Is it weird to write a post saying that something really shouldn’t have worked, but look, it kind of did? Is it irresponsible even? I keep pondering why I feel the need to explain all the strikes I had against me for this project. I certainly want to be responsible and not give people false hopes that if they try something they will have great success. But at the same time, I want to show something that did help my dogs.
Consider this an attempt to balance out all the posts I have read that say, “I tried desensitization and counterconditioning and it didn’t work” or “Positive reinforcement didn’t work with my dog!” Despite many identifiable barriers to success with something I tried, I still got a moderate change for the better in one of my dogs’ quality of life. (The others thought it was pretty cool, too.)
The requirements to perform desensitization and counterconditioning successfully are very straightforward, but can be difficult to do properly in real life. Often, people who fail blame the science. So let’s take a look at some of the situations in which the science itself says that the method might fail.
Challenges of Counter Conditioning
(you’ll see why I’m not even mentioning desensitization here in a minute)
To do counter conditioning successfully, you have to be ultra consistent and careful about pairing the stimulus (in this case, thunder) with the goodie that you hope will create a conditioned positive response (in this case, food). So if the stimulus happens a lot without your being there to provide the food, the dog’s physiology doesn’t get “convinced” that one will always predict the other. Likewise, if you run up to your dog and give her the same treat, in the same way, that you have been doing for thunder, but at random times, you will also dilute the predictive value of the thunder.
There are more nuanced problems. If your timing is off and you repeatedly give the goodie before the stimulus, you can get reverse conditioning. In this case, that would mean that food predicts thunder. Oh oh. And if you don’t switch up characteristics of the situation, the dog can attach the response to the wrong thing. For example, if you always wear a certain hat when counterconditioning, there is a good chance that the hat is the stimulus, or a necessary part of it.
And of course, the thunder needs at all times to be under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness for the dog. Yeah, right.
So what this means is that technically, counterconditioning to thunder may be well-nigh impossible. Do you get why? It’s something we have no control over. We can’t cause it, control it, or prevent it from happening.
What’s Hard About Treating Thunderstorm Phobia?
- Unless you are home 24/7, you can’t always be there to pair the thunder with good stuff. That can shoot your efforts down before you even get started.
- When you are home, the dogs likely hear the thunder before you do.
- The sound is hard to “fake” convincingly using recordings on an audio system. Most a speakers aren’t capable of generating the very lowest frequencies. And I suspect most dogs can distinguish the source of the sound. (It’s still probably a good idea to try desensitizing puppies via recording though.)
- In a real thunderstorm, you can’t do true desensitization. The thunder may start quietly, but it gets loud too fast, and goes unpredictably from louder to softer during the duration of the storm. The thunder goes over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness way too fast, i.e., the phobic dog is already scared.
- The rolls of thunder can have considerable duration and can overlap each other, making it difficult to know when to start and stop doling out the food.
- Around here, thunder can be audible on and off for hours. There is a limit to the numbers of treats you can safely give!
- There may be other physical effects of thunderstorms that the dog is reacting to, such as changes in barometric pressure. If so, those can’t be mimicked for practice, nor can humans sense them in a real storm in the way that dogs do.
So, given these limitations, I never figured I would get much of an improvement for Summer. But I’m a “tryer.” Even if we didn’t get a conditioned response, I figured the distraction might be helpful.
What I Did
I used spray cheese, my go-to easy, high-value treat. As soon as I heard the first thunder clap, or the dogs appeared to hear one, I got the spray cheese. I commenced giving everyone a little lick with each roll of thunder. I did this every time I was home. During very long storms or those days where it would thunder on and off all day, I would finally stop at some point, or stop treating all but the loudest rumbles or claps. This was not ideal, but real life came barging in and it wasn’t OK to make my dogs sick.
After a year or more, Summer started showing a preference for going into the bedroom when it thundered, so I incorporated that into the routine when possible.
In the movie, you can see the progress that she has made between late 2012 and early 2014.
Note: my treat delivery in the movie is often slower than normal because I am trying to film at the same time.
John Visconti’s “Bunker” Method for Thunder Phobia
When I first started this piece, I had not read about John Visconti’s “Bunker” method for helping a dog with a thunderstorm phobia. If you are interested in starting a protocol for your dog, you should definitely read the article and study his well thought-out method. It’s much more complete than what I have done, and has much better odds of having a beneficial effect.
He acknowledges in his piece that he can’t “prove” that the actions he took are what helped his dog so much. (But his evidence seems very strong, especially given that his dog started prompting him for the protocol.) I love that. I’m much more comfortable with his caution than with anyone who says, “Follow my patented, definitive, unique method and your dog will get 100% better! In only two short sessions!”
I was pleased upon reading Mr. Visconti’s piece that there are some aspects of his system that I have happened onto, mostly having to do with the routine. As I mentioned, at Summer’s suggestion we have started going to a certain room for the thunder routine.
But I did not take the care to condition a “whole package” response like Mr. Visconti did, including olfactory, tactile, and auditory cues. (What a great method, to pack in all those associations that he can control.) But I got the great food and location part. And as you can see from the movie, it probably helped.
- John Visconti’s “Bunker” method for thunderstorm phobia
- Debbie Jacobs’ great resource page on Thunder Phobia.
- Dr. Karen Overall on why Acepromezine is a very bad drug for scared or sound-phobic dogs. My post is not about the use of drugs, but they can be a valid way to help your dog when she is afraid. I’m including this link because there is a drug that used to be very commonly used for fear which is now known to be a very bad choice. Be sure and watch the above video if you are going to talk to your vet about drugs.
- My post on why it’s OK to comfort your dog when she’s afraid
- My post on sound masking for reactive dogs (Cover that noise up! This can help to some extent with thunderstorms, especially if they are not right on top of you.)
Other Posts of Mine on Desensitization and Counterconditioning
- Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning (Zani and the elliptical machine)
- Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking
- The Barking Recall
In our situation, there is also habituation in play. I’ve mentioned that sometimes we have thunder rumbling for many hours on end. I just can’t keep passing out the treats every time. Generally after a bit of time has passed, I can stop and Summer manages to sack out for a nap. But habituation on its own is a fairly weak way of changing an emotional response, so I suspect that the overall change has been due to the counterconditioning.
But even if this is mostly habituation and the security of a routine, I am so happy that it has helped Summer. I think ameliorating fear is a huge quality of life issue, so I’m glad to do it wherever I can.
- BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
- What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?