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Thunder phobia is probably one of the most intractable problems with which dogs and their people contend. Storms and thunder propel some dogs into seemingly unbearable distress and wildly destructive behavior. Their people often feel helpless and frustrated. All too often such dogs are repeatedly adopted and surrendered to a shelter until they are adopted no more.

Welcome to the sixth and last post in our series: Difficult, Aggressive Dogs Need Strong Training. (Really?)

In this installment, John Visconti concludes his story about rehabilitating and training Pepper, the dog he adopted from a local shelter who suffers from, among many other things, severe thunder phobia.

Before turning you over to John, I want to take a moment to thank him againThank you, John!–for so generously sharing his and Pepper’s story. I hope their success is an inspiration, and demonstrates, by example, that aggressive, difficult dogs are not a special class dogs that need so-called “strong handling”. Rather, they are special dogs that require the kind of patient, smart, compassionate, and creative science-based rehabilitation and training that John is so ably providing for Pepper.


John & Pepper on a clear day

The thing I am proudest of is how we worked together on Pepper’s thunder phobia.

I had never seen a thunder phobic dog. It’s a pitiful sight. A few years ago, she’d start to pace before the storm arrived. The pacing would escalate to panting and racing from room to room. Eventually, that would escalate to clawing at the carpet and chewing at the baseboards and front door. Trying to corral her was impossible as she simply ran around the house the entire time.

I tried all the standards–thunder wrap, DAP, Rescue Remedy, Alprazolam, Zyklene–with no success. I tried to counter-condition her, all to no avail.

Once the storm started (and it started for her long before it started for me because she triggers to changes that aren’t apparent to me) her brain was already in full phobic gear so no behavioral approach worked. She was in a drooling frenzy. This was clearly not the time to click and reward.

As an aside, I didn’t even bother to try the approach that is often offered, that is, playing a CD of thunder sounds and systematically desensitizing the dog by slowly raising the volume while rewarding with food. Clearly, for a thunder phobic dog, there are many more triggers than sound.

Once, when putting the wrap on her, I realized, if I only did so during a storm, it would simply become part of the awful experience, or worse, a trigger. I began to put the wrap on her during good weather. I’d take her for a walk with it on. Essentially, I wanted the wrap to have a positive association.

Riding Out the Storm Together

With this as my “ah hah” moment, I decided to set up a system for us to ride out the storms rather than to try to change her responses to them.

My tools were: a hair scrunchie; a lavender scented candle; white noise machine; CD of soft music (all written and recorded by me, of course); food.

The recipe? I placed the scrunchie up high on her left leg where it meets her body. We went into my office. The candle was then lit, music started, white noise machine turned on. She was cued to go to her bed. While there, I massaged her and gave her treats.

We repeated this process a number of times. Much as I was tempted to try it during thunderstorms, I didn’t want to ruin the association. So we always practiced this routine during nice weather.

When we went live, when the thunderstorm began for her, I placed the scrunchie on her leg and into the office we went. We did the entire routine. She was still afraid, was not interested in food but she wasn’t doing any of the old behaviors. We rode the storm out.

I have since been able to simply call her to my office during storms. We use the white noise machine and the music. And she is even able to take food now.

My proudest moment occurred a few weeks ago. Late night/early morning thunderstorms were in the forecast. I went to bed that night with this on my mind. Pepper woke me up by tapping on my shoulder with her paw as if to say, “Hey, thunder! Air Raid Routine. Let’s go.” In the past, she would have awoken me by slamming into doors and running up and down the stairs.

I got out of bed, and she went directly to the office, ahead of me. And we rode out the storm.

I have no idea if she’ll find comfort, in my absence, during a storm and nor do I plan to find out.

My good buddy and mentor, Mira Leibstein, dog trainer extraordinaire, said of Pepper “She’s going to be your teaching dog.” And Mira was right. As much as I’ve taught Pepper, she has taught me much more. I am forever in her debt.


Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Difficult, Aggressive Dogs Need “Strong” Training. Really? (John’s story: John Meets Pepper)

Part 2: Difficult, Aggressive Dogs Need “Strong” Training. Really? (John’s story: I’m Safe. You Can Look at  Me)

Part 3: Difficult, Aggressive Dogs Need “Strong” Training. Really? (John’s story: Positive Does NOT Mean Permissive)

Part 4: Difficult, Aggressive Dogs Need “Strong” Training. Really? (John’s story: Resource Guarding? Biting? Dog-dog Aggression? No Sweat.)

Part 5: Difficult, Aggressive Dogs Need “Strong” Training. Really? (John’s story: Lunging and Barking at People? Not for Long!)

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32 Responses to “Scrunchies and Lavender Candles for Thunder Phobia? Yep.”

  1. Footnote: Last night, thunder was pretty heavy. Pepper and I have done the “Office Bunker” routine a number of times, so last night, I decided to see what would happen if we stayed in the den, rather than going into my office.

    No doubt, she was still afraid but she behaved exactly as she did when in my office. She sat by me and then eventually went to her bed, which was 6 feet or so from where I was sitting on the couch.

    No pacing. No running around the house. No chewing.

    In the past, if I opened the door to my office during a storm, she would dash out and run around the house.

    Last night, there was none of this.

    Clearly, she has generalized the “bunker” routine to other parts of the house. THIS is a great thing.

    I’m darn proud of her :)

    • That’s HUGE! You and Pepper are a wonderful team. I’m glad she’s so much less distressed. I can only imagine the misery she was in before. And, how rewarding her new found relative peace is for you in so many ways.

      Thank you again for this great series. It’s been a pleasure working with you. :-)

  2. Therese Malone says:

    Hi John,
    I have so enjoyed reading and sharing your articles on rehabilitating Pepper – she is one lucky dog to have found someone like you :))
    I have one question regarding your final blog -what is the reason for the scrunchie? I have never come across this before…is it a form of accupressure or a cue – or both? Looking forward to your response with great interest.
    Many thanks,

    • Theresa….thank you for the kind words.

      My thought was that I wanted to put something unique on her body that would trigger a positive association. So, scrunchie on = all kinds of nice stuff happening.

      My hope was that at least I’d have something to counter balance the thunder phobia when it kicked in. There was no way to work with her when the thunder arrived, so I figured I’d come up with a series of actions that we could replicate during the storm.

      Typically, dogs trigger to thunder long before we hear the storm. By the time we address the situation, the dog’s brain has already begun to send out messages that create a strong emotional response. This is why attempting to reach the dog through the congnitive part of the brain most often doesn’t work. The overriding messages from the lower part of the brain have already kicked in.

      So, I figured, I’d try to balance negative emotion with positive emotion…hence, the scrunchie and other stuff.

      I came upon the idea after trying classic D/CC stuff that had zero impact. When in fear mode, the last thing she was interested in was a “click” and a treat. CD’s of thunder were useless because they only replicated the sound of the storm. She reacts prior to the sound.

      I might be completely off base. I only know that it’s the only thing that worked. She’s still afraid. That’s ok. I’m never going to change that. BUT we changed how she responds to the fear. And that works well for both of us.


      • John, one of the many things I love about your approach is your willingness to try different things within the realm of positive training and rehabilitation. You combine compassion and creativity in ways that we all can learn from. You teach us that all the answers to all the problems that dogs and their people face are not known. There isn’t a recipe for everything.

        Thank you again for a lovely series :-)

        • Blaine Nye, ex-Dallas Cowboy, referred to his team’s rookie QB winning a game as the “triumph of an uncluttered mind”

          The world of dog training was fairly new to me when I first brought Pepper home. As I have advanced my knowledge, I try to hold on to my “uncluttered mind”.

          And…thank you VERY much for presenting me with this opportunity.



      • Therese Malone says:

        John, thanks so much for your in-depth response *smile*.
        I love that you are so open-minded and prepared to think ‘outside the box’ relevant to the individual dog – in this case Pepper. So many people think ‘one cure fits all’.
        Congratulations on the huge step forward from office to den… what a great achievement for Pepper! Like you say, she is still fearful but oh, what a way to show her trust in you!
        Kind regards,

        • Theresa…you’re welcome.

          Pepper probably won’t ever be the dog she could have been but that’s ok. She doesn’t know that. It’s my job to help her be the dog she still can be.

  3. KenzoHW says:

    Thank you John and thank you Deborah, it was an inspiring series indeed. We are all proud of you and Pepper, how refreshing in the media frenzy surrounding “dog whisperers” !

    • Thank you for following the series! John’s undying commitment to Pepper and the quality of their relationship is so moving. I feel honored to have hosted John and Pepper on Boulder Dog.

      “Frenzy,” indeed! I’m glad you found the posts refreshing. I hope others do as well.

    • Thanks. Yeah “whisperers” who poke, kick, abuse dogs. Whispering. I think not.

      When I get on a plane, I like to know the pilot has studied and has all the knowledge required to pilot the plane. I’d be a bit more than hesitant to get on a plane with a “Plane Whisperer”

  4. Edie says:

    I too am very thankful for this series and especially moved by this last installment. John’s patience and willingness to try new things to help Pepper are inspirational, especially in a time when everyone wants quick fixes that aren’t really fixes at all.

  5. Kim Thomas says:

    Thank you for such an amazing series of Useful, Positive, Realistic, downright Fantastic approaches! I have a dog who also freaks during (ok, before!) storms, and you’re so right, the standard approaches just don’t help him. We’re only beginning to work on his reaction, but I’ve found (accidentally!) he feels safer, perhaps more in control, by going into an inner hallway. When he begins to get frightened (or I know of a storm coming), I lead him there, provide his bed and water – and so far it’s been helping him enormously. He, too, won’t eat, although he’ll gladly take treats and they are making it a more pleasant experience for him. The lesson from it all seems to be to pay attention to not only their reactions and behavior, but what signals they give us! The idea of the scrunchy is awesome – I’m going to apply your approach! Thank you!!!

    • Thanks Kim!

      I tried it all, I even tried setting up a room with only pink lights. None of it worked.

      I have no idea if my approach will work for you, I only know that it has done wonders for Ms Pepper.

      I’d do tons of reps in that safe spot in the hallway when the weather is nice. I would suggest that you do give in to the temptation to go “live” with the approach until you’ve done a bunch of reps in nice weather.

      Please let me know how things work out.

  6. terry pride says:

    i loved this series – watching Pepper emerge from the terrified, reactive, snappish mess she’d crumbled into, and become a happier, healthier, more-normal dog was amazing, even at this distance.
    dogs are incredibly forgiving & have enormous resilience; they need support to do it, but they can recover from traumas that would leave humans rocking & moaning in a permanent catatonia. I never cease to be amazed at their transformation – like a pupa opening into a butterfly, the first state gives no clue to their later development.
    thank U so much, John, for sharing this story – and DoG bless Pepper.
    – terry

    terry pride, APDT-Aus, apdt#1827, CVA, TDF

    • Thanks Terry!

      I agree. I am astounded at how resilient and trusting she is.

      We’ll walk past a dog that is reacting to her, she’ll give me an auto “head’s up” and all the while she’s looking at me as we pass the noisy dog, I’m thinking “No way I’d be doing what she’s doing right now”

      This is the same dog that took me to the ground with a torn knee cartilage when she saw another dog during one of our early walks together.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Pepper’s story John! Thanks so much for sharing it. You are truly a fantastic trainer/owner and Pepper is a lucky, lucky dog. I wish you both much success in the future :-)


    Renee Premaza

  8. Cathy Baier says:

    I wish there was a formula for developing humans like John! The world needs more like him. Thank you, John, for being such an inspiration and for sharing your work with the rest of us.
    With respect and gratitude,

  9. Susan says:

    Awesome story and creative approach to a serious issue. Kudos John!

  10. Pup Fan says:

    John, you are amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your story – I really enjoyed reading about the journey you are on with Pepper. I would never have thought of the scrunchie idea – brilliant! Pepper is so lucky to have found you (and vice versa, of course!) :)

  11. Jessica says:

    But what was the scrunchy for? I’ve gone through the storm & separation anxiety. In fact the worst one took out my plate glass door during a storm and opened his crate in fine Hulk fashion in a fit of separation anxiety. I’m proud to say that Hank is now a Companion Service Dog with Task Training! If you say “Hank! It’s dark in here!” he’ll turn the light on. 😀 And my last rehab, a two-bite, shut-down, sad sack of dog is now living the peaceful, confident life with a wonderful couple who understands his quirks and is continuing his training.

    My current foster is a rehabbed kennel dog and my Pit/Plott mix with compulsive disorder will always be a work in progress.

    I’d love to read more about your training work & techniques, where can I find you online?

  12. Hi Jessica…

    The scrunchie was used to establish a “CER” (conditioned emotional response). I wanted the scrunchie to be an extraordinarily positive association for her. When the storms started, there was no way to establish a positive response to anything because the congnitive part of her brain is overriden by the phobia. So, the scrunchie was used as a signal…nice music, massage, treats coming in the hopes it would at least somewhat counter balance the reactivity to the thunder.

    It’s whacky science on my part.

    I love what you’ve done with your Hank. You should feel very proud. And of course, what you’ve done for your rescue and foster. Well done. :)

    I’m in the Chronicle of the Dog magazine.

    I’m also on LIDOGDIRECTORY.com (Rescue Reporter)

    My website is johnvisconti.com


    any other questions, feel free to ask.

  13. Melf says:

    John. Wow. Another great post. My Daisy has thunder phobia as well and she demonstrates it with pacing and panting. We have been quite successful with the Thundershirt, but I recognize that it will not work for everyone. Your method of counter-conditioning was brilliant and quite impressive. So glad I didn’t miss this one!

    As an added note, I can relate to Pepper being your teaching dog. Daisy is mine. Coming from a puppy mill as a breeding dog, she had a lot to overcome as well. For everything I have taught her, she has taught me even more. So worth it isn’t it?

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