What It Takes
What does it take to train a dog? That depends on what you want the end result to be. Just want a dog that will sit, lie down, and give a paw shake when cued? That may take 3, ten minute sessions per day for a week or so to teach such basic behaviors. More complicated behaviors or tricks may take several weeks, or even months, to perfect. But a few things are sure: it takes time, commitment, and patience to train a dog and, for us, that was put to the test last night.
Over the past 30 years I have lived with three dogs that were fearful of thunder storms, and two of them were storm phobic. The difference? For some people or animals, fear may be a normal reaction to a storm, whereas a person or animal that is storm phobic has an irrational fear of things they may relate to a storm such as loud noises, flashing light, or heavy rain or wind. When I was a young adult we had a beautiful Doberman Pinscher that had a terrible storm phobia. It became so bad that she became destructive when she would hear any loud noise, and my parents resorted to euthanizing her to put her out of her misery. Unfortunately we didn't know any better at the time.
Fast forward to today and one of our current dogs, Ash, is storm phobic. Because we have had so many thunder storms lately she is afraid to even go outside at night. But with recent advances in the study of dog behavior science has found that behaviors such as this can be changed through systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (D&CC).
Our other dog, Chase, is not currently storm phobic, and is not really even afraid of a normal thunder storm. But last night's storm was anything but normal.
Around 3:30 AM I felt a lick on my arm. It was Ash, and I knew that wasn't good. Then I saw some lightening. Ash laid by the bed as I waited to see if the storm would quickly pass. What Ash really wanted was to go down to her safe haven, the basement. After it was apparent this one was going to last I got up and put her Thundershirt on her and opened the basement door.
Now, Ash's storm phobia is so deeply rooted she will never be cured. What we do now is just treat her so things don't get worse. If the storm is not a bad one we will try to desensitize and countercondition her, as she will take food if she is not too stressed. But if it's a bad one, like last night, we just try to keep her comfortable by giving her access to the basement, with the lights and radio on to help drown out the lightening and thunder.
With Chase, however, we always take the opportunity to desensitize him from storms. As I mentioned previously, Chase is not afraid of storms, and we want to keep it that way. When one pops up we will get out some string cheese and every time there is a flash or rumble the cheese will rain down, so he associates the storm with something good (food). But last night's was no normal storm. It was a doozy! So, from 3:30 until about 5:00 AM, there I sat with our string cheese, dropping bits of it for every flash and rumble. And boy, were there a lot! We went through nearly three pieces of string cheese. There were several times when we both jumped at the sight of a flash or the sound of a boom, but Chase didn't leave my side and readily ate the cheese that seemingly never stopped dropping to the floor. In between the really bad ones his tail would wag in anticipation of getting more treats.
Finally the storm subsided, Ash appeared from the basement, and she and Chase traded appeasing licks. We all went to bed and eventually drifted off to sleep. Another storm survived.
Yes, it takes time, commitment, and patience to train a dog. And to get the results you want you may have to do it at 3:30 in the morning.
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Jeff Dentler, CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FFCP, CTDI