Overcoming fear of thunder and other noise sensitivities

Marvel, Lenny, Louie and Enzo with Mia, walking on a stormy day.

Heidi was a confident German Shepherd, big for a female, and awe inspiring to many who met her. At the faintest sound of thunder, however, she would shake like a leaf and run. If inside, she’d jump into the bathtub, trembling and shuddering, not coming out for hours after. If outside and if we didn’t grab hold of her immediately, she would take off. She would somehow escape the yard and run, run, run in utter panic. It was scary and we felt so helpless. She was in such a state, she literally couldn’t hear us anymore. We tried different calming remedies but nothing really made a difference.

Over time things just escalated. She also started to react to the sound of the air compressor my partner used for his carpentry tools. It got so bad that she didn’t even have to hear the sound, just the sight of the air compressor alone made her react in terror. Because nothing we tried helped her in the least, all we could do was manage the situation. When a storm was in the forecast, we would keep her inside. We kept the air compressor covered and out of her sight. What a blessing when her hearing got bad as she aged! It made such a difference.

Fear of thunder and other noise sensitivities can range from mild distress to absolute hysteria. Common symptoms are

  • eyes wide
  • ears back
  • panting
  • lip-licking
  • yawning
  • trembling

Fear-response behaviours include

  • vocalizing (whimpering, barking, howling)
  • hiding
  • pacing
  • escaping (clawing, climbing, digging, running away)
  • sticking to their human like a shadow
  • inability to toilet
Fear of thunder and other loud noises is an involuntary emotional responses a dog can’t control. The amygdala is a part of the brain which processes emotions and is concerned with survival. When activated, reacting takes precedence over assessing, taking in new information or problem solving (functions of the prefrontal cortex).
Photo by Marcus Cramer on unsplash.com

Some of the behaviours can reach dangerous levels such as ripped out, bleeding claws trying to dig through walls, cuts from broken glass from jumping through the french doors, gashes and other wounds from going over or under fences, or being hit by a car when running off in a panic.

Not all dogs fearful of thunder necessarily react to the sound but are sensitive to the change in atmospheric pressure. The static built-up causes their agitation. Putting an anti-static jacket on a thus anxious dog can be calming, same as rubbing the dog down with an anti-static dryer sheet.

Snug-fitting coats (thunder shirt), Bach Flowers rescue remedy, Australian Bush Flowers emergency essence, pheromone devices, herbal therapy, diffusing lavender essential oil, and medication are common strategies people choose to help their dogs. If the dog’s anxiety is only mild, often it’s comfort enough that someone is at home and distraction might work such as playing a favourite game like tug or providing a high-value chew. Many distressed dogs, however, are not interested in food or play. Providing a safe place to hide (such as a crate) in the most sound-proof room in the house is another option that might bring some calm and comfort.

All these measures, however, at best are only going to help make things better in the moment. They are for managing purposes but usually do not lead to resolving the issue, healing the fear of thunder. Sometimes the timing of providing them is of utmost importance and when the window of opportunity is missed and for example the remedy or medication is given too late, in many cases their effectiveness is compromised or they don’t work at all.

Finding ways to comfort and calm an anxious and scared dog can be challenging.
Photo by Samuel Foster on unsplash.com

Living with a thunder-phobic dog is often stressful for the human. It’s worrisome and upsetting to see one’s otherwise happy dog so severely affected. A feeling of helplessness, even despair, can take hold of us. Unfortunately, people’s anxieties aggravate the circumstances even more. Our companion animals are acutely attuned to our moods and emotional states. Sensing their human’s anxiety escalates their own. Let me give you an example.

Another one of my dogs, Border Collie Fraser, didn’t like storms and thunder either. He too would seek out the bathroom and jump into the tub. I didn’t like our tub to get all scratched up so whenever I heard thunder rumbling in the distance I would go and close the bathroom door. That was at a time where Fraser usually didn’t show any signs of distress yet. Smart as he was, he soon put two and two together and from then on started his worried pacing as soon as I closed that door! Without meaning to, I had exacerbated his sensitivity.

All this took place before me becoming a dog trainer. It was such an aha moment when researching the topic I learned how the human’s behaviour can cue the dog’s. It works both ways, meaning what we do can make things worse or help de-escalate. The door closing was not the only cue Fraser received from me, my mood would change too. I’d feel anxious, worried and irritated anticipating difficulties. At home, Fraser would only be mildly concerned with the thunder, he’d pace but settle with me if I sat down with him. Under no circumstances, however, would he go out outside to toilet, no matter how many hours the bad weather lasted.

If we were caught in a storm while out on a walk Fraser would dig in his heels and insist we turn around – even if the shorter way home was to keep going. His resistance heightened to the extend where he would snap at and bite me if I tried to make him move where he was freaked out to go. Very unpleasant for both ends of the lead. The next several days following a thunderstorm Fraser was more noise sensitive than usual. Someone slamming their car door would make him jump and feel uneasy.

I saw a big change when I began to alter my behaviour. As soon as I noticed feeling tense or apprehensive I would let out a big, deliberate exhale. I remembered that I needed to act matter of fact, as if nothing was the matter. Behaving this way had a beneficial impact on Fraser, his reactions were less severe and more easily managed. But he never got over it entirely.

Is there a way to help a dog overcome this fearfulness?

Desensitization is a method that often comes up in this discussion. The idea is to expose the dog to recorded thunder and storm sounds while providing positive experiences such as food or play with the aim to get the dog used to hearing these sounds and associate them with good things. It seems the success rate isn’t very high because one can only recreate the noise but not the other conditions such as static electricity or changes in barometric pressure that might be bothering the dog as well.

There is another way, though. What if a dog could be peaceful instead of feeling distressed, anxious, freaked out and panicked? Practicing The Trust Technique people have achieved just that.

Animals and humans share feelings.
The Trust Technique leverages this and teaches a way to help animals process their high stress levels, let go of their overthinking and arrive at peacefulness through their own realization learning. Sounds like magic? It isn’t! Everyone can learn it.
Photo by Artem Sapegin on unsplash.com

My Kelpie X, Louie, suffered a mild case of fear of thunder. Nothing else ever fazed this dog but when there were rumbles in the sky, he had the need to cling to me or find a corner or other safe place to retreat. He’d pant until it was over. Sometimes he’d tremble a bit. When I learned the Trust Technique and tried it on Louie during the next thunderstorm it was such a joy to see his symptoms of distress dissolve and calmness take hold of him. He was so relaxed, he even fell asleep! – Something that had not been possible previously under the circumstances.

When the next thunderstorm came along, I repeated the process, only this time the settling happened much faster. The Trust Technique has an accumulative effect when practiced on a regular basis. This greatly benefits the work on overcoming specific problems such as fear of thunder or other noise sensitivities. The essence of what the Trust Technique does is conveying, “Right now you can be peaceful.” What a powerful message.

This and other equally astonishing experiences with using the Trust Technique made me want to dive in deeper. I had learned how to practice it with my own animals. I wanted to learn how I could teach others and spread the knowledge of this unique method. I signed up for their practitioner program. The training includes conducting case studies. One of these allowed me to help another dog that was fearful of thunder, a nervous Kelpie named Ruby.

When a thunderstorm was brewing, Ruby would not leave her human’s side. That was a problem if she was home alone. She would escape her yard in search of her human. If she was locked in the house, Ruby would pace around and frantically scratch at doors and windows and bark her head off. She was terrified of facing this super scary event on her own.

Because Ruby was unsure about and scared of many things – the vacuum cleaner, for example, sent her diving for the doggy door to escape outside – I decided it would be helpful to create a safe space for her to retreat whenever terror struck her. A crate was already set up to imitate a den, with all sides but the entrance covered by a sheet, and cosy bedding inside. Ruby just never went into it on her own even though attempts had been made to make it attractive to her. That was the space I used for practicing the Trust Technique with her.

This took place in the first part of my training where the purpose of the case studies was for me to gain my own experience with working with other dogs than my own. I was not teaching it to the animal’s humans yet. I had done three sessions with Ruby when the next thunderstorm hit. I was amazed to receive a phone call the day after from her human who reported that the first crack of thunder sent Ruby flying into her crate where she curled up, calmed down and stayed until it was over.

Even though we hadn’t directly worked on that fear, by association with the peacefulness of practicing the Trust Technique, her crate had become such a safe space that Ruby preferred it over her previous strategy of seeking out her human, so that even if no-one was home when it was thundering, all was well. How incredible to achieve this positive change as a by-product!

Ruby

For the second part of my training to become a Trust Technique practitioner my case studies were about teaching people so that they then could use and apply it with their dog. One of them was with Louie, a two years old Border Collie, and his human was interested in using the method for helping him overcome his thunder and storm caused anxiety among other issues.

Here’s how Louie’s human describes the course of things, “We first noticed Louie’s anxiety would start well before a storm came and usually on heavy rain he would run outside doing laps of the property without stopping and would only stop if we could catch him. He would then pant and shake and the thunder storms would make these symptoms worse – the prompt was always the rain.”

When they knew rain was coming, someone had to be at home with Louie because they feared if he was left alone he would try to escape out of the property in a panic. They didn’t want to take that risk. A natural sedative was tried to help calm Louie but it didn’t make a difference. Nothing did until their Trust Technique consultation with me.

The Trust Technique is easy to learn. As with any art or craft, you get better with practice. The doing is where the deeper learning happens. The doing sharpens the observational skills needed, instills familiarity with the process, blasts away doubts and boosts your confidence. Through building trust and connection problem areas can be overcome as the animal learns to see through different lenses. By facilitating a process of letting go – at the animal’s pace, free from any human agenda’s rush – the dog’s agitation dissipates and the animal becomes calmer. We all know we act differently based on how we feel. If we feel nervous in a situation we’ll act differently than if we felt relaxed or inquisitive. The same is true for animals.

When we feel calm about something, a natural curiosity takes hold of us and we are free to look at and explore what previously terrified us. An innate learning takes place, we realize that we were mistaken before in our assessment of the situation and we adjust according to our newly gained insights. A change like that is more profound than taking someone’s word for it. The same is true for animals.

There is a difference between acting bravely and acting from a peaceful place. Let me explain what I mean. Imagine a dog goes on her usual walk only to discover to her horror that overnight monsters (aka hard rubbish) have appeared along the curb, oddly-shaped and menacing. She’s on high alert and extremely suspicious, frozen on the spot with her hackles up and an almost inaudible growl. If there is already good trust between her and her human, the latter might succeed in cajoling her to be brave and walk with him in spite of her fear.

What if there was a way to be free of that fear? To walk down the road because she knows the monsters aren’t monsters after all. She feels at peace and safe about the road and walks confidently. The Trust Technique provides the process necessary to work through over-thinking (such as fear, anxiety, over-excitement, frustration, etc.), allows healing of trauma (if required) and creates a sense of peacefulness which is a resource that doesn’t need bravery.

Perhaps you wonder if it really matters? Isn’t it sufficient if the dog trusts the human enough to take “his word for it”, so to speak?

Helping my dog to not only cope with a stressful situation but actually learn and grow from it – thrive as the best version possible – profoundly impacts our relationship. Our connection deepens, there is immense gratitude and other mutual benefits. It adds a dimension of communion that otherwise might remain dormant and hidden.

My dog Henry and I.
I don’t know what I would have done without the Trust Technique to help me with this very challenging foster dog who ended up staying with us forever. Read about it here.

What changed for Border Collie Louie after his human started to practice the Trust Technique with him regularly? Regarding his fear of thunder and storms, this is the feedback I received. “Initially I would sit with him on his bed and get present with him [that is one of the techniques] until he relaxed, that could take up to 20 minutes. Now it just takes a few minutes of getting present with and regarding him and he completely relaxes and calms himself. During the night when there are no lights on it can take a bit longer to settle him but he then sleeps through the rain and thunder. Thank goodness! Thank you!”

The Trust Technique has an accumulative effect. You don’t start from zero every time you apply it. The animal responds more quickly and eventually doesn’t need your support at all anymore. It isn’t magic, it does need dedicated practice in the beginning. People not only enjoy doing the Trust Technique with their animal but also love the benefits they get from it, experiencing more peacefulness themselves and consequently more resilience and joy.

After a consultation I check in with my clients and inquire if they have observed any changes in their dog’s everyday behaviour and demeanor. Louie’s human reported that she noticed he was more confident and independent, as an example she mentioned that he now walked down to their gravel arena when her daughter is riding, something he used to be too scared to do on his own. She also noticed another positive change. When Louie hears a loud noise now rather than reacting in an anxious way he seeks her out and she does a moment of Trust Technique with him which – as his human puts it – helps him ground himself really well.

Louie
Photo used with permission from his human.
How can you learn (more about) the Trust Technique?

A great starting point to understand what the Trust Technique is about is the mini-course Messages of Trust, please use my affiliate link if you decide to purchase it. Part 1 (20 minutes) is free to watch, the complete series (90 minutes altogether) is £ 6.50, a bit more than $ 10. The most comprehensive way to learn the Trust Technique is their online video course. If that doesn’t suit you, you can book a consultation with a certified practitioner like myself. Obviously a 90-minute session can not teach at the same level of depth as the year-long course but will provide you with enough tools under your belt to start making a difference in your dog’s life.

For questions or to book a consultation with me, please email me at mia@thedependablecompanion.com.au

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