It's summertime in Cleveland, Ohio, and that brings with it two things: thunderstorms and July 4th fireworks, both of which are about as much fun as navigating I-480 during rush hour.
While I've never known a dog or puppy who thoroughly enjoys either, I have met quite a few who have actual panic attacks during thunderstorms or when hearing fireworks. By tackling this issue as a dog training and behavioral issue in tandem, we can help them get through this scary time.
Your Dog's Point of View
Let's start with the basic mind frame you need to have in order to work through this problem.
Your dog isn't giving you a hard time, your dog is having a hard time.
I know...it's tough. Your dog has been barking non-stop since 1 a.m. and you need to work tomorrow. Perhaps they've had a few accidents in the house since the storm began. Maybe there's even been some destructive chewing.
We need to keep in mind that your dog isn't doing any of this out of rage or anger. They are trying to do anything they can think of to alleviate their fear. By realizing this isn't about you, it's easier to focus on who this is actually about: your dog, or more importantly, their anxiety. Take a deep breath. You can do this.
Be Proactive with Your Dog's Anxiety Training
If you've read any of my articles, you know that I'm actually not a fan of traditional dog training any more than I'm a fan of training children. A much more comprehensive (and easier to manage) gameplan is to Pilot your dog, in a similar way you parent your children. By making this a lifestyle rather than a crash diet, you are setting up a method to address your dog's behavior that has deep roots, rather than just barely standing on its own.
Helping your dog cope with a specific anxiety starts by Piloting your dog's behavior through all their anxiety.
So yes, it's wonderful that you're trying to help them through the fireworks, but you've never even bothered to address their anxiety about the mailman every day? Or their anxiety when guests arrive?
Anxiety is an every day issue for your dogs. Learn to address all of their anxiety issues, not just the once-a-year ones. Focus on the lifestyle change for your dog, not just the crash diet every 4th of July. Learn more how to do it in this Ultimate Guide to Dog Training article as well as this article about your dog's fight or flight response.
Don't be Afraid to Get Your Vet's Help with Your Dog's Anxiety
Maybe it's only once a year during July 4th fireworks. Maybe it's all summer long every time there's a thunderstorm. It's okay to ask your vet about medication to help with your dog's anxiety, but realize that this is a crutch, designed to help you until you and your dog can get back on your feet. That means dealing with the actual anxiety rather than just medicating it. Again, focus on Piloting your dog, rather than just training your dog. Learn more about the differences between training your dog and Piloting your dog in this link.
Piloting Your Dog's Behavior
Now that you've set yourself up for success, let's focus on what you can do during Mother Nature's spectacular shows.
I say it time and time again: start at the beginning by controlling yourself. Make sure your body language is calm and relaxed. If the thunderstorm is No Big Deal, make sure your body language conveys that message.
Also keep the talking to a minimum. You will not be soothing your dog, nor cajoling them through this mess, and your constant "It's okay, don't be scared, it's just a thunderstorm", on repeat shuffle is doing nothing to actually help your dog's fear, but is most likely only feeding it. Stop jabbering at your dog, and control yourself.
And please remember to check your emotions. I know you're tired. I know your dog's been a mess for several hours. I know it's so damn hard.
It's okay to be frustrated, or even angry. It's not okay to act out upon them. Learn more on ways to control yourself in this article.
Control the Situation
I know you're thinking that there's no way to control the situation your dog is currently in, given that there is a thunderstorm raging. But the thunderstorm is just one small part of your dog's current situation. There are so many other components that you can control.
Turn on Some White Noise
No, this won't fix the problem. But it will make the noise and startling abruptness of the thunderstorm seem less...big. Bonus points if you've started creating a calming routine utilizing the same musical or noise cues. In my house, I play a very calming playlist for my dogs every night when it's time to go to bed and whenever they will need to be calm in their mudroom for a while. It's on repeat, so they know that if that music is still playing, they need to stay calmly where they are.
While this doesn't magically make the thunderstorm less scary for my dogs, the music is a calming cue, and is just another tool in the toolbox of tricks I use to help train my dogs to understand what behavior is required during specific situations. It can take a week or two before your dog learns and understands these cues: start now.
Exercise Your Dog
I am constantly trying to broadcast the message that your dog's behavior is 75% rooted in the need for activity. Keep your dog on a steady diet of steady activity, rather than a crash diet of just a game of fetch before the fireworks begin. For ideas on how to efficiently exercise your dog (with less effort from you) check out this link. Again, start now!
Be Present for Your Dog
If a kid is afraid or has a nightmare, do you just yell at them to go back to bed? I certainly hope not! You are there for them, and perhaps will lay down with them for a bit to help calm them. Being scared is easier to deal with if you're not alone and scared.
My dogs typically sleep in their mudroom together, but if there's a bad storm, Ellis can sometimes have a rough time. So I bring him up into the bedroom, where he immediately crashes and sleeps like a baby. He just needs more of me, to be closer to me, to make the storm feel farther away.
And the best part is, since he knows I'm always going to be there for him, I don't always have to be there. In other words, he is so used to being protected from the thunderstorm that half the time I don't need to even do anything about his anxiety: he is managing it well himself. But he knows that if he can't, mom will be there to help him out.
Even something as simple as putting a leash on your dog and walking around inside your house can be a tremendous benefit. You're in this together, definitely, but some dogs have an easier time doing something together, rather than just remaining stationary. It just takes the edge off. And once that edge is off, now may be your opportunity to sit quietly with your dog (still leashed) as you watch a movie together. Turn up the volume...any little bit of distraction helps.
Pilot Your Dog
Your dog has a big question: "Is the storm going to hurt us?" And of course your answer is: "Nope!". Make sure you give your dog that answer if they can't come to that conclusion themselves.
Your dog isn't bad; he's scared. He doesn't need a correction, he needs guidance and answers. To learn how I managed that with my Arwen, check out this link.
But don't forget the most important part: empathy. Your dog is in a different place than you are right now. And that's okay. But rather than hoping they will come back out of their fear and anxiety by themselves, travel that road with them. Be there for them. Because the empathy and connection is what they are craving. Give it to them.
Understanding Dog Training vs. Dog Behavior
So where do you go from here? Well, continue to build trust. You made it through the first storm together. The first round of fireworks. Yes, it was messy. Maybe there was crying and tears (from both of you) but you both did it together instead of separately. And family stays together, weathering each storm (or 4th of July).
Interested in learning how to Pilot your dog? Learn more about our dog training services and how it can help you and your dog or puppy achieve your training goals quickly, humanely and without frustration.
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