Thunderstorm Anxiety Counter Conditioning

This is a story about Tom.  Who when he was 5 developed thunderstorm anxiety after a very traumatic experience during a storm.

Prior to the traumatic event, Tom could have cared less about thunderstorms.  Slept right through them.  Granted we don’t get them very often around here, maybe a half dozen per year, but Tom’s a very temperamentally stable dog and not usually bothered by much.

3 summers ago, we went to a sporting event in a large stadium with some friends.  The game had just barely begun when a HUGE thunder, lightening and rain storm rolled in very, very quickly and very unexpectedly.  Had I anticipated it might storm that evening, I would not have taken Tom with me to the sporting event.

The storm rolls in, and the game is called to a halt.  everyone in the stands is required to get up and move under the large concrete covered sections of the stadium where the vendors, bathrooms and paths to different seating areas are.  My friends pull up the weather radar on their phones and swear to me it will pass quickly.  So we wait.  And it’s pouring pouring rain.  And the thunder booming all around us.  Lightening cracking.  People all crowded in.  And my nervous system going haywire.

Tom knows my body is having problems and he wants me to leave.  So we go find a bathroom hoping it will be quieter and less crowded so my CNS can take a break.  The bathroom is just as crowded as the halls.

I have Tom take me back to where my friends were.  And we wait and wait and wait some more.  The storm continues to rage.  They continue to promise the storm tracker says it will be over in like 10 minutes.  The game hasn’t yet been canceled.  The officials apparently keep viewing the same storm tracker and just keep postponing the re-start of the game.

My nervous system is shutting down.  Tom is stressed about me and my degrading function.  I (stupidly) keep over riding him.  He keeps telling me we should leave.  He’s right, we should.  But instead I keep listening to people telling me the storm is nearly over.

Finally after 1.5 hours of a raging storm, I listen to my dog.  And Tom gets me out of there as fast as he possibly safely can.  Our car is parked over a 1/4 mile away.  Through the raging storm, pouring rain, flooded path ways, Tom guides me out of the stadium.  My hubby following us, panicked really that I’m ignoring him and focusing only on what Tom tells me.  I knew in my gut that if I continued to over ride Tom, it would cause serious problems in our relationship.  So I let Tom do his job, working as a team with me.  Tom was speedy but careful, guiding me safely on a route he’d only done once that 2 hours before from the car to the stadium.  We got back to the car drenched but safe, and Tom then finally relaxed.  I had finally listened to him, as I should have hours before when he started to tell me there was a problem.

In this situation, Tom wasn’t anxious about the storm, he was stressed about my body’s reaction to the storm.  He takes his job as my guide very seriously and he knows what the progression of my central nervous system will be if I stay in such a sensory overloading environment once my body has started to have issues.  He then became increasingly stressed as I time after time over rode his request that I let him take me out of the situation.

The lasting outcome of this all, was Tom paired that stress with the storm.  And the next thunderstorm we had, he freaked.  Panting, shaking, wanting to be with me, then wanting to pace, it was so sad.  He was so distressed.  That first post-event thunderstorm happened in the middle of the night and I ended up holding him for over an hour until it passed and he went back to sleep, both of us exhausted.

The next morning I made a plan.

And over the next 2 years implemented that plan.

Our plan included:

  • Not leaving Tom alone (mentally or physically) during a storm.  So if it was the middle of the night, I woke up, got up, and did what Tom needed from me to feel safe.    If a storm was anticipated during the day, I made sure we’d be home (ie not out with him guiding), and that I’d be present with him
  • Observing where he felt safe in the house during the storm (sometimes this was our bathroom, sometimes this was on the bed, sometimes this was in the living room next to the couch) and being with him in those areas until he told me he felt safe to leave.  Again not leaving him alone, and letting him tell me where he felt safe not forcing him to be where I was.
  • If a storm was anticipated, making sure he had ample times to toilet well before the storm was expected.  So that I could limit the chance he’d need to potty during the storm as I didn’t want to take him outside and risk a thunder clap right over our heads setting his progress back
  • Giving Tom (and Zora and any other dogs who happened to be at the house during a storm) a treat each and every thunderclap.  Even if the dogs weren’t seeming to care.  Thunder = treat.  100% of the time.
  • Sitting with him and giving him a massage, deep pressure or other physical contact during the storm.  Tom thrives on physical touch and contact, hence why this was included in part of our plan.
  • Modeling calm and relaxed behavior during the storm.  Keeping my breathing calm and even, talking to him in calm, in control, quiet voices, telling him I loved him and he was a good dog and he was right this was really hard.  Even if he panicked, still staying calm myself and trying my best to be who he needed me to be.
  • Keeping the use of appropriate anti-anxiety medication as an option if we weren’t making progress and/or Tom was getting worse (as that didn’t happen, I didn’t end up exploring medication for Tom during this process)

Last summer we had our usual dozen or so storms.  And through each we did the above.  Some storms lasted just moments, others a good hour.

By the end of last summer, Tom was still panting during storms, but was no longer pacing, and he would on his own come sit with me during the storm.

Over winter, we had such odd weather, we had 2 thunder storms.  By the 2nd, Tom was barely panting, and while he would get up and come find me still, was content to lie beside me as I petted him and gave him a treat each thunder boom.

So far this spring we’ve now had 2 more storms.  One being last night.

Last night, I groggily heard the thunder.  A few seconds later, Tom got off his dog bed and nudged my hand.  I started petting him, told him he a good boy, after a couple of pets he chose to lay down beside the bed close enough for me to still touch him.  No panting, no shaking, just relaxed lying down.  I continued to half asleep pet him, and he went back to sleep for the rest of the storm.  At some point before the storm ended, I too fell back to sleep, my hand touching his back.  I fell asleep smiling.

Tom looking up at me ready to start moving again on a walk


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