Thunder Desensitisation of Dogs
This is done by exposing the dog to very gradual increases in loudness of a thunderstorm recording (systematic approximation) and by giving it rewards for being relaxed when it is exposed to the noise (counter-conditioning).
It is not considered necessary to desensitise dogs to the lightning flashes. It is the noise which originally produces the fear. Although the flashes may become associated with it, by themselves they do not normally cause fear.
Although dogs initially react to the noise of thunder, some learn to associate the preceding events with the noise and may show the response several hours before you can detect the storm.
It is not known what changes the dogs are responding to but they may be able to detect:
- Low frequency noises
- Increase in electrostatic charging of the atmosphere
- Barometric pressure changes
We can only counter-condition and systematically desensitise to stimuli that can be reproduced in a controlled way, and we can easily do that to the sound component of the thunderstorm.
Even if a dog does get upset well before the storm can be heard by people, it is worthwhile desensitising it to the noise. It is likely to be less upset when the storm is overhead than it was before. In this way the bad association with the storm may be lost.
A recording of thunder should first of all be played loudly, but without distortion, to make sure it does cause the response in the dog. Otherwise there is little point in going through with the training, although some people have said it has been of benefit.
Most, but not all, dogs that have a fear of thunderstorms are sensitive to this recording when it is played on a high quality sound reproduction system.
Some dogs are not sensitive to the recording when they are inside the house and so the stereo system needs to be arranged to play back the recording with the dog outside.
Some dogs are not sensitive to the recording when their owners are present and so playback and observation needs to be arranged with the owners absent. In that case systematic approximation is used by itself without counter-conditioning.
For the training, the recording needs to be played for a start at such a very low volume that it does not cause a response. The dog should be given frequent tidbits for not showing fear.
Gradually the loudness of the recording is increased by very small amounts, with pauses for several minutes at each progressively louder setting, giving food rewards and praise as long as there are no signs of fear.
If there are signs of fear, or even apprehension, it means the last increase in loudness was too big a step. The training went too far too fast. The training session should be stopped until the dog has settled down again.
The next session should be started at least 4 steps back in the training program. A session may last up to about 40 minutes. Several of these sessions per day produce rapid results.
However, a session should always be stopped if the dog becomes tired of the game or shows fear. If the dog has a short attention span, the length of the sessions should be reduced to suit. Each session should start 2 steps before the point at which the last one finished.
The time required to completely desensitise a dog depends upon:
- How fearful it is
- Its attitude to the reward
- The quality of the sound reproduction
- The skill of the trainer
Sometimes dogs can be desensitised in one evening; other dogs have taken several days of one training session a day.
When it is on the training program it is important that the dog does not feel fear during a real thunderstorm as that will set the training back. If necessary, the dog should be tranquilised, sedated or given an anti-anxiety drug.
If the dog was only sensitive to testing when the owner was absent, then desensitisation needs to be done in a similar way but without food rewards (unless the dog can be given rewards by some ingenious remote control method ).
The volume is slowly increased every few minutes as long as the dog is relaxed. Once the dog has been successfully desensitised to one sound, training can start with other noises, such as the sound of heavy rain.
When thunderstorms have not occurred for a few months, it is a good idea to repeat the training to maintain the desensitisation.