As every superhero knows, wearing a body-hugging unitard will make you feel more confident, even capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Now, thanks to the invention of a nifty garment called the Thundershirt, dogs can feel as brave as superheroes — or at least less likely to cower under the bed during a storm.
The Thundershirt (and its more prosaicly named competitor, the Anxiety Wrap) work on the same principle as swaddling a colicky infant; by applying steady, low-level pressure, a snuggly-fitting shirt exerts a calming effect on the dog’s central nervous system, miraculously curbing anti-social behaviors triggered by anxiety, fear or over-excitement.
The Thundershirt website also notes that, “Veterinarians use pressure to relax cattle when they are administering vaccinations. People with autism use pressure to relieve their persistent anxiety.” The Thundershirt’s maker claims it relieves anxiety symptoms in over 80% of dogs. At $39.95, the Thundershirt is a far more affordable option for high-strung dogs than Prozac, and has no known side effects.
Too good to be true? Not according to my friend Robin, who had tried every trick in the book to stop his dog Finn’s “skull-splitting” nervous barking, before discovering the Thundershirt.
Finn, an adorable Jack Russell terrier-Australian shepherd mix, had already worn down three owners in two years by the time Robin and his wife Heather adopted her from Angell Memorial last spring. Robin says, “At the kennel, she seemed really sweet and quiet, but at home she would bark non-stop from 5 to 10 every night.”
A trainer from the MSPCA made a home visit and recommended using positive reinforcement techniques that culminated in Robin’s sitting with a plate of raw hamburger next to him every evening, while he graded papers and prepped for the next day’s classes, to distract Finn from the noises outside that seemed to trigger her frantic barking. A high school English teacher, Robin is an unusually good-humored man — but there are limits to anyone’s patience, and Finn’s high-pitched barking was putting everyone on edge.
A teacher-friend with a terrier prone to excessive barking loaned Robin a remote-controlled shock collar. Robin says he first tested the collar on his own arm, and he adjusted it to its weakest setting before putting it on Finn. The collar was effective, but as Robin realized, Finn’s barking was a symptom of a more deep-seated anxiety that negative reinforcement would never cure, and might even exacerbate.
Thundershirt to the rescue! Robin reports that “Finn calms right down” when he puts the shirt on her. Now he can grade papers in peace without getting hamburger grease on his fingers, or feeling guilty about zapping his dog. When I talked to Robin recently, he and Heather were getting ready to host a dinner party, and planned to suit up Finn so she wouldn’t get overexcited around their guests.
On the strength of Robin’s experience, I recommended the Thundershirt to my friend Elizabeth, whose pint-size Shih-poo, Winnie, only feels secure on Elizabeth’s lap — anywhere else, she’s a 10-pound bundle of nerves. Elizabeth just got her a Thundershirt (size XS) and promises to let me know if it helps make Winnie calmer around strangers and bigger dogs. Fingers crossed!
Given the shirt’s effectiveness on dogs, I wonder why no one has thought of making a Thundershirt for humans? Has anyone studied whether women’s fashion styles become more tightly fitted during economic recessions? Was the corset the secret to Scarlett O’Hara’s courage in the face of adversity? Maybe Spanx should play up the calming properties of wearing tight undergarments (“shapewear”) as a secondary benefit of its product. Bottom line: perhaps (tight) clothes do make the man.
Please note: I’m not being compensated in any way to endorse the Thundershirt. But if anyone from the company happens to read this post, my dog wears a size small.