Q. I have a Schnauzer/MiniaturePoodle mix. She is 7. We adopted her, and she had formerly been badly abused by a man. We have had her for four years and she is a very obedient and wonderful dog. My problem is that she is terrified of thunderstorms and getting groomed. She shakes and pants really badly. I don’t know how to get her over this fear. Any help would be appreciated.
A. As far as grooming goes, the key really is finding the right groomer and providing the right environment. The busier and more hectic the salon is, the harder it will be for both groomer and pet. Some groomers have more success than others in dealing with fearful dogs but it is a challenge. While your heart goes out to your pet for her feelings of fright and anxiety, remember that when dogs are fearful, they bite. It’s their natural means of self-protection. Many groomers do not want to deal with the danger they present but some embrace the challenge with patience, gratified to see a nervous pet progress to the point that it will at least accept grooming if not thoroughly enjoy it.
One of the earliest and cutest of the so-called “designer dogs,” a mix like yours is also known as a “Schnoodle.” As a genetic combination of two breeds that require frequent grooming to be healthy and look adorable, your girl will require grooming so I understand your concern. Linda Johnson, one of our staff groomers, is also a certified trainer and she excels with “problem children” like your baby. She works with owners to help them understand that it may take several sessions to get their pet to allow a proper haircut but if they are willing to work with her and undertake desensitizing exercises at home as well — handling their dog frequently and helping introduce the brush — she will undertake the process.
You may need the services of an obedience trainer who does problem solving to work with a groomer to help your pet conquer her fears. Having your veterinarian administer a sedative before the grooming session may also help. Some vets use Acepromazine, a tranquilizer that modifies the chemicals in the brain to change the animal’s behavior by blocking the receptors of dopamine. There are also homeopathic remedies used to calm the dog’s nerves and relieve stress. One is Rescue Remedy, a botanical product made from Bach Flower Essences that includes cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rock rose, and Star of Bethlehem. Administered through drops on the tongue or added to drinking water, it should be given at home before the dog is brought to the salon.
As far as fear of thunder is concerned, it is believed that dogs are highly sensitive to the falling barometric pressure that precedes a storm, feeling the increase in static electricity as it approaches. When the rumbles begin and her fear reaction ensues, make sure she is in a safe and comfortable place; speak calmly and reassuringly to her but not making too big of an issue of it. Hovering and over-mothering will only make things worse as you will in effect be rewarding her behavior and reinforcing her fear. If you are afraid of thunder and lightning yourself, your own feelings will be passed along to your pet, increasing her anxiety. If she hides under the bed or follows you around acting clingy, act like it’s no big deal but never speak harshly to her.
Some vets prescribe Prozac for dogs with out-of-control fears and compulsions, while some animal behaviorists recommend using environmental tapes of thunderstorms to desensitize such dogs. This reconditioning process takes time and patience but I have heard it has a high success rate. With the recording playing at a hardly audible level and the dog beside you, offer her a favorite treat. As you gradually increase the sound, keep offering treats and speak to her in an upbeat, playful tone. Remember that you are supposed to be rewarding her lack of fear. Once she starts panting, shaking and carrying on, discontinue the treats and lower the volume. The idea is to create a storm situation that rumbles in, makes a big racket, but eventually leaves. Once her reaction shows signs of diminishing after several such sessions, you can play the storm tapes as you go about your daily routine, keeping the volume down low. You may even get to the point where you can have them playing in the background when you leave the house. Like fear of grooming, or any immobilizing fear a pet may experience, calling in a professional trainer or animal behavior specialist may be required to remedy the situation.