Part 04





Thunderstorms frightened Max more than anything. In our house in Westford, Max would slink down to the basement, his tail between his legs, before any of us heard the slightest rumble. I’d walk downstairs with a blanket and find Max curled in a ball under my dad’s workbench - in the farthest corner of the basement. As I noticed a faint rumble, I’d wrap the blanket around his quivering body and sit next to him, rubbing his back and soothingly repeating, "It’s okay". Every few moments I’d feel the quivering stop. But it was always short-lived. Even after the rumbling moved on, it would take hours for Max to come back upstairs. We’d call him, and we’d bribe him. But only when he thought it was safe would he finally climb the stairs.


What was he so afraid of? The noise? He did have really sensitive ears. Was he frightened because he didn't understand its source? Or was it the change in the air? My mom always thought he could feel the air pressure shift.


The summer after my parents separated, Jon was living on his own in Vermont, and my mom, Nick, Max and I moved to neighboring Concord, Massachusetts, where we rented a horse stable turned small home. The downstairs comprised a combination living and dining area, a small kitchen, a half bathroom and a mud room. Up the stairs, there were two bedrooms and a shared bathroom. The window frames were rotted, the rough carpet was stained and smelled of mold and, unfortunately for Max, the house was on a slab – there was no basement in which he could hide.


As the first thunderstorm of the season moved through, Max’s shivering became more and more extreme. I sat with Max in the living area, but we all knew he was looking for somewhere to go, somewhere more protected. So my mom opened the first floor closet, removed the vacuum cleaner and laid down a blanket for Max. Nick led him over the closet, and he curled himself as far back as he could. We closed the door slightly, so he would feel like he had some protection but could still see us. I sat with my back up against the wall next to the closet and rubbed Max’s back. The thunder rumbled on.




Of course, other things frightened Max too: fireworks, rides on my dad's boat, deep water and journeys in the car. The rationale for Max's fear of deep water is simple to understand: when Max was a few years old, my dad picked him up and threw him into the deep end of our pool in Westford. His fear of car rides, however, is more complicated.


When Max was still young, we couldn't get him into the car without lifting him. Once inside, he shook and drooled and got sick all over the back seat. On every trip to see my mom's parents in Connecticut, we had to stash plastic bags in the seat pockets in case Max had an accident. We pulled off the road at every rest stop to let him walk around and throw up if need be.


I always assumed he thought we were taking him back - getting rid of him - every time we drove somewhere. He didn't trust us yet. Or maybe, as with the thunder, he was just afraid of the unknown. 


As time passed, Max became more comfortable in our cars. His ears popped up when we asked, "Wanna go for a ride in the car?" He waited at the car door for us to open it for him. He hopped into the back seat and leaned against the door, waiting for us to roll down his window. 


As we started out on any particular journey, Max, stuck his muzzle out the window. I could see his nose twitching, trying to catch all the smells as they rushed passed, until he sneezed. Then he poked his head right back out again.


After maybe fifteen minutes Max lied down across the back seat and drifted off to sleep. Any time the car slowed to a stop, however, he pushed himself back up to a seated position and looked out the window. If he didn't recognize where we were, he'd lie back down. If he did know where we were - in town near our house, by the dog park, nearing my grandparents' house - he'd stay seated and start whining. He wanted what was at the other end of the journey.


I think Max came to associate the car with walks at the dog park and family, wind and new smells - happy things. Over time, he began to trust that we would not take him somewhere that wasn't safe for him.




I can't rightly talk about fear without discussing the most dangerous source of it in Max: men. My mother said the Cape Cod family that adopted Max must have had teenage boys because of how Max responded to grown men. He was cautious, he was skeptical, he barked, and if the man made a wrong move, he was aggressive. 


When my mother bought a house of her own, she, Nick and I moved from Concord to Acton, Massachusetts. We were unpacking boxes in the kitchen and left the door open so the breeze would offer some relief from the July heat. Max was roaming his new yard, his leash attached in case we needed to step on it and stop his progress. 


One of our new neighbors walked from across the street into our driveway. He was coming to  welcome us. But Max didn't know that, and he started to bark at the man. The man kept approaching. Max kept barking. My mom rushed outside, but she couldn't get to them in time to stop Max from nipping the man. He had tried to pet Max.


The next day, my mom baked some cookies and brought them to our new neighbor along with a card offering our apologies. There wasn't much more we could do. We got lucky. Max was never reported.







My mom always said Max could sense the change in pressure as a thunderstorm approached. And his sensitive ears meant he could hear the thunder long before we did. But why did those things frighten Max so much?


Noise phobia, particularly thunderstorm phobia, is commonly exhibited by dogs. It is considered a maladaptive response in that the thunderstorm poses no actual threat to the animal. Noise phobia can manifest as several different behaviors - pacing, trembling, cowering, hiding, needing to be close to the owner, whining, panting, salivating, defecating, running, trying to escape -  or a combination of these. Max’s go-tos were clearly trembling, cowering and hiding. In addition, laboratory dogs have elicited increased cortisol levels, a common measure of stress, in response to high quality recordings of thunderstorms.


As noise phobia can have incapacitating effects on dogs, researchers have investigated potential combatants: pharmacological treatment, especially benzodiazepines, homeopathic supplements, and two products called the Storm Defender and the Anxiety Wrap.


The idea behind the Storm Defender is that dogs sense the static charge buildup in the air prior to a thunderstorm, which signals that lightning is imminent. This, in turn signals a defensive reaction by the dog, which manifests as fear. Thus, the creators of the Storm Defender designed a wrap with a metallic lining that discharges the dog’s fur, which reduces the dog’s sensitivity to the static charge and, thus, its fear and subsequent behavioral response.


The Anxiety Wrap, on the other hand, reduces fear by tactile pressure. Particularly, the Anxiety Wrap uses accupressure and gentle maintained pressure to relieve stress, fear and the related behaviors. A study found the Anxiety Wrap to decrease the anxiety score related to thunder by 47%. This was our mode of thinking when we tried to soothe Max. We wrapped him in our arms or blankets, even bathrobes, hoping the tactile sensation would calm him down.




There could be any number of causes for Max's car phobia. Literature suggests that it could have been the noise and vibration of the car that unsettled Max. He may have felt confined, even suffocated, in the car. He could have, like I thought, associated the car with unpleasant destinations like an abusive family, or the kennel or even the vet - Max hated the vet. He even could have experienced a traumatic event associated with a car, like, perhaps, being hit by a car. All very likely possibilities.


Researchers have shown that dogs exhibit fear-related responses to conditioned stimuli. Using the car example, Max fears the vet. The vet is the unconditioned stimulus. After ride after ride in the car to the vet, Max begins to associate the car with his fear of the vet. In time, Max needs only be exposed to the car - he does not even have to be driven in it to the vet - in order to experience that fear response. The car becomes the conditioned stimulus.


Much like with thunderstorm phobia, proposed solutions to car phobia exist as well - in the form of pharmacological treatment and behavioral treatment. Several sources suggest first placing the dog in the car with all the doors open for a period of time. After repeating this for a couple of weeks, the owner can place the dog in the open car and start the engine. After another couple of weeks, the owner can drive to the end of the driveway and back. And then drive around the block a few times and back. The goal of this behavioral treatment is to gradually break the association between the car and fear.




As for Max's fear of men, I tend to agree with my mother. It seems like a typical conditioned response for a dog that was abused by grown boys and men. Max came to associate his fear of abuse with his abusers and everyone who looked like them. He transmitted that fear not through cowering and shaking as with thunder and car rides but through aggression, a typical canine response to fear.