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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ASK THE DOG TRAINER: Thunderstorms and Fireworks--Coping with a Dog's Worst Nightmare

by Judith Joseph, D.O.I.
(c)  Carrie Boyko
He Doesn't Have to 
Live with Fear

Dear Judy:

Might I be so forward as to ask another question? Dexter is terribly fearful of thunderstorms and fireworks. From other dog owners, I have learned that this is quite common among dogs. Have you got any suggestions on teaching him a better way to cope? Thank you for any help you can give.

Mr. Creighton


Dear Mr. C:

Thunder and lightening, vacuum cleaners, even lawn mowers can cause phobic reactions in some dogs.   How you respond to his fearful outburst plays an important role in his acceptance or non-acceptance of future events.  Don’t soothe him with comforting words when he’s whining, running crazily through the house or refusing to budge from his hiding place.  Comforting words reward his anxiety, reinforcing and encouraging his fear.  In frustration you drag him to the garage or his crate, using confinement as a quick fix.  While confinement may solve your immediate problem, it does not help him overcome his fear.  Frustration, anger, confinement add to his stress and uncertainty.  His fear could escalate to include urination or fear biting.

Your role is to get him over his fear through reconditioning.   With gradually progressive exposure to the source, he will realize that nothing happens to him and his fear will slowly diminish.  Example:  Many puppies are afraid of stairs and will jump around yelping loudly or run away--anything to avoid the stairs.  Calmly and firmly, on leash, we get them to walk down the stairs one step at a time, and nothing happens.  Their fear vanishes and soon they’re running up and down the stairs. 

When you begin, place him on a short leash or training lead, and use a collar he can’t wiggle out of.  Start a good distance from the sound or lights so it’s noticeable but not close enough to trigger a fearful response.  Have him sit, give a quick “good boy”, turn and walk away.   Repeat 3-4 times, 2-3 times a day, each time getting a few feet closer to the sound before turning and walking away. 

Work up to walking past the sound.  Many dogs quickly overcome their fear this way and can pass by the source within a few minutes with only a nervous glance or curious sniff.  Remember, don’t reward nervousness. 

If your dog acts up at the first sound of thunder, place him on a 6-foot leash before the storm and go into a quiet room.   Each time he reacts to a thunderbolt, drop your end of the leash and stand on it to prevent him from escaping.  During his episode, don’t look at or say anything to him until he calms and looks to you for direction.  

Get him focused with easy commands (sit, down, shake) and use special treats given only during this training.   As he faces his fears nothing happens, the intensity of his reactions will decrease, especially if you remain calmly by his side ignoring what frightens him. 

If you’re not afraid, 
maybe it’s not that bad.

See your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems that could cause erratic behavior.   I would suggest you consider reading the following resource:  “Help For Your Fearful Dog”, by Nicole Wilde, CPDT.   

If you seek the assistance of a dog trainer, choose one with experience helping fearful dogs. Good luck, and thanks for sending another question. 


(c) courtesy J. Joseph
Judy's Pack Focuses Well
Judith Joseph, DOI

For more information on Judith Joseph and her training, you may find her at TCDOA Dog Training. A personal appointment will likely provide more specific information on your dog's issues and your questions.

As always, Tanner has some thoughts on this problem. Check in at 5 Minutes for Fido to see what he's got to say on this matter.

Related Reading:
ASK THE VET: Thunderstorm Fears
Fireworks and Thunderstorms: Helping Your Dog Cope

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