Understandably, many a client has asked, “But isn’t giving him treats when he’s barking and growling just going to make him worse? Won’t he get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no, not if his behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.
Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do. But that’s exactly what I did to cure another Border Collie, my Pippy Tay, when she developed a fear of storms many years ago.
CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or, in Pippy Tay’s case, combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your dog.
Pippy and I would run outside and play ball every time a storm loomed. Pip loved ball play, and I wanted her to associate the feelings she had when fetching with a drop in barometric pressure. Once the storm rolled in, we’d go inside and I’d feed her a piece of meat every time we heard thunder, no matter how Pip was behaving. I wasn’t worried about her behavior; I was focused on the emotions inside that caused the behavior.
I even put thunder on cue. “Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!” I’d say each time we heard the thunder growl. Mind you, these words would come through clenched teeth at three in the morning, but for two summers, I chirped about thunder treats, pulled out the drawer beside the bed and fed Pip after each thunderclap. By the end of the summer, Pip stopped lacerating my face with panicked attempts to crawl inside my mouth to hide from the storm. She began to sleep through moderately loud storms, not even waking up to beg for treats when the thunder rolled. She came over to me when things got really loud, but with little of the panic she’d shown before.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that as Pip improved, I became conditioned in the other direction. I began to dislike storms, because even the quietest of them required that I stay awake long enough to hand Pip a treat after each thunderclap. And now that Pip is gone, it seems I’ll have to start again with Lassie. Sigh. Maybe I should give myself a piece of chocolate every time I hand a treat to Lassie!
Fear Is Contagious
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one way you can make a fearful dog worse, and that’s by becoming scared yourself. The emotion of fear is so compelling that it is easy to spread around. “Emotional contagion” is the ethological term used to describe the viral spread of fear within a group, and it’s a common occurrence among social species. If you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, strangers or other dogs, just get scared yourself. If you’re afraid of storms, it is entirely possible that your dog will pick up on it and become more nervous.
However, if you are scared (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body—slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.