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"Understanding and Training Storm-Phobic Dogs: Effective Solutions for a Calmer Canine"

We always took great pains to desensitize our pups to loud sounds and novel events. From puppyhood, they were exposed to an annoying plethora of audible cacophony. So much so that we often joked that our dogs are not smart enough to come in during a storm. They stand outside and watch fireworks with us (when we lived in the city and were often subjected to impromptu displays by neighborhood pranksters). It was nice because I LOVE storms and fireworks.

And then along came Penelope. A little Bulldog/Catahoula cross was taken into the rescue in need of surgery to fix her wonky legs. We fostered her ourselves after several failed attempts to find a suitable foster home. While she was such a doll for us, she immediately began plotting her return upon setting foot in any other family. We finally gave in and, despite being a very full house, got her surgery done and started her rehabilitation process. The arduous task that any foster home of rehab dogs undertakes is daunting and not for everyone. Keeping a healthy, social dog quiet in a home full of playing dogs is next-level insanity. But we managed and she came through with few complications.

Luckily, Penny recovered during the winter. Because come the spring we realized we had more challenges to overcome with this little cutie. She was very noise-sensitive. While we had realized she didn't like the vacuum much, and that doorbells ringing on commercials set her barking and running to the door, we didn't realize how pervasive her sensitivities were. We had dealt with storm-phobic dogs before, but living with it forever was not a future we wished to contemplate. By now we had realized that Penelope had chosen us and would simply scheme her way back if we adopted her out. So she was staying.

That first storm season, we realized that Penelope was really suffering. She was in a blind panic during storms. We got her a prescription for trazodone for the big storms that were unavoidable, recognizing that while we had a plan, we had not had time to execute it. There is no shame in medicinal assistance to complement a plan, as long as it is not a stand-alone solution and work is in progress to provide coping strategies. For panic, we brought out the big guns, but for less severe anxiety, we would have tried more natural supplementation like skullcap, st. john's wort, l-theanine, and ashwagandha. We also did try the Thunder-Shirt on Penelope with some, but limited success. With Thunder-Shirt's 60-day money-back guarantee, there is no harm in trying.

Then we started working on a desensitization strategy. Desensitization is an active process of turning a negative emotional response to a stimulus into a more positive one to reduce or eliminate the anxiety that results when that stimulus occurs.

Every day we found some storm sounds and played them at very low, almost imperceptible, volume. At the same time, we would play some games with treats or give her a special stuffed kong to enjoy (food is Penny's currency). She would cock her head towards the sound, but it didn't set off her anxiety. Once we noticed some excitement and her looking for her positive interaction when we played the storm sounds, we turned up the volume one notch. We continued to do that until we could play it at full volume and she was happily licking a kong or playing trick training games with us.

With storm phobia, the audible is not the only factor, however. There are the flashing lights, the wind, the pressure, and percussion to contend with. So we broke those down into the elements we could as well. We can replicate the flashing lights. We can work, every windy day by having a blast when wind happens. The pressure and percussion can only be worked with when they happen, however. So when storms happen, we run and play training games to help keep Penelope using the thinking part of her brain, instead of tripping her amygdala. We give her puzzles to solve.

Penelope isn't just storm-phobic. But due to the more random and complex nature of storms, that is the worst of her sensitivities. The rest (vacuums, smoke detectors, doorbells on the TV, etc) we can replicate at a low level and work our way up to full volume and random happenings. Ensuring that we generalize to different environments and variable times is incredibly important after seeing success in one environment.

When we moved out to the country we realized that none of our dogs had any experience with coyotes. Those sounds can be very intriguing for other canines and we didn't want them howling along (no matter how glorious a chorus of 11 dogs singing in unison is). So we started playing coyote songs, throughout the day, at a very low level and gradually played them louder as we had no reaction. This is HABITUATION instead of desensitization. We could only get away with this as our dogs had no emotional response at all to coyote sounds. It is a more passive process. It does not change emotional responses to a stimulus other than they learn to ignore it like we get used to trains if we live near tracks eventually (which we do I know from which I speak lol).

Since moving to our new home, Penelope has developed a severe dislike for our cooking anything in the oven. Whenever we open the oven door, the heat/smoke detector directly in front of the oven goes off (this house has some brilliant design features ....not). She has learned that baking = very loud noises. I can tell the moment Greg turns on the oven. By now, Penny has realized that her greatest source of comfort is in mommy's arms. So she puts on her best stress pant and comes and snuggles up to me. I have choices at that point to hug it out or go outside to play with her. Which brings me to another point. I will shout this from the rooftops, all day every day if I have to. YOU CANNOT REINFORCE YOUR DOGS' FEAR BY COMFORTING THEM WHEN THEY ARE AFRAID. Being your dog's safe place means they are less likely to run anywhere but towards you when they are afraid. You cannot make them more fearful by providing comfort.

In this case, our best option is to move that smoke detector around the corner so the blast of heat doesn't set it off. Sometimes management of sensitivities is a very easy and less labour-intensive option. Sometimes it is easier to vacuum when Penny is outside. Or use the blender or the new hairdryer she has taken a dislike to because it sounds different from the old one when she is out of earshot.

So choose the route you want to take. Whether desensitization/counter conditioning, habitation, or just management is your best option. And if you need help formulating a plan, as always, I am here. :)

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