Sunday, August 5, 2012

Thunderphobia Update

It has been about six weeks since Maisy started showing signs of thunder phobia. Hard to believe, really- she's made some amzaing progress in a really short period of time. Today I'll talk a little bit about where we started, what we've done, and where we are now.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Maisy's thunder phobia came on quickly. In the past, she's always been pretty chill about storms, barely noticing the noise, and often sleeping through them. But one night she... didn't. When the booms began, she pressed herself up as close to me as possible, started panting, and just quaked in fear.

Despite this heartbreaking behavior, I still feel fortunate for a number of reasons. For one thing, the reaction was relatively mild compared to that of other dogs. I was also catching (what I think was) the very first instance of fear, meaning that I could intervene in the problem very early on. I already had a proven situational anti-anxiety drug available, which meant that I didn't need to take her to the vet, get a prescription filled, and then hope that we chose the right med. In addition, I have enough knowledge and experience at this point to devise and implement a behavior modification plan. Finally, we have an established relationship with a veterinary behaviorist who could review that plan and make suggestions.

My very first action was to give Maisy her medication, which helped reduce the amount of fear she was feeling. Although training can obviously work without meds, if the dog is too stressed, it is much harder for it to be effective. Immediately after that, I started the tedious work of classical counter-conditioning. (See this post for a full explanation.) Simply put, for several weeks, every time I heard thunder, I gave Maisy a piece of tasty food. Although this has been exhausting (there have been nights I haven't gotten much sleep), by pairing the scary noise with something pleasurable, I have helped Maisy learn that the sound of thunder predicts good things, not bad. By changing her expectations in this way, her fear has gradually diminished.

I have been pretty low-key and matter-of-fact throughout this process. I believe that emotions are contagious, so the last thing I want to do is to behave in a way that would lead Maisy to believe that I am scared. While I'm not worried about reinforcing her fear, I also don't want to feed into it. By remaining calm, I help her feel more comfortable, not less.

Things have improved a lot. A couple weeks ago, we had an unexpected storm in the middle of the night. Maisy moved closer to me so that we were touching, but then she curled up and went back to sleep- no panting, no trembling, and no drugs or chicken needed to achieve that. (I probably should have continued our counter-conditioning, but she seemed okay and I was exhausted.) The next day, we played ball in the backyard while thunder rumbled in the distance. Maisy didn't even seem to notice; she ran around enthusiastically, her tail making giant circles the whole time. Occasionally she'd plop down to rest, the big grin on her face accompanied by relaxed ears and a slow, gentle wag.

These encouraging signs were not a fluke; we had a thunderstorm a few nights ago which Maisy once again slept through, so I feel very fortunate, indeed. Such dramatic progress does not come so easily to every dog. Although I definitely think my early intervention made a difference, I must admit that there are likely a few other factors at play. Truthfully, I wonder if her initial reaction had more to do with the level of stress around the house than anything else. Maisy is a pretty sensitive dog, and the mood in the house may have been just enough to push mild concern about the storm over into fear. Trigger stacking is real- and it isn't pretty.

No matter what caused her fear, I'm glad to see Maisy feeling more comfortable with storms. It's a terrible thing to see your dog scared and being unable to help. I know that Maisy and I got incredibly lucky in how quickly and positively she responded to my behavior modification plan.

For more information on thunder phobia, please see these posts by people smarter than I:
Blog post by Patricia McConnell
Informational post by Sara Reusche
Thunderphobia: A Case Study by Sara Reusche


Anonymous said...

My dog doesn't get fearful during storms, but he does show anxiety and stress. Panting, shedding, pacing and hiding in the bathroom.

My question is, what do you do if your dog (which is only motivated by food) is too stressed out to take food?

Crystal Thompson said...

That does make it harder. Honestly, your best bet would probably be consulting with a trainer in-person and/or considering the use of a short-acting medication just for storms. I know plenty of people who use things like xanax (prescription only) or even melatonin (available over the counter, but you should check with your vet for dosage recommendations) to help take the edge off their dog's anxiety during storms. Doing that may lower your dog's stress level just enough that they will take treats.

You could also try using thunder CDs (I think Through a Dog's Ear makes a nice one) so that you can control the sound level/intensity so that your dog will take the treats and do some simple counter-conditioning that way.

Good luck!