What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Fear?

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer has gotten less afraid of thunder

Note: I have retitled this blog to change the word phobia to fear. This reflects that Summer was never diagnosed with a phobia, so I shouldn’t have used that word. Unfortunately, I can’t change the wording on the video.

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 wondering 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. How often does that happen?

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 Phobias and Fears?

  • 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 dog may hear the thunder before you do.
  • The sound is hard to “fake” convincingly using recordings on an audio system. Most 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 recordings 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 number 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 might.

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 thunderclap, 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.

Other Resources

Other Posts of Mine on Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Final Thoughts

In our situation, there is also habituation happening. 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 can be hit or miss, 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.

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

14 thoughts on “What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Fear?

  1. I love reading a post where someone acknowledges how HARD it is to counter condition to thunder! I read so many things about “how” to counter condition to thunder that would be nice in theory but… there are way too many other factors. Jeni came to us terrified of thunder, enough that she was far above threshold even when rain started, and would not eat. We had to start with anti anxiety meds first, and then work on counter conditioning, but as you said, you can only give so many treats… Still, we have her to the point where she is fine during rain, and can nap during a thunderstorm when taking Xanax, rescue remedy and with a thundershirt. Luckily none of our other dogs are fearful of thunder and I think it helps. We have a new puppy now who has likely never heard thunder before but shows no inclination to noise phobia so I have been playing thunder sounds but it really doesn’t properly simulate the real thing. I’ll be starting with treats for him the first sign of a storm this year though. I’m glad you were able to see a change in Summer.

    1. Thanks, Gabi! The difficulty was my point, and I’m so glad it was clear. One has to lower expectations in this situation. Your progress with Jeni sounds great, too. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I have been trying to counter condition my dog for thunder phobia… and it is hard because I can’t be at home all the time when it thunders. And even if I were to give her food consistently through the long storm, she eventually reaches the point of diminishing returns and starts paying more attention to the storm instead. So it really takes time to lessen her degree of fear. The other thing is, where I live the storms are seasonal, so while Donna appeared to be improving in the last year, we went back to square one after a period of dry season, so there we go again.

    1. You’ve really described well the things that are hard about it. Good for you for keeping at it. I truly feel that even if one isn’t actually getting counterconditioning, just having a predictable routine can help.

  3. Pingback: Storms ~ Ugh
  4. Eileen, I’m searching methods on how to help my STB fireworks phobia. Though I’m studying all things related, even t-storm phobia, I haven’t find quite the appropriate approach. If possible, could you indicate articles or anything to help me in my task? Thank you for any help.


    1. Hi Dani,

      Sorry your dog has fireworks phobia! This is a scholarly article that mentions sound sensitivities in general and cites some studies on fireworks near the end. http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Barbara_Sherman2/publication/23142303_Canine_anxieties_and_phobias_an_update_on_separation_anxiety_and_noise_aversions/links/00b7d52c43477120f3000000.pdf

      My favorite method for noise phobias is John Visconti’s “Bunker Protocol.” It is for thunderstorms but would transfer well I think. Here is a link to that. http://risingstardogtraining.com/reppep213/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Bunker.pdf

      In addition, you might want to read up on the CARE For Reactive Dogs site. It is geared towards dealing with visual triggers, but it describes desensitization and counterconditioning very well, and that’s the go-to method for fear of noise (along with medication if it is severe). http://CAREforreactivedogs.com

      Hope some of this helps!

      1. Thank you for being so kind and replying. I’m reading the “bunker protocol” that you linked above already and definitely gonna check everything else.
        Thank you again!

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