How to use Thunder Storms for Training
Not everyone gets excited about thunderstorms when they have dogs. So when thunder started rolling mid-morning I got my first indication that my youngest dog is afraid of it.
I have two small dogs, neither of which has showed excessive noise sensitivity although the young seven month old did over-react during two large fireworks displays recently held in Hamilton. The 7 month old puppy (Fozzie Bear) has not been through a thunderstorm before so when the first roll of thunder occurred in the distance he quickly ran away from the noise whilst looking over his shoulder. I didn’t react, talk or follow him as he ran away; I just carried on working outside clearing the lawn of his toys. Once he had stopped running and the thunder had stopped rolling I found his ball and started throwing the ball with him. He immediately started running after the ball and bringing it back. Whilst playing, another roll of thunder occurred. Although he stopped running after his ball, I quickly ran in the direction I had thrown his ball with lots of laughing and gusto to get him back on track. After standing still for a few seconds whilst the thunder carried on rolling and seeing no negative reactions from either myself or my other dog he ran after us to carry on playing with the ball, which I had now picked up and threw again.
During the initial ball game the thunder was off in the distance so not directly over us to cause too many concerns. However, the storm’s direction changed and it slowly moved closer to us, flashes of lightning now accompanied the louder rolls of thunder. By this stage I was working in the garage tidying up a variety of boxes that had got wet due to the torrential rain we had had which came through the holes in the garage roof.
The thunder was amazing as it wasn’t just a clap of thunder, it was long rolls that lasted from 20 seconds to well over a minute, and the storm itself lasted from late morning to well into the late afternoon. This was indeed a rare opportunity to do some thunderstorm work with Fozzie.
I played with Fozzie outside until I saw the first flash of lightning. It was also becoming a lot darker as the thunderstorm moved towards us, so I moved into the garage which is crammed with boxes still yet to be unpacked since moving in. Whilst pottering around in the garage the thunder and lightning occurred more often, both gaining force as they swept closer. Fozzie, by this stage, would stop at the sound of a thunder roll but he was no longer running away from it – in fact he was now looking around for his ball. When he found his ball I would throw it within the confined space of the garage, however, due to it going outside the garage doors a few times I found another toy that we could play tug with as the lightning was a little closer than I would have liked and I didn’t want to risk Fozzie getting zapped whilst chasing the ball!
The thunder was now rolling a lot more frequently, louder and longer and although Fozzie was at this stage stopping at the sound of thunder he was no longer reacting by fleeing. In fact, he wandered around the garage until he found a box with some old dog blankets in and curled up and went to sleep. At one stage the thunder was directly above us as it clapped loudly shaking the windows and was followed by a particularly heavy downpour of rain and quite rightly Fozzie sat bolt upright. He looked at me and then at Ollie, my other dog, before he curled up again and went back to sleep.
After this particular roll of thunder I decided that once the rain had stopped pelting down I would close up the garage and return to the house. It took about 10 minutes for the rain to subside enough for us all to run into the safety of the house..
Once in the house, although we were better protected from the storm I started by playing a game of tug with Fozzie (an attempt at generalising the learning he was doing). With the next roll of thunder Fozzie, who was playing a good game of tug with Ollie, didn’t release the tug toy, but moved his eyes to look around and gently tugged on the toy in different directions to check everything was okay. Once he had carried out this check he appeared settled enough to continue playing the game of tug. Ollie and Fozzie played this game on and off for 20 minutes. After the training sessions and games of tug, and whilst the storm was still overhead, Fozzie spent the rest of his time sleeping. The thunder rolls were happening less frequently as the storm slowly moved away from our location.
But what will happen next time? I don’t know, but today I used Counter Conditioning to reduce Fozzie’s ‘flight’ response when he heard the rolling of thunder (aversive stimulus) by playing ball with him and remained calm and unconcerned as each clap or roll of thunder occurred.This whole process was worked on throughout the period of the stormy. It was a unique opportunity as I cannot remember a thunder storm that lasted 5 or 6 hours, whilst moving extremely slowly over the city.
Throughout this process I watched Fozzie’s reactions to check that no undue pressure (getting him to complete something that he didn’t want to do whilst the thunder was rolling) or stress (making him more anxious) was placed on him throughout the storm and either applied pressure by eliciting play by throwing the ball or removing it by pottering around doing my own thing.
It was fortunate that Fozzie’s reaction to thunder was not excessive and through many short, but positive, training sessions throughout the day his behaviour indicated that he became less anxious of the sound of thunder.
I carried out a similar process with my English Pointer Rupert Bear, and the spin cycle of my washing machine, but that’s another story…