Curing Thunderphobia...

...& the Fear of Fireworks

Excerpted from an article written for DogsNaturally Magazine.

Tension & Release

Fear of thunderstorms can be debilitating for some dogs. I’ve discovered a unique solution to this problem that I’d like to share with you. And, oddly enough, I learned it from a Sheltie named Duncan.

First of all, it’s important to understand that fear of any kind manifests in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. I use a model of learning called Natural Dog Training, which describes behavior through the properties of attraction & resistance and tension & release, rather than dominance and submission or punishment and reward. In the last two types of fear mentioned above—flight and freeze—the dog is feeling a great deal of tension with little or no release. But in the first type the dog is able to flip fear over on its head and fight back. As a result he’s releasing a great deal of nervous tension by “standing his ground.” Precipitating Event

One example of how the natural model of behavior can help dogs involves my Dalmatian Freddie (1992 - 2007), who many years ago suffered a series of traumatic events involving a frightening noise that caused him to panic, pull his leash out of my hand, and run across a busy street in Manhattan.

When a dog is frightened it’s best to get low to the ground and encourage him to come toward you instead of moving toward him. However, I couldn’t very well do that while I ws on one side of the street and Freddie was on the other. So I had to dodge traffic to get to where he was, cowering on the sidewalk. This caused him to cower more and start to move away slightly. So I lay down on the sidewalk, and was actually getting him to come to me when a well-meaning stranger tried to grab his collar instead of his leash. Terrified, he went into a blind panic and ran from Second Avenue all the way to Central Park.

A guy on roller blades followed him for me, but couldn't keep up once Fred got to the park and began was running full speed across the grass.

I searched the park for hours with no luck. The next day I put up flyers, called the local police precincts and vets’ offices, and got nowhere. No one had seen him.

I finally got a call three agonizing days later, at six o’clock on a Sunday morning, from someone who’d seen one of my flyers. When I arrived by cab to Central Park West, I saw him standing around, nonchalantly, with a woman and her Doberman.

I told her who I was and she asked, “Can you prove you’re his owner?”

Before I could answer, Freddie saw me and started straining at the leash, barking and whining to reconnect with me.

The woman said, “Oh, I guess that’s my answer.”

I asked where she’d found him and she told me he was just wandering around The Ramble, a remote section of the park. It was Freddie's favorite hang out.

Fred Stands His Ground

I took him home and he seemed fine, none the worse for wear. Yes, his poop was green for a couple of days (I assumed he’d been eating grass), but overall he seemed fine. About a week later, though, while we were on our way to go play in the park, someone pulled the gate down on a beer truck near to where we stood, and Freddie went into a blind panic.

This happened day after day. He’d be fine one minute and then some little noise would cause him to either try to run off or freeze, head down, shoulders hunched, his tail between his legs, trembling in fear. I tried everything I could think of to help the poor dog but once he was in that panic state, all I could do was wait it out. Then one day, Freddie and I ran into the owner of one of Freddie’s pals, a Sheltie named Duncan. I told Duncan’s owner about Fred’s panic attacks. He commiserated, then told me that Duncan had once been afraid of lightning, but had cured himself by barking at the thunder. Brilliant! I thought. He’s barking at the thing that scares him! After that, every time Freddie went into a panic state—ears back, tail between his legs, head down, ready to run off in any possible direction—, and I gave him the speak command, as soon as he barked, he became a different dog, almost as if he couldn’t understand why we’d stopped walking.

Barking didn’t cure Freddie of his panic attacks, but it always worked to pull him out of one whenever it happened. And the attacks slowly grew less and less frequent, and were also less and less intense. (I was eventually able to cure Freddie of his panic attacks using other tricks based on the Natural Dog Training model of learning.) I've used the speak command to help numerous dogs with a number of fear-related issues, and it always has a positive effect.

The Power of Speak!

One of the most practical ways this idea can be put to use is by doing what Duncan the Sheltie did on his own, i.e., teaching a thunderphobic dog to bark at the thunder or fireworks.

In fact, whenever I have dogs staying with me over the 4th of July, or whenever there’s a thunderstorm, it’s always quite easy to get them to relax, as long as they’ve been taught to speak on command. Once I can get them to bark at the sound of fireworks, they stop vibrating out of control, begin to calm down, and go back to sleep.

Begin by teaching the dog to speak on command. Do it in various, different locations, so that the behavior becomes reliable and automatic whenever the cue is given. (After your dog has learned to speak, you need to also teach her to be quiet on command.)

Then, on a day, when a storm is due—before the dog starts to panic and vibrate out of control—you tell her to “Speak!” In most cases, once she’s able to bark at the lightning she’ll no longer be frightened of the thunder ever again. Why?

Because instead of freezing or fleeing—where the dog’s fear gets stuck in her body, and has nowhere to go—she’s pro-actively fighting back. It doesn’t matter that the thunder and lighting don’t stop or go away. She doesn’t care because she’s no longer afraid of them. This is similar to a kid harassed by a bully. Once the dog finally stands her ground and fights back, the fear is no longer controlling her behavior and the thunder-bully no longer has any power over her.


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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.