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The Gathering Storm

We all have different learning styles, different ways we make sense of the world. I look for relationships. Even as a kid, I needed to know what something was similar to so I could begin to categorize it and assign it a place in my mind. I need an angle, a point of entry, to understand a concept.

 

For years, I worked to find a solution to Harley’s thunderstorm phobia. I wouldn't call it severe, but it’s moderate. He dug in corners, paced relentlessly, wore a worried expression that broke my heart. I felt helpless. We don’t get much rain in the desert, but when we do, it’s often accompanied by a terrific light and sound show that rivals the Fourth of July on the Esplanade. Even worse, it happens almost every day for about six weeks during the summer. I’ve never been able fully understand his emotions during the storms because I couldn't find a corresponding situation in my own world to build the simile. I could only sympathize with his anxiety because I hadn’t yet found the right relationship that would allow me to express empathy. Today, Amy and Mickey helped me find it.

 

As I was starting work on Mickey, Amy and I were discussing the emotional challenges of parenting senior dogs. She told me she begins to feel the dread of losing a loyal companion well before—often years before—they are likely to pass. Mickey, for example, is a relatively healthy 10-year-old Border Collie mix. He is active for his age, doing therapy dog work and canine freestyle obedience with Amy. He’s not going anywhere soon, but Amy still frets about his passing. She also pointed out that, counter to rational assumption, the losses (both two- and four-legged) don't get easier, but instead the grief is cumulative and the losses become more difficult.  We know and can anticipate how difficult the grieving process will be because we’ve been there before. Unlike our dogs, we are not trapped in the moment: we weave our past and future into our present.

 

As she spoke, I realized that I, too, often thought about the day I'd lose Harley and shared her sense of constant, low-grade anxiety surrounding this unavoidable reality. Her description of this anxiety and its compounding effects sent a current through me. I've heard—or seen—that set of emotions before. I knew it immediately: Thunderstorm phobia. I had my relationship.

 

Now I get it. The uneasiness of the unknown. My body’s physical reaction to changes brewing in the world around me. My sudden attention to small details, formerly insignificant sights, sounds and smells. It's unnerving and unsettling.

 

I watch him process those things almost every afternoon during the Monsoon. And he does it all without the benefit of time. He cannot project backward (“I survived yesterday's storm”) or forward in time (“The storm will stop soon.”). Unfortunately, though, he can learn associations. I imagine it’s like clicker training with a really big clicker (a flash of light) and positive punishment rather than a reward (scary wind and noise). This concept means thunderstorm phobia often has cumulative effects.

 

I realize now that we’re both apprehensive about gathering storms. I’ve lost enough family and friends (two- and four-legged) to know I'm dreading the loss of Harley. Once the Monsoon starts again, he’ll remember how scary the lightning and wind are. But we each have our way of comforting the other: I'm armed with his Thundershirt, Through a Dog's Ear music, a dropper full of Rescue Remedy and fresh understanding of his mindset. Harley has his silly grin, nuzzling muzzle and reassuring licks. I’m confident that together, we can weather any storm.

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Photograph by Lyn Sims

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Submitted by MJ | March 1 2012 |

A very interesting perspective. I thought I was alone in dreading the loss of my dog years before it actually happened. It helped to think of each day as a gift.

Submitted by Kate Titus | March 6 2012 |

Thanks, MJ. I, too, try to stay focused on what we can do today to enjoy our time together. On those days when I'm really tired or busy and don't feel like going for a walk, I do it anyway because I know we don't have forever. His silly grin keeps me focused on the now.

Submitted by Amy C. | March 6 2012 |

Thank you, Kate, for this insightful & sensitive essay! Several years ago, I gave one of my schnauzers to my mom, who lives in Michigan. While Darby wasn't afraid of thunderstorms in Arizona, Michigan has so many that she has become fearful of them, as well as other loud noises. I've heard of the Thundershirt several times now, and will recommend that as well. Thank you!

Submitted by Kate Titus | March 12 2012 |

Thanks for your comment! It's all just rain, wind and light to us, but our dogs experience so much more. I grew up in the Midwest (Go Buckeyes!) and I remember those loud summer storms. They are significantly different out there than here in Arizona. Even I can smell the difference -- I'm sure the Schnauzer would agree. Good luck reducing her storm stress.

Submitted by Murphee's Mom | March 6 2012 |

Well done Kate! That's a great comparison of the anxiety some dogs feel about, in this case, thunderstorms and how we feel about losing them.

Submitted by CH | March 6 2012 |

Kate,
I appreciate the analogy, but I'm not sure we can equate anticipation of grief with thunderstorm phobia. I don't think we know (at least I don't) what exactly dogs are reacting to: is it loud noise, bright lights, fear of the unknown, scary noises at frequencies we can't hear? How much of our anxiety are they picking up? Why are some dogs not bothered by storms and some completely beside themselves with terror? Why does it get worse with age (here it may share something with grief)? So it's not a bad analogy, but it's not totally satisfactory to me.
Is it possible to desensitize a dog to thunder with something like the "Through a dog's ear" music?

Submitted by Kate Titus | March 11 2012 |

It's not so important to me that I know exactly what Harley's reacting to (bright lights, sounds, change in pressure, etc.); I wanted to find an avenue to true empathy. I felt like empathy would help me think outside the box to better provide the comfort he needed. And I think I've found those things in the Thundershirt, Through a Dog's Ear and Rescue Remedy.

As for the desensitization, I started with a thunderstorm CD and the Thundershirt. The first time I played the CD for him at a moderate volume, he went to the sliding glass doors and looked outside to a clear, sunny day. He turned back in confusion, not sure what was going on, but soon found his bed and settled in. I later added the Through a Dog's Ear CD and Rescue Remedy to help calm him further.

You're right that not all dogs have a thunderstorm or noise phobia, but instead have other challenges. Like I tell my therapy dog class, I can't tell you everything you ned to know about your dog, but I can teach you to learn from him. And that's part of the fun of having a dog, right?

Submitted by Nancy Sperduti | March 7 2012 |

I sucessfully desencitized my Dalmation to thunder by going to Barnes and Noble and purchasing a dvd of a thunderstorm then just cuddeling with her armed with treats while we listened to it on the couch

Submitted by Kate Titus | March 11 2012 |

That's how I started with Harley and it was a huge help. I also used the CD to integrate the Thundershirt into the process. Now when the clouds roll in, he gets my attention (usually by positioning his head across my forearms making it impossible for me to type) and I get his shirt. He knows the routine and waits for the Rescue Remedy and the music before he settles in close beside me in the office. Whether he knows these are good for him or just focuses on the routine, it doesn't matter to me. I just know he's more comfortable and that's all that matters.

Submitted by Clare Annette | March 8 2012 |

I really enjoyed this article. Whether human or canine, fear affects both species; supposedly though only humans have the awareness of our own inevitable death, which of course most of use fear, which explains so many of our problems! Perhaps by observing our dogs cope with fear we can better understand our own. My dog, Bearbear, is very disturbed by thunderstorms. There's not much I can do except offer a calm presence, to the best of my ability; but even I am mildly unnerved by electrical storms! Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kate and Harley.

Submitted by Kate Titus | March 11 2012 |

Thanks, Clare. I'm reading a great book by Kevin Behan called Your Dog Is Your Mirror about the emotional capacity of humans and dogs. I'm always amazed at how much owners and dogs project similar energy. Perhaps Bearbear is feeding off your dislike of electrical storms more than you realize. Have you ever tried playing a game during a storm or doing something you enjoy to change your own perspective of the storm? Associating the storm with a high-value activity can be a great way to flip the switch on thunderstorm phobia. Be warned though, if it storms in the middle of the night, you'll need to rise and shine with enthusiasm to start the activity. Happy playing!

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