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Fear of thunder

Sept. 12, 2014

Poppet and Nellie, beside themselves with terror

When I was thirteen, I used to dog sit for my brother and sister-in-law’s terrier during thunder storms. She was so frightened of thunder and lightning that she would chew on her own legs, with predictably ghoulish results. I always enjoyed these quasi-humanitarian missions; Camille had a copy of Mary Macarthy’s novel, The Group – naughty stuff, at least for a thirteen year old girl in 1965 -- and I looked forward to picking up where I had left off reading during the last thunderstorm. As I lounged on their sofa, reveling in the dirty bits, Tara cowered on the couch beside me, quivering like a bowl full of jelly in a centrifuge, a victim of acute astraphobia, otherwise known as also known as astraphobia,

brontophobia, keraunophobia, or tonitrophobia, the abnormal fear of thunder and lightning. Indeed, I based the character of Glorio the Rabbit in my first novel on Tara.

Tara was not alone.

Fifteen to 30% of all dogs suffer from astraphobia. Among them was Buddy, our beloved golden retriever, whom thunder rendered witless. There was no going to bed for human beings during a storm until my husband had built Buddy a Thunder Tent – two chairs over which a blanket had been draped just so. Only then, in the safety of the Tent’s confines, would he settle, if uneasily. Otherwise he would pace without cease from my side of the bed to Ken’s, panting like an ancient set of creaking bellows and occasionally leaping onto the bed to loom over us, wild-eyed and drooling excessively, the way dogs do when they're stressed. “Are you insane?” his posture seemed to convey. “The End of the World is upon us and you’re . . . what . . . sleeping?”

We thought we were astraphobia-free with Nellie, our second and current Golden Retriever -- a bold girl if ever there was one. For the first four years of her life she seemed blissfully unfazed by anything but dishwashers. When our friends Oliver Whitehead and Mary Malone were looking after her, she caught her collar in their dishwasher’s fully loaded bottom tray, panicked and bolted down the long narrow hall leading from their kitchen to their front door, dragging the tray with her and leaving a wide swath of broken crockery in her wake. The sound alone must have been tremendous. Since then, she takes an exceedingly dim view of dishwashers, for which, Oliver and Mary, we are extremely grateful. (Also, sorry for your loss.)

Lately, however, even the incautious Nellie has developed a fear of thunder that seems to increase exponentially with each storm that rolls in off of Lake Erie. Perhaps this is because Poppet, our father’s dog and our ward, has set her straight in all those hours that the two of them spend alone together, ostensibly sleeping and ignoring one another: “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” Poppet can smell lightning on the wind and hear the distant rumble of thunder long before any of the rest of us can. The minute that happens, it’s like an on and off switch: Poppet goes into lock down. She bolts to our closet and hides out under Ken’s shirts, quaking. She will not eat. She will not drink. As for bodily functions, are you kidding? Her . . . go out? Out there? Out there, where all Hell is breaking loose?

At first I tried to manhandle her out of doors, to make her do her business. As it turned out, however, when it comes to thunder and lighting, fright trumps might. Poppet might weigh only seventeen pounds but, factor in thunder and lightning, and what you’ve got is seventeen pounds of highly motivated angst and all of it laser-focused on getting back inside as soon as canine-ly possible. “To resist is futile!” I would insist, but I could no more persuade Poppet to poop or pee than I could talk a salmon out of swimming upstream during spawning season.

There have have been a lot of thunder storms this season, spectacular ones that light up the ravine like a horror film and make the bedrock on which our house is moored shudder. Storms that blow in over a Great Lake seem more apocalyptic than those that take place over land; they make a bigger show. The dogs’ fear serves as a reminder that it was not all that long ago that human beings and their wolf friends huddled together in caves and burrows and huts – ancient prototypes of the Thunder Tent – and wondered if this storm would be their last. Which is why man ultimately invented indoor plumbing: who in their right mind would risk Armageddon for a Last Pee?

And,, yes, I’ve heard of Thunder Shirts.

But no.

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