As we approach the firework season many dog owners whose dogs suffer with fear of fireworks and other loud noises are turning to the internet for information, desperate to stop their dog from feeling so worried at this time. And one of the questions I get asked is “Do ThunderShirts work…?” So here is my answer to that, and some other related questions:
Q: What is a ThunderShirt?
A: ThunderShirts are garments for a dog to wear, like a dog coat. They have been developed by a well meaning pet supply company with the intention of offering a calming effect to dogs and cats at times when they might feel anxious. They apply a gentle pressure which is thought to have a calming affect on the animal wearing the shirt, like a ‘hug’.
Q: What is the theory behind the ThunderShirt?
A: Dr. Temple Grandin designed the “hug machine” which was a device intended to relieve anxiety in humans, particularly those with autism. Pressure Vests and Weighted vests are now routinely used by special needs teachers to help children with a variety of different learning disabilities to maintain focus and concentration. This theory has been applied by the makers of the ThunderShirt.
Q: Do ThunderShirts work on dogs?
A: So, do Thundershirts work on dogs, if the original idea was for autistic children? Well Thundershirt.com claim that 80% of customers who completed their survey found that it had an improvement on symptoms displayed by their dog or cat. However, they did not specify whether this was weighted in favour of cats or dogs, and what symptoms remained. My dog behaviour clients know that the method that I teach does not recommend the use of any gadgets, because it is all about doing things the natural way, based on natural dog psychology. A dog left to its own devises would not have access to a ThunderShirt, nor would it seek out a ‘hug’ to reassure it. I am sure in many cases that a ThunderShirt could provide some calming influence, however I have worked with owners who have tried a ThunderShirt and found it made little or no difference. The same with Dap diffusers. I have also worked with huge numbers of owners who have overcome anxiety problems without using any gadgets at all.
Q: Why do dogs get anxious?
A; Dogs get anxious when they feel not all is well. They may perceive a danger to be present, or imminent. They may be worried about the wellbeing of other member of their pack (and this includes you). Thunder and Fireworks are classic examples of things which sound like a terrible danger, but are of no real threat at all. The majority of children are initially scared when they hear those loud noises for the first time. Once the noises have been explained by their parents, the people whom they trust most, then they know they no longer need to worry. If a dog is very anxious very often, then it is most likely the case this it is deciding that everything is a danger, without looking to you for reassurance that things are okay. And if they did look to us, unfortunately our natural way of trying to reassure a dog does the opposite, so we end up making them feel MORE worried! Unless we know how to show them that there is nothing to worry about.
Q: What are the alternatives?
A: The best alternative to a Thundershirt or other gadget is to prove yourself as a leader to your dog, so that they can look to you to make decisions about what is a danger and what is not. This will then allow them to see you as a calming presence when they perceive a danger, and know that, if you aren’t worried, they don’t need to be worried. For more information on this read my blog on what to do if your dog is scared of loud noises. This approach will also help them with any other behavioural problems, like pulling on the lead, barking, aggression, separation anxiety and so forth.
So in summary, to answer the question “Do ThunderShirts work?” my answer is, “well they might help, you’ll have to try it to find out, but why not do things in a way that makes more sense to your dog instead….?” Personally I do not see the harm in using something like a ThunderShirt if it is IN COMBINATION with removing your dogs inclination to feel stressed in the first place (which is what I teach). But always remember as a general rule of thumb: gadgets treat symptoms, not causes…