“Don’t pet your dog during a thunderstorm, it will only make him worse.”
Yes Tic Tac you are correct, this statement is simply not true but you don’t have to stick your tongue out and be rude to our readers. There is only one way that could be true for your dog, and that is if he doesn’t find petting enjoyable. I’ll admit, there are dogs that don’t nuzzle into your hand, rollover so you can give them a good belly rub, or do that little kick or strange grin when you find just the right spot. But, for most pet owners petting is very enjoyable for your dog.
I’ve discussed this before in another blog post which can be found here, but counter (classical) conditioning is when you pair something the dog likes (typically food, we’ll call this the “good thing”) with something the dog has a negative association with (we’ll call this the “bad thing”) in order to change his association with the bad thing. Some of the best advice you’ll hear or read about is to have a treat party when the thunder goes boom. When done consistently after several trials (and that could mean 100s of times depending on the dog’s level of fear and value of the “good thing”), instead of pacing and panting, the dog goes “come on sky go boom… I want me some cat food pate.” (In case you don’t know me by now, I tend to put words in dogs’ mouths… this is called anthropomorphism.)
So… if dog’s like petting and we pet them during a thunderstorm wouldn’t it make sense that we are actually using counter (classical) conditioning?
Here’s the thing, we can only feed in response to a stimuli we know exists. This is why we most often feed when we hear the thunder. But, for many dogs the fear-related behavior begins before we even know the storm is on its way unless you are glued to Accuweather (or some other weather service). Next week, I will be discussing some key benefits of using Accuweather or another similar service to help our dogs. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to our blog post updates here.
The Value of The Good Thing Matters
Now, in case you missed it… the value of the “good thing” matters! Depending on your dog, you may be able to belly rub your dog to a better feeling about thunderstorms, but don’t think that will be enough to change the bad thing to a good thing. It’s a great start for when the wind begins to bring the clouds in, but you’ll be better off using something really valuable like “super stinky cat food pate” in a tube when the thunder gets to booming. I wish I could tell you exactly what to use, when to use it, and how many times to use it, but just like you, your dog is an individual. My dog thinks the sun rises and sets in baby carrots. So I might very well be able to use carrots for the boom, but if I try that with most dogs they aren’t going to give one sniff to that little orange thing in my hand when the sky sounds like its going to fall right into the middle of their living room.
Hire a Professional
This is where a good behavior professional can help. As you know if you keep up with my blog… I’m not talking about any professional, but one who has a philosophy of force free, fear free. After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to solve fear with fear. That’s just silly, not to mention mean!
A professional will help you figure out what parts of the storm your dog is responding to, how to implement a customized desensitization and counter conditioning plan, how to determine what is valuable from your dog’s perspective, and what’s the best management strategy for when the storms move in and are more than your dog is ready for. If you aren’t working with a veterinary behaviorist, your behavior professional should ask if your pet has had a recent veterinary visit and if you discussed his behavior with the veterinarian. Your pet’s veterinarian should be kept abreast of your dog’s progress thru training and behavior modification to ensure success and the best overall health of your pet.
Remember, next week we’ll take a look at some ways Accuweather can help. Trust me its actually quite cool!