Backyard Blues

It is awfully convenient to be able to open the backdoor and let your dog out. Maybe you are even able leave him there for extended periods. Particularly if he can easily reach water and shelter in your absence, this may work out just fine for you, depending on the type of neighborhood in which you live. And then there are those dogs who sing the backyard blues. Dogs are smart, social creatures. Therefore, leaving them unattended in the yard can cause trouble that outweighs the convenience of having them spend their days outside. If your dog is bored, under exercised, or agitated by being isolated from you, you may find yourself with problems such as:


Barking or howling

Fence-fighting with neighbor dogs

Barking at passing dogs, kids or other pedestrians

Fence jumping (which means not only could your dog be hit by a car, but you will also be in violation of city ordinances; your dog may be picked up by animal control for being “at large” or disturbing people or their property)

Being let out of the yard by a worker, solicitor, or neighborhood child

Coprophagia (eating feces)

Ingesting toxic plants, mushrooms

Pawing or tearing at the screen or back door

Chewing on your belongings or deck

Being frightened by thunder or unruly kids (which can lead to a fear of going into the yard, or aggression toward strangers or children)

Being vulnerable to theft, abuse, or predators (such as hawks and coyotes)

Being in violation of noise ordinances (for incessant, early-morning or late-night barking)

That list covers just about every issue I’ve gotten a phone call about from clients who thought they were doing their dog or themselves a favor by leaving him in the yard, and found themselves with problems down the line.

For most people, the backyard is best used as a place to enjoy the dog by engaging him in fetch, playing or training, or just relaxing and having the dog keep them company while they garden. If you’d like to be able to use your yard to temporarily confine your dog, unattended, here are a few tips to help it turn out well:

  • Provide your dog with interesting things to do in the yard so he won’t develop bad habits or anxiety barking. Keep him occupied with: a stuffed Kong tied to a tree, a sandy area in which you bury dog treats, his meal flung out into the grass for him to scavenge, or a Kool Dogs Ice Treat Maker.
  • Make sure your dog is housetrained before using the yard this way. Otherwise you may be surprised to learn that your dog does not really understand the concept of “holding it” until given a yard opportunity, since he’ll be in the habit of just eliminating whenever he feels the need.
  • Provide adequate exercise for your dog. Your dog will likely just lay around in the yard, or maybe chase a squirrel or two. So you’ll still need to provide exercise in the form of fetch or walks for his mental and physical well being.
  • Use a fence tall enough that your dog can’t jump it.
  • Be courteous to your neighbors. It is not ok to allow your dog to bark incessantly. Not only does that indicate that he may be stressed, but also that he may be causing your neighbors stress. Noise ordinances prohibit this in many towns.
  • Keep your yard free of feces so that you can both enjoy the yard (and cut down on the spread of parasites).
  • If your dog is not used to being unsupervised outdoors, start out leaving your dog for short spurts, like five or ten minutes, and build from there. This will give you a chance to monitor whether or not this is a good idea for your dog.

Finally, be aware of why you want your dog in the backyard. If you are avoiding a training challenge, it might be best to get help with the problem that is resulting in him being placed in the backyard in the first place. Perhaps you just need a place to put him so he won’t be underfoot, or so your dog and kids can have a break from each other (in which case I would recommend an indoor Safety Zone). With a little forethought, you can keep your dog from singing the backyard blues.

Is Someone Sabotaging Your Training?

Do you ever get the feeling that someone in your household is undermining your dog training efforts? Maybe you have even invested in dog training advice, and a spouse or child does not follow through on the training recommendations the way you’d like.

You are not alone. Many of my clients fret that someone in their family is not on board with training. On top of not helping, the rogue family member may even complain that the dog does not behave as well with them.

What are you to do? Here is my advice:

  • Be grateful that the would-be saboteur is so involved with the dog as to potentially interfere with your training. Be glad they care enough about the dog to engage with him or her. Even if one or two training issues aren’t resolved as quickly as you’d like, it is probably all going to work out fine in the end.DogLickingSpoon
  • Try to be patient. After all, since they are not as involved in the training, your half-hearted helper may not be as quick to recognize, prevent and solve annoying doggie habits. So they may feel frustrated that they are not seeing the results you enjoy. The more they see you in action, though, the likelier they are to adopt the successful techniques you are using.
  • Choose one thing to prioritize, and let the rest go. For example, if you are working on several things like puppy biting, chewing on your belongings, housetraining, and crate manners, pick just one of those to get the person to stick to the rules on, at least for a couple of weeks. (Meanwhile, you can continue to work on the whole list.) Puppy biting rules are good to have agreement on, since that way they can still interact with each other without making things worse. Put prevention strategies in place to make sure the other priorities continue to go mostly well. If you have an older dog past the mouthy stage, but who is still in need of potty training, affix a housetraining schedule to the fridge and get a promise that your helper will stick to it. The main idea is that focusing on just one thing will make success more likely, and it will be a lot less frustrating for you.
  • Be open to what you can learn from your family member. I once had a puppy I had big competition obedience plans for. I wanted everything to be just perfect, and worked hard to teach the puppy all the right things. At least, that’s what I thought I was doing. Then one day I watched my spouse playing with the puppy. They had made up their own game, and I could see the joy and pure fun they were experiencing together. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, because it taught me to remember why I have dogs in the first place, and it made a huge impact on me as a professional trainer as well. Be open to what you can learn about your dog and your family, just by letting them enjoy each other.
  • Spend time with others who are also training their dogs. It is lonely at the top! Training a dog, especially a new dog, takes a lot of time, effort, planning, patience and creativity. If you are working hard at it, and you are the main person in charge of the puppy’s learning, then you may sometimes feel unsupported by those who aren’t at home as much, or who are around just enough to reap the benefits of your hard work. It helps to take a group class, where once a week you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people who understand your struggles and triumphs. You might also enjoy neighborhood walks or puppy play dates with people in the same boat. (The Puppy Social Hour is designed partly with this idea in mind, or you might try a semi-private training session.)

Finally, if you are really butting heads with your family over which is the best way to teach the dog something, invite them to the next training session. I fully expect clients to ask why I recommend a technique, or to weigh in on the way they would like to handle a training challenge, or to help predict fallout from a particular method they may be considering. Since it is my job and I am not in the middle of the family disagreement, a little objectivity is injected into the situation. A  family training session can be a good catalyst for moving forward together.

And, of course, sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh. For example, my dogs aren’t generally allowed to have food in the kitchen during meal preparation, but I noticed one of them had started coming in and staring at the same spot on the floor any time I got out a bag of potato chips. A little investigation revealed that someone has been accidentally-on-purpose dropping a chip there each morning when he makes his lunch. The dog never lies…

When Dogs Play: The Good, The Bad, and the Funny

DSC_0160The first Thursday of each month is Puppy Social Hour at Top Notch Dog. It is an opportunity for young puppies to do all sorts of important and fun things. They get to venture out to a new place, meet new dogs and people, practice coming to their person out of a group of dogs, calm down nicely between play periods, meet a friendly stranger or two, and get a little worn out. The puppy owners learn what normal puppy play looks like and how to help their pups out if they need it. My job is to make sure all the puppies leave the social hour better than they arrived. I want them to have a good experience, with both the puppies and people they meet.
DSC_0147Therefore it is not a free-for-all; I match play partners carefully, use gates or even a drag line on an individual pup if needed, and coach the owners when they need some assistance.

Last night featured a wonderful group of puppies and people. It was a perfect example of a mix of play styles, and the puppies adjusted to each other beautifully (despite some huge size differences!).

So what is good dog play? Here is a list of some of the good, the bad and the funny things that dogs do when they play together. This time we saw only the Good and the Funny, I am happy to say.

Good things to see when dogs play:

  • Taking turns (equal time on top in wrestling matches, trading off who has the valuable item like a toy or stick)
  • Inefficient movements (flopping around, falling down, rolling over, leaping, Viszlagoldencloseupexaggerated head movements like giant biting and snarling with plenty of teeth showing)
  • Play signals sprinkled throughout (there are many; play bows and paw raises are examples)
  • Reading the signals of the other dogs and adjusting accordingly (backing off if there is a short yelp or cessation of movement, and then trying again more gently)
  • Breaking off from play of their own accord to sniff, explore, rest, check in with a person, or get water


The Bad when dogs play together:

  • Bullying behavior in which a dog relentlessly targets one or more dogs (which may include standing over them motionless, body slamming, or targeting a body part)
  • Terrified behavior (i.e. tail tucked, trembling) from which a dog does not recover, but rather cowers or hides
  • Non-stop, obsessive play without breaking off 
  • Consistent failure to read other dog’s cues and moderate intensity of play accordingly
  • Drifting into true predatory mode, with emergence of quiet, efficient movements, like staring at and intensely stalking another dog (play signals will be absent)
  • Misunderstandings arising from mismatched play styles, possibly leading to fights or DSC_0171feeling overwhelmed (for example, in general dogs like labrador retrievers and pit bulls often engage in body slamming, whereas a border collie may prefer to chase and be chased, while terriers may like to bite hard and wrestle)


The Funny:

Funny things always seem to happen when dogs play with abandon. Like lazy play, which is what I call it when dogs lie on the ground near each other and wrestle only with their mouths. There was plenty of that in this group. We also had a comedian in the bunch, who liked to get the others going by biting their tails. And the little sheltie, the lone herding breed, wanted to play chase games, but couldn’t get anyone to run away from him. At one point he stood five feet apart from another dog. They were just staring at each other in a game of puppy chicken. Then he stamped his tiny foot, trying to get the other puppy to spook and take off. He tried again. “Where is this other puppy’s go button?!?” he seemed to be asking. And then there was Miss Stop Drop and Roll; she would get all the other puppies chasing her, and then, as they converged on her, would flatten herself, roll over multiple times as they passed over her (psych!), and then start the whole thing over again. Big fun.






Puppy or Land Shark?

It seems there is nothing safe from your little land shark: chair legs, corners of rugs, cabinets, socks, plants, electrical cords and your shoes. But don’t despair; the first thing to know is that your puppy is normal. He is not bad, or spiteful, or hopeless. He is in fact a dog, which means he has to rip and tear and chew at things with his mouth. Puppies in particular chew on objects a lot, partly to soothe their growing teeth and partly learn about the world. If you have a dog of a breed designed to put things in their mouths (retrievers and others), then you may find your puppy’s default behavior is to put his mouth on things.

The good news is that your belongings don’t have to fall victim to your land shark. All you have to do is be the one to decide what your puppy chews on. If you prevent him from putting your things in his mouth, and then provide your puppy with the chew opportunities he needs, you will meet his normal doggy needs and save your belongings at the same time. 

Prevention and planning ahead take forethought, but most people find it is far less stressfulPuppyChewing than finding a destroyed item later. Besides, by the time you discover the destroyed object, the puppy has had a lot of fun with it, and that fun experience he’s had makes it more likely he’ll choose a similar item in the future. What about catching him in the act and yelling at him? Yelling as punishment really isn’t the way to go. The only thing yelling generally will accomplish is allowing you to let off some steam. Instead, put that energy into planning ahead and you’ll enjoy your pup a lot more, and he’ll be learning what is ok to chew on.

The first step is to prevent access to things you don’t want chewed. Do not skip this step. By skipping this step, many people fall into the following common trap: they allow their puppy access forbidden items, and then hand him a toy that the pup likes to try to get him to chew on that instead. That approach may be inadvertently rewarding the pup for chewing on things he shouldn’t, because it establishes a pattern that teaches him, “Chew on my stuff first, and then I will reward you with this neat toy.” It may not be what you intend, but it may be what he learns! Avoid this trap by using an exercise pen, a crate, a baby gate, or a tether (when you’re in the room), or a drag line to prevent access to items that are off limits. It’s best to puppy proof a room or two to minimize the things the puppy can get into. Remember: prevent what you don’t want and then reward what you do want.

So, you’ve restricted your puppy’s access to unauthorized chew objects, and now you’re ready to provide your pup with appropriate chew outlets. A great place to start is mealtime. Instead of feeding your puppy from a bowl, use mealtime as a way to satisfy his need to use his choppers. To do this, feed all meals by turning them into food puzzles for him to solve. This is easily accomplished by pouring his ration of kibble into an empty, cleaned out drink bottle or carton. Discard the cap and cut several nickel-sized holes into the sides. The kibble will be released as he chews and paws at the bottle. There are also toys made especially for this purpose just about anywhere you can buy pet supplies. Look for the Busy Buddy line of toys, especially the Twist and Treat and Squirrel Dude. They now have sizes especially for puppies, even for very small breeds. Use food puzzles and other edible chew toys throughout the day to keep your puppy’s mouth occupied.

Solving food puzzles will provide an appropriate outlet for some of your dog’s mental and physical energy. It will also automatically reward him for amusing himself with his own toys (instead of waiting until he barks for attention or out of boredom, or chews on you or your things). Rewarded behaviors become stronger and more frequent. Hence, lying quietly with a chew toy will prevent or replace other bad habits. Even in a land shark.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Despite the photo to the right, I have faith in humankind. It is time, though, to start collecting photos of kids and dogs engaging in happy, respectful interactions with each other. Anything from the “dos” list would do the trick. I also happen to have a few copies of Happy Kids, Happy Dogs: Building a Friendship Right from the Start that I got when the book first came out. I’ll send a signed copy to the first five people that submit photos that I can use for my collection. I’ll post your photoschildallowedtostandondog on the Top Notch Dog Facebook page, here on the blog, and as an email so as many people can see them as they see photos like the one to the right. Please email your photo to me and let me know the ages of both child and dog, and any other info you’d like to share about the photo. Dogs or puppies of any age welcome, pictured with babies or kids. (Hint: photos taken outdoors, and in which the child and dog take up most of the photo, are usually best.)

If there is anything about the photo to the right that bothers you, you may well already be coaching your child and dog through lots of appropriate interactions. But here are some ideas to get you started. These are all ways that are great for kids to interact with dogs; they encourage respect and empathy and allow adults to make sure things are going well. 

  • Watch adults interact with, touch and greet dogs in the safe, correct way 
  • Help an adult teach or show off the dog’s tricks (high five, spin, roll over, take a bow, go night-night, the list is endless!)
  • Help an adult teach or show off the dog’s obedience cues (sit, down, come, etc.)
  • Under adult supervision, offer gentle, slow petting on the side of the dog’s face and under the chin
  • Kiss their hand and then slowly pet the side of the dog’s face to “give” the kiss
  • Play find-it games under adult supervision
  • Help adult bake dog cookies
  • Help adult groom the dog
  • Help adult feed the dog
  • Help adult fill the dog’s water dish
  • Feed treats while adult grooms the dog
  • Help adult play fetch with the dog
  • Help adult take the dog for walks (adult holds the leash)
  • Sing quietly to the dog 
  • Count the dog’s spots, feet, ears, tail, eyes, and legs
  • Draw pictures of the dog

Have a Heart, Spare Your Dog

Since you’re reading this blog, I’ll bet you really like your dog. You may even take your dog with you to run errands or for company on your way to an appointment. Now, I don’t want to alarm you (ok, maybe I do, just a little) but you may be putting your dog’s brain cells, liver, and intestines at grave risk. You could even be endangering your dog’s life. Every day, people just like you, who love their dogs and take them along on errands, put them in danger because they don’t yet know this: each breath of air that a dog exhales measures 102 degrees Fahrenheit, at 100% humidity. Therefore, as the dog waits in the car for their person to finish that errand, the car becomes filled with hot, moist air. The dog (who can’t sweat) has no way to cool off, and can suffer brain damage within minutes. When the air outside the car is warm, a greenhouse effect is created and the temperature inside the car rises dramatically within minutes. Yes, even if the car is parked in the shade, even with the windows cracked, and even if you leave the dog water to drink.summerfun

You car can reach 116 degrees within an hour—even with the windows down—when it is only 72 degrees outside. (Stanford University tested it out).  In just ten minutes, your car can reach 102 degrees if it is 85 degrees outside. When your dog’s body temperature reaches 107 degrees, nerve, liver, heart and brain damage begin to occur. If you have a brachiocephalic breed (a “short-nosed” dog like a pug, bulldog or Pekingese), an Arctic breed or a giant breed, you have even less wiggle room for safety. Talk with your veterinarian if you have any questions about your dog’s health and safety related to the heat.

You may think this does not apply to you because you’re just running into the bank to make a quick deposit, or you’re only dashing into the store to pick up a couple of items. But people just like you have lost their dogs to brain damage and heart damage after they said, “I’ll only be gone for a minute,” and then found their dog suffering from hyperthermia when they returned. Perhaps the line was longer than they’d hoped, they ran into a friend and stopped just long enough to say hello, or they spotted a great sale that kept them away from the car longer than that one minute. Canine heat stroke is a summer tragedy you can avoid.

To give you an idea of how serious a threat the heat is to your dog, it is illegal in many counties to leave your dog in your car (regardless if the windows are cracked or the car is parked in the shade) if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or warmer. Leaving your dog in your car is such a threat to your dog’s life that Animal Control Officers will break into your vehicle to save your dog.

If you see a dog in a parked car and it’s over 70 degrees, call 911 (yes, the police really do want you to call because a life and death emergency could be unfolding). They may arrive themselves, or they may dispatch Animal Control officers.

I don’t recommend trying to strike up a conversation with the dog’s owner, by the way. They may feel embarrassed and none too willing to heed the advice of someone they may consider a butt-in-ski. Instead, after you call 911, leave a  fact-filled flyer on their windshield. You can print them out yourself thanks to My Dog is Cool.

Last week I backed my car out of a space and was leaving the parking lot when I heard barking. “Uh-oh,” I thought. According to my car’s thermometer, it was 82 degrees outside. Sure enough, there was a little, black dog locked in a sedan. The windows were cracked, there was a water dish inside, and he was panting like mad. His owner was nowhere in sight. I called Animal Control, and just then someone came out of the building and approached the car. Relieved, I said, “Excuse me, is this your car?” and when she replied that it was, I told her I was glad to see her, because her dog was in distress and I was just calling Animal Control. She did not check on her dog, but rather said to me, “Have a heart, I was only in there for 30 minutes.”

Please, when it’s hotter than 70 degrees outside, have a heart. Leave you dog at home.

Top Notch Dog is for the birds

Ah, springtime, the time of year when a young dog’s fancy turns to thoughts of…hunting down wildlife in the yard. 

If you have a dog who is prone to pester or harm wildlife, I can empathize. I am pretty sure one of my dogs, who came to us when she was 18 months old and whose background is a mystery, is the doggie version of Jason Bourne: normally placid, fierce-looking, sociable, a quick study, a good sense of humor. And who, in a former life, was a trained assassin.939

Today I was putting up some lightweight temporary fencing around a group of trees that are the home of a Northern cardinal family. There are three babies in the nest (eyes still closed), which I saw the day the aforementioned assassin pointed them out to me. So here I am, merrily erecting the barrier to give them a buffer zone in which to raise their young with a bit less stress, when I hear frantic barking about 100 feet away. It was my little hunter, making an unusual-sounding bark that was something between “I am really fired up and ticked off!” and “I am not sure what to do about it!!” I glanced over and saw her circling a particular spot. Uh-oh. Dogs in a predatory mode are typically silent. After all, hunters are more successful if they don’t advertise their intentions to their prey (there are exceptions, like some types of dogs bred to corner their prey for people). So the fact that there was a whole lot of yelling going on could only mean one thing…a confrontation, a stand- off. A snake.

I left my well-intentioned project without delay and arrived at the scene to find a black racer, tightly coiled, likely feeling quite scared and annoyed (they are known for being aggressive when trapped), all the while keeping a close eye out on little Jason Bourne as she circled him madly, barking in his face. When I called my dog from three feet away (I was afraid if I got closer I would startle the snake into doing something rash) she not only failed to come to me, but she gave me a quick look that seemed to say, “Hello, we have a situation here that I am trying to deal with could-you-please-get-up-to-speed?!?”

Now, despite her apparent former CIA activities I have managed to teach her to come when called, even in the presence of a squirrel, bird or a mole. In this case she clearly thought I was nuts, and was not about to leave that snake to his own devices. But I knew better. Black racers are not venomous, but a bite can become infected and is no doubt painful. The same goes for a dog bite to a snake. Oh, and did I mention that the dog in question weighs less than 10 pounds? 

So I just reached in and scooped her up (the dog, not the snake), and took her inside. When I got back outside to see if the snake might still be there, he was about 15 feet off to the side, up against the house where the gutter downspout is. I snapped a photo just before he thrashed and disappeared into, well, I don’t know where, but that was that.snakewallsnaketail I bet he is keeping our crawlspace free of rodents and thinking twice about where he should sunbathe next time. (Most snakes are helpful and just want to be left alone; see the NC Extension Service for  information about North Carolina Snakes.)snakeburrowing


As much as some people might say, “Well, it’s natural for dogs to chase critters, and besides, it’s my yard,” it wouldn’t be hard to argue that, while it’s normal for dogs to show predatory tendencies, it doesn’t make much biological sense for domestic dogs to kill and eat wild animals (and most don’t). After all, they are not using those calories (in most cases) to create offspring of their own. And as to the “it’s my yard” point of view, I am pretty sure the critters might well argue that we’ve built our houses in their yards.

Wildlife experts would list a host of reasons why dogs (and cats) should be kept from killing or disturbing wildlife, including protecting endangered and threatened species, of which there are several in our state. I have seen signs out west pleading with dog owners to keep their dogs on leash during hikes. One sign pointed out that a leashed dog can even enhance the humans’ enjoyment of wildlife by alerting them to it (such as when a dog raises his head and ears, letting the human know there is something worth seeing in the brush). cardinaldad

It seems that the neighborly thing to do is to strike a compromise. Here in suburbia, that is easily accomplished. If there is a nest of birds raising young, keep your dog or cat indoors while the fledglings learn to fly (little birds hopping around on the ground should not be bothered by well-meaning humans either; their parents are nearby, checking on them and feeding them periodically when no one is staring at them). Take walks instead of playing fetch that week. If you encounter wildlife you believe may need your help, before you do anything call (919) 572-WILD or visit the website of the Piedmont Wildlife Center. Get advice before you act to avoid unintentionally kidnapping babies from their parents or harming them. 

As for our doggie Jason Bourne, she won’t be getting anywhere near the cardinal nest (or the snake if I can help it). But what that black racer has in store for the birds or their next batch of eggs is out of my hands…

What is a “food motivated” dog?

With the rise of reward-based training for the family dog, food treats have become a popular way to teach dogs new things. Most people participating in training classes, or just trying things at home on their own, have no trouble with this. They offer the dog a treat; he takes it and eats it, end of story. Then there are those who would like to use treats to reward their dogs, but they describe their dog as “not food motivated.” Here are two main thoughts to consider on this subject:

First, treats can be a very clear and effective way to reward your dog. But they are not the only way. Make a list of all the things your dog already likes, and find a way to use those things as rewards.

If your dog loves tug of war, save that as a reward for training coming-when-called. If he loves toblondielick blast out into the back yard, save that as a reward for sitting still until you release him (if he gets up before you’ve released him, close the door before he slips out). If he loves people, reward him with their attention only when he’s got all four paws planted on the ground. This approach is based on a law of learning called the Premack principle (in other words: eat your broccoli and you may have dessert).

Granted, if you are trying to teach a very precise behavior or small movement on your dog’s part (a certain trick for example), food is much easier to deliver accurately, quickly, quietly, anywhere, with less of a pause between repetitions, and with more nuance since you can vary the types of treats. It is also (generally speaking) superior as a reward if you are trying to keep your dog’s relative arousal level in check (for training relaxation on a mat, for example, or working on reactivity toward other dogs), and can even help monitor it (if your dog suddenly starts grabbing at the treats or stops swallowing them, he may be winding up too high or too low to learn anything useful at that moment).

Which brings me to my second thought. No matter how strongly you believe otherwise, your dog is motivated to eat food. Otherwise (how shall I put this?), he would no longer be with us. What may be lacking is his ability to take treats as rewards in training situations. While there are extreme cases in which a few more steps need to be taken, the following tips nearly always do the trick to teach a dog to eat treats during a training session: 1) Do not ‘free feed’ your dog his daily meals. Put mealtime on a schedule and take away uneaten portions after 10 minutes. 2) Use treats that your dog likes, not ones that you think he should like or wish he would like. I know a dog who used to turn his nose up to steak, but would jump the Empire State building for a bit of cheese. 3) Be willing, at least initially, to use ‘people food’ as training treats. Fed in tiny quantities (a handful of pea-sized treats), this should not make your dog fat. Fed in the context of training (not people supper time), this should not cause your dog to beg. And fed using common sense, this should not make your dog sick (dogs are omnivores and natural scavengers, so they are built to handle a varied diet; avoid items toxic to dogs).

Instead of thinking of your dog as “not food motivated,” think of him as reward motivated. This should open up whole new possibilities for your training.   


It’s getting to be that time of year again, when those who have thunderphobic dogs watch the weather forecasts closely and hope they will get home in time before a storm starts. If you have a dog who panics during storms, you know that your pooch may salivate, tremble, pace, vocalize (whine or bark), frantically try to hide, and even panic and destroy things in an attempt to find their way to feeling safe. Some of these behaviors can start before the storm is overhead. It can be a very stressful thing to go through for the dog and their humans.

Thunderphobia in dogs is one of those behavior problems that has stumped us in terms of “curing” it. This may be because there are many factors in a storm that could trigger a fearful response, and each of these factors in turn becomes associated with others. The clap of thunder is preceded by a flash of lightening, which is accompanied by rain and wind, darkening skies, changes in barometric pressure and static electricity, and even things we can’t perceive but our dogs can. These things don’t phase some dogs a bit, yet others, in the same household, may hardly be able to cope. There is speculation that genetics may play the biggest role in this problem, but exactly how is not known.

Fortunately there are things you can do to help put your dog at ease. At the first hint you suspect your dog may not like storms (sometimes this is after months or years of storms having little effect on the dog), engage him in play like tug of war or tricks for treats. This can help nip the problem in the bud, since the storm will then be associated with feeling playful instead of worried. This problem tends to get worse each season, so don’t wait to help your dog.

If your dog already has a fearful response to storms, here are some things you can try that I know from first-hand experience have helped. No two dogs are alike, so be prepared for some trial and error. It’s best to get a referral for a qualified trainer or behaviorist from your veterinarian rather than winging it on your own, since a panicked dog can injure himself or others.

  • If your dog is only slightly uneasy, engage her in tricks with very high value food treats (like bits of real meat) before she has a chance to get too worried. Find-it games with her dinner are a great idea, too. The act of eating can really help calm a dog (and if she is too worried to eat, that is a sign she may be more tense than you thought).
  • When skies are clear and no storm is imminent, teach your dog to love her crate and feel happy and safe there. Then she can seek it out and use it as a calming hiding place when a storm comes. Crate Games is a wonderful DVD that will show you how.
  • Stuff cotton in each of your dog’s ears to muffle the sounds.
  • Use a baby gate to confine your dog to a small bathroom and run the fan on high. Pull down the window shade and turn on the light to minimize the lightening flash. A special edible chewy may help her enjoy this routine.
  • Try giving a few drops of Rescue Remedy (available at stores like Whole Foods) on the tongue about 20 minutes before the storm. It can’t hurt and might help. You can also spray your dog’s bedding with Comfort Zone Dog Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P.) or just let them wear the D.A.P. collar during thunderstorm season.
  • Try an Anxiety Wrap, Thundershirt or use an ace bandage to snugly (not tightly) wrap you dog’s chest/front third of his body. The reason “swaddling” like this can work is not known, but it really helps some dogs stay calm.
  • Speak with your veterinarian about medication options. I am not a veterinarian, but those I’ve consulted with tell me the correct medication should not make your dog dopey or change his personality. In the past, sedatives were prescribed for thunderphobia, but many veterinarians now avoid this (because the dog felt just as afraid but was merely sedated) and instead choose anti-anxiety medications (like Xanax). There are short-acting anti-anxiety medications that can even be given the day of the storm before you leave for work. Some dogs build up a tolerance to them, but by then you have probably gone a long way to changing how they feel about storms.

Using storm CD’s to desensitize dogs with this problem yields mixed results. I think it has to do with the many other variables that are in play, and the fact that this systematic sound work must only be done out of thunderstorm season; most dog owners aren’t thinking about storms when the the skies are finally quiet, so the timing is off in terms of starting the process.

If you try some of these suggestions and they help your dog, please let me know. And if you have another suggestion that has helped your pooch, I hope you’ll share it and I will be sure to pass it on. In the meantime, I’m happy to say it looks like we are in for sunny skies this weekend.