.google.com and entered “behavior dog hug” there are some great resources that explain why advising people to hug as scared dog can be dangerous as well as ineffective.
      Since it is impossible to teach a positive association to something if the dog is actively afraid, it is not going to do any good to try to calm your dog down. I know it’s tough but the science is pretty strong on behavior here.
      Of course medication might be of benefit but if we don’t have a solid foundation of making the right behavioral choices from the owner’s end we run the risk of over medicating or unnecessarily medicating dogs. I don’t think anyone is for that.

      Thanks again for your feedback and point of view. I appreciate it.

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  3. Heath, I think she was giving an example that would apply to humans, not suggesting that people should hug their dogs to make them feel better. Most trainers agree that most dogs actually don’t care for hugs.

    You can’t reinforce fear. Here’s a quick blurb about it from Patricia McConnell, PhD:
    http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/you-cant-reinforce-fear-dogs-and-thunderstorms

    Please do not continue to spread this myth. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and for bringing it to my attention that what I wrote did read a lot like “ignore your dog if they seek you out during these events” that’s not what I meant. Thank you again.

      Like

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