We really needed the rain here where I live, but when it rains, we also get thunder. Thunder can cause problems and even death for some dogs that have been taught to fear loud noises.
Yeah, I said it, taught to fear loud noises. I know that no dog owner purposely teaches their dog to be afraid of thunder or other loud noises like fireworks, but often that is the case. Humans have a very bad habit of treating dogs like humans, it's understandable, after all we're humans. But our dogs are not.
We think if we treat our dogs the way we want to be treated, things will be fine, this kind of thinking can have unintended consequences.
I'll breakdown a training scenario, when we teach a sit command we are teaching the dog to perform a behavior upon receiving a que (the word sit or a hand gesture) we give immediate positive feedback to the dog for complying, in the form of verbal praise and petting (do not use treats) if the dog does not comply we immediately give negative feedback in the form of a verbal or physical correction (corrections should only be verbal or with a leash).
Now here comes the important point I want to make, when the dog does something right you give positive feedback, by using a positive tone in your voice. Use that positive tone in your voice right now and say 'Good boy" this is how a dog knows he is doing the right thing; dogs do not understand the words you use as much as the tone when you say the words.
Now say the words you might use when you are trying to assure your dog everything is ok when they become frightened by that loud noise. It may be something like 'Oh you poor guy' or shhh it's ok", what tone did you just use when you said that reassuring phrase? Did it sound a bit like the way you rewarded your dog for doing something good?
So now it's time to do something most of us don't do enough of, put yourself in your dog's “shoes”. You're relaxing, enjoying the security of your home and suddenly, a loud bang that goes on forever it seems, you are startled so you start to shake and tremble in fear, you frantically look for a safe place you can get to, this can lead to jumping the fence to escape the noise.
So, you look to your human to help you understand what’s going on, and they start to say words like "oh it's ok, don't worry" in that familiar tone you hear when you do something good, so you think this feeling you are experiencing is the right thing to do, so you are being encouraged to be afraid of that noise.
Now back into your own shoes, when your try to console your dog’s fear, you are most likely praising your dog for being afraid, each time it happens it just gets worse.
Don’t wait until the next thunderstorm or the 4thof July fireworks to start teaching your dog to learn to cope with this potentially deadly fear. Start desensitizing your dog to those loud noises now.
Make sure your dog is properly trained (not with treats) to do the “Sit, Heel & Down” once your dog is reliably doing his obedience, start to create loud noises while doing the obedience, at a distance first, then closer as your dog gets comfortable around them. You can have someone use a clipboard and snap the clamp; it makes a bit of noise.
The next time you have a thunderstorm, put you dog on a leash and do an obedience session, be sure to let your dog know he must do the sit and heel, this will help redirect his attention to you and the obedience. Working your dog through these situations will help build his confidence, and his trust in you.
What you’ve just read are the basics to teaching your dog to be calm during a thunderstorm or a fireworks display. Most likely there are other reasons for your dog’s behavior. Come to one of my Drop-in classes in Kingman to learn more.
A Severe case
In the “Friends From The Pen” prison dog trainer program, we had a dog named Tiny, a Saint Bernard, she had been returned to the shelter several times for destroying the inside of the house and the backyard. The last time she jumped through a large window and ran off.
She was listed as unadoptable and was put on the e-list. I went to the shelter to find some dogs for the next round out at the prison, I was mainly interested in unadoptable dogs for the program, that’s when the shelter staff told me about Tiny.
Within two weeks, following my instructions, the inmate trainers cured Tiny of her fear of thunder.
Tiny "The Friends From The Pen" training program at the State Prison Golden Valley, AZ.