Dogcharmer: Scared shepherd

When your dog needs a shot of courage during a storm.

Thunderstorms can be scary, even for a courageous breed like a German shepherd. —Wiki Commons

Dear Mr Shelby,

My name is Diana. I live in Mauritius. I have a German shepherd who is very scared of thunder and lightning. At the sound of thunder, he becomes like he does not understand anything … he starts scratching doors and climbs on them, or on tables. Please help me to help my dog boy.

Awaiting a reply, and thanking you.

Kind regards,

Dear Diana,

Sorry to hear about your shepherd’s intense fear of thunder and lightning. Unfortunately, it’s not a very uncommon problem. Here’s what I’d suggest from a behavioral standpoint, but even before that, please call your vet to have him (her) prescribe a medication to be administered several hours before a forecast thunderstorm that will reduce the intensity of the panic response. In my vast canine experience, I’ve seen too many cases where the intensity of the fear response keeps increasing to the point where panicked dogs are going through glass doors and windows to escape, with tragic results. 

In the meantime, Diana, the first thing you want to remember is to not reward the fear response. And from GS’s perspective, there’s a lot to fear. A dog’s hearing is 16 times better than ours, but it’s not just the thunderous claps and flashes of light; the barometric pressure changes. To the “weather insecure” dog, this is big! It’s the first sign; he knows what’s coming. The fear starts to build. Diana, when you touch a curtain and get a static shock, it’s nothing. GS touches the curtain he touched a million times, and it’s like a punch in the nose. Insecurity builds. Most dogs adapt, some go the other way, terrified. If you’re saying, “Good dog, GS” and “It’s OK, GS” as he’s obviously getting more and more anxious, he may see this as his anxious behavior is what you want. Instead, try to redirect. 

Start this way. Get a good recording of a thunderstorm, and the only time, ever, that GS gets people-food treats, chicken, steak, etc., is when the recording is playing so softly that GS is aware, but can handle it to earn steak tips for cooperating with basic commands, sit, stay, down, and come. Fetching the whatever for a hot dog piece is great fun, as you’re happy and upbeat and GS is ignoring the sound of thunder, busy with garnering rewards. Play this game for 15 minutes a couple of times a week, slowly raising the volume, hopefully increasing GS’s tolerance. My Doberman, Michelle, was afraid of nothing (except for a snapping turtle), and at age 13 she suddenly got very anxious during a thunderstorm. I managed to get her into a play mode with meat treats, and after a few storms, I think she started working me, coming to me when there was a pending storm, and telling me, It’s time to get the hot dogs! First thing Diana, talk to your vet. 

Good luck working at it!
The Dogcharmer

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