Monday, July 11, 2011

Johnny and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I originally wrote this in August of 2010 for Love-A-Bull. For the record, Johnny is now 3.5 years old and weighs 75 pounds. He remains fearful of thunder- but has gotten a little better. He also shows a little more enthusiasm when I come home.

On any given day, when I come home from being gone all day, my 2.5 year old pit bull mix, Johnny, is stretched out on the sofa in complete nap mode. He’ll raise an eyebrow in my direction, maybe lift his head but he doesn't race to greet me like other dogs I’ve had.

When I first adopted him, I thought he had separation anxiety because when I left him outside for more than three minutes, he’d begin to bark. Later, at obedience training, I expressed my concern to our trainer, the late Lee Mannix. Lee looked at Johnny, cracked a smile and said, “If you dropped his leash, what do you think he’d do?”
“He’d probably run up to all the dogs and people and try to play, then attempt to sniff every tree,” I replied.
“That’s not separation anxiety. He’s being a brat and he’s testing you,” Lee said. 
Ah, good to know. I don’t have an anxious dog. I just have a bully of a bully. Don’t get me wrong, Johnny is by no means aloof or unfriendly; he just doesn’t need to be at my side every minute of the day.

That is, unless there is thunder, which brings me to my story.

A few weeks ago, I had to take Johnny to the vet to remove a benign skin growth. He had not eaten or had anything to drink since 10pm the previous night. When I picked him up in the afternoon, he was still out of sorts from the morphine and had seven stitches under his right armpit. He was hungry, a little confused and was ready for some comfort. Fortunately, due to the placement of the stitches, the vet said Johnny wouldn’t need the cone of shame (also called an e-collar). Instead, I could put an old t-shirt on him and fasten a knot in the back to keep him from going after the stitches. Perfect!

Pit Bulls for the Cure!
So we got home and I grabbed an old Komen Race for the Cure 5K t-shirt and slipped it over his head. In the past, he’s been very tolerant of t-shirts and while this was no exception, the morphine was making him extra “chatty.” So as I pulled his forelegs through the arm holes, he groaned and moaned- like a teenager forced to change clothes before going out. I wasn’t used to all his extra vocalizations, but the doc has warned me about this, so no need to worry.

Everything was fine. Until about 7:30 p.m. - when the thunder started.

Johnny has never liked thunder and generally seeks my company when the rumbles get really close. But this time- the first distant boom had barely finished when I heard him barreling across the hardwood floors and up on the couch. With each successive boom and crack, Johnny trembled and tried to scoot up closer to my face. So picture a 65 pound pit bull in a Komen t-shirt sitting in your lap, shaking, panting hot dog-breath, alternately whining and grumbling and you have my Thursday night.

Now, I don’t try to comfort him when he does this because I don’t want to praise fearful behavior. But I do allow him to remain next to me. I’ll also talk to him- again not in a praising tone but in a conversational tone. “Boy that was a loud one, wasn’t it? Isn’t macaroni and cheese yummy? Do you want to watch some Shark Week?”

After a few minutes, I’ll have him get down and lay on his own bed at my feet (although if the thunder is close enough to make loud cracking noises, he’ll press himself so hard against me that I’d swear we were violating a law of physics). Johnny has escaped his crate during thunderstorms past and has actually destroyed one so I don’t crate him any longer. Instead, I have a “quiet time” spot where the crate used to be. When the thunder has moved on, I’ll have him go to his quiet time spot and relax there.

So how does your dog react to thunder or other loud noises? How do you cope with their behavior? What has worked and what hasn’t?