Not Every Cape Has (or needs) A Silver Lining

It is now mid-summer and heat, humidity, and thunderstorms are rolling through our region. This is not the best time for dogs – particularly those with thunderstorm phobia. But what is it about thunderstorms that bothers storm phobic dogs so much and why is it so hard to persuade many of them that the sky is not falling?

The obvious answer to the first part of this question is sound – the sound of thunder – but whether fear of thunder is the primary reinforcer of storm phobia or a secondary one is not absolutely clear. Other events that occur during storms - lightning, darkening skies, wind noise, rain, changes in barometric pressure and changes in static electric fields - are also involved in storm phobia. Clearly storm phobia is, or at least becomes, a composite fear – which is why desensitization to the sound of thunder by means of tape recordings usually doesn’t work.

If the initiating event in storm phobia – instead of the sound of thunder - was a painful static electric shock delivered to a dog’s nose then thunder would only cue the dog to the fact that a painful experience might be in the offing. That would cause more even more anxiety than if the shock was delivered without warning outside the context of the storm. This was the basis of a book chapter I wrote – Thunderstruck - in The Dog Who Loved Too Much.

A new development in this story was a report to me by the late Tom Critzer of his invention, based on my chapter of the “Storm Defender” cape for storm phobic dogs. The cape was designed with an anti-static lining to prevent dogs from acquiring a static charge during a storm. Tom told me that he has sold a few hundred of the capes and that the results of using it were invariably positive. Needless to say I was delighted by what he told me but had to check out the efficacy of the cape in some of my own “patients.”  

Fourteen storm phobic dogs later I tended to agree with Tom that the cape worked – not in 100 percent of storm phobic dogs as he had reported but close to 70 percent. The cape appeared to be a useful addition to the war on thunderstorm terror. The question now arose, how does the cape work when it does work?  If it really cut down on exposure to static charge then we should be able to prove this by having owners equip their dogs with lined or unlined capes and be able to measure the difference. The lined cape should work (as in the previous trial) and unlined cape should be ineffective.

The experiment was duly performed. To our great surprise both versions of the cape worked equally well – both were helpful in about 70 percent of cases.  But if the cape was not working by shielding the dog from static then how was it working?  The only suspicion we have so far is that there is something about doing something different to a dog, like putting on its cape, at the beginning of a storm and then ignoring the dog (per directions). If this is the case, the cape simply becomes a signal that the owner is unconcerned and that causes the dog to relax.  

Whatever the true explanation, the cape does seem to offer some dogs protection against storm phobia and we are all grateful for that. One dog that had been successfully treated using a cape used to go to where the cape was hanging as soon as he sensed a storm coming and he would look longingly at it until his owner put it on him. Who says dogs can’t speak!     

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