Safety For All and Train Your Dog
Is the safety of your dog, and other pets, part of your family’s tornado response plan? Is your shelter large enough for everyone, including your pets? Does your dog know what to do when the sirens go off? Yes, you can train your dog to respond to the tornado sirens and move themselves to your tornado shelter.
Brush Up on Storm Forecasts and Warnings
Tornado preparedness starts with knowledge and your best protection is an early warning. If you wait until the sirens are going off, it’s too late to prepare; now you’re just reacting.
Pay attention to your local weather, particularly during tornado season, which, here in North Texas, can be year round. If you don’t have one already, I highly recommend getting a NOAA Weather Alert Radio. This enables you to get watches and warnings directly from the National Weather Service. Weather apps for your mobile devices can also alert you to changes in weather conditions.
Next, understand the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning.
Tornado Watch – conditions are ripe for tornadoes to form. Pay attention to the sky and emergency warnings on your NOAA Weather Radio and local television and radio.
Tornado Warning – a tornado has been sited or indicated by weather radar. Take shelter immediately.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Include Pets In Your Safety Plan
This article assumes you have an emergency tornado plan in place for the humans in your family. If you need more information on that, search the phrase ‘tornado preparedness’. There are many government websites to help you, but one of the most comprehensive is published by Dallas County, Texas:
What about the family pets?
Sadly, pets are often a tragic afterthought when a tornado strikes. Without a plan for your pets, the chances of losing them rises significantly.
Here is a short check list:
- Do you have identification on the collar of your dog and/or cat?
- Is your cellphone number on the identification tag?
- Is your dog or cat microchipped?
- If you have moved, have you updated the information associated with the microchip?
- If your home is hit or your dog bolts, can you actively locate your dog?
- Do you have a GPS tracker attached to their collar, allowing you to locate them quickly with your cellphone? We have GPS trackers on the collars of both our dogs. For more information, click here.
- Do you have a carrier for your small dog or cat?
- Is your large dog trained to move to the shelter on command?
- If your dog gets anxious during storms, do you have a Thundershirt to keep him calm?
- If your pet takes medication, do you have a enough to last for a week or more?
- Does your cat go into her carrier willingly? Most cats associate their carrier with going to the vet, so creating positive associations with the carrier is a good thing. I am not a cat expert, so I will refer you to the following article http://www.catster.com/cats-101/teach-your-cat-to-love-the-carrier.
- What about your reptiles or small mammals? Have a secure, breathable container for each animal which you can easily move into your tornado shelter. Plastic containers with locking lids are inexpensive, and with the addition of breathing holes and appropriate substrate, can keep your small critters safely tucked in your tornado shelter. If you have multiple small animals, purchase containers which can be stacked in a corner or shelf in your shelter.
How To Train Your Dog To Seek Shelter
The tornado sirens (Outdoor Warning System – OWS) go off at noon on the first Saturday of the month here in our North Texas community (check with your local emergency management office to learn when the monthly sirens sound in your community). The monthly sirens give people and their families the opportunity to practice their tornado emergency plan. It is also a great opportunity to train your dog to move to your shelter.
We are no exception. At the sound of the sirens, both humans and dogs are on our feet, moving. One of us grabs a fist full of dog treats and give the dogs the command, “Bathroom!” They trot behind us to the master bedroom closet. Once in the closet, the dogs move in and back so we can close the door, then they get their treats. The sirens go on for several minutes and we take full advantage of them, repeating the drill to train your dog as many times we can manage.
We have done this every month since 2003.
At the time, we lived in Minnesota. Minnesota is the northern tip of Tornado Alley and often has more tornadoes than any other state in the country. I work from home and took advantage of the first Wednesday noon siren drills. Our shelter was an interior, lower level bathroom. I enticed our dogs Sadie and Sonagh into the downstairs bathroom, using the single command ‘Bathroom’ as I walked backwards, waving the most enticing treat we had, freeze dried liver, in front of them. When we reached the bathroom, they got their treats and liberal praise. Once running into the bathroom was an automatic response to the command ‘Bathroom!’ we withheld the treats for a moment longer and added a hand signal for them to move further in the room so we could close the door.
Our current dogs, Wally and Murphy, have been doing drills for years; Wally since he was a 10 week old puppy and Murphy when he joined us at 18 months.
When we moved to Texas in June of 2015 the tone and cadence of the tornado sirens were very different from the ones in Minnesota. It took the dogs a couple of months to associate the new sirens with their old command. I am very happy to report that when the sirens go off now, their heads pop up like a Meerkat, eyes wide, heads swiveling, waiting for the command.
Can I share a proud dog momma moment? When the sirens sounded last month, both dogs started moving towards the master bedroom…with no command given! They are both now ten years old, so it took a long time for this to happen, but it gives me hope that if the sirens sound when we are not home, they might actually go into the closet without us.
Watch a video from a couple of years ago of our dogs responding to the sirens and ‘bathroom’ command on my Facebook page here.
Monthly Outdoor Warning System (OWS) For Active Practice
If you are in a tornado prone area, take advantage of the monthly tornado siren drills for active practice. Repeated practice and preparation are your friends. It is not an understatement to say they can save your pets life, and yours.
Find out when your community siren drills are and put a reminder in your calendar.
Keep high value treats in the house. High value treats are treats your dog only gets at certain times. We use freezes dried liver as our high value treat when doing tornado practice. Our dogs will do anything for it! So much so, we’ve dubbed it puppy crack.
Have small dog and cat carriers in easy to reach. The last thing you want to do when a tornado is imminent is search for your gear.
Clear out the space where you shelter. Even to practice, you need to have enough room in the shelter to bring them in and shut the door. Just taking them to the door and turning around won’t work because they don’t learn they have to actually go inside the shelter to get their treat. You do not want your dog balking at the door. You want him/her to run ahead of you into your shelter.
We use the closet off the master bathroom as our tornado shelter. The laundry basket goes out into the bathtub, clothes on the lower racks are hung on the upper racks, shoes are moved into the corners or put in the laundry basket out in the bathtub. We move treats, leashes, a waterbowl and two dog beds into the closet. If it looks like the storms are going to train over our area, we will add dogfood and a couple of chairs for us – we are too old to sit on the floor for an extended period of time.
Prepping For Go-Time – You Are Under a Tornado Watch
When we get the word we are under a tornado watch, we get busy. This is the time to prep the shelter area and get things ready. Again, this is in addition to your regular human preparations.
- Clear unnecessary items from the shelter, making room for any pet boxes or carriers.
- Charge the batteries on dogs’ GPS trackers.
- Charge cellphones.
- Put a fresh the battery in your NOAA Weather Alert Radio.
- Make sure all dogs and cats have their collars on.
- If the storm system is going to be in your area for a long period of time, get your dog outside to do its business.
- Move small animals and reptiles into their boxes and into the shelter. A few hours in the shelter won’t traumatized them, so get this done early.
- If your cat is not a fan of its carrier, now is the time to locate them, wrangle them into the carrier and put them in the shelter. Better to do this in the calm before the storm when you have the time to pry them from their favorite hiding spot. They will likely be very vocal about their displeasure, but better to have them safe in the shelter than trying to locate them with a tornado bearing down on you.
- Put an extra water bowl (assuming bottle water is part of your human plan) into the shelter, as well as, any dog kennels/dog beds you plan to use.
Have your high value treats handy, both inside and outside the shelter. Once in the shelter, these treats are a great distraction from the storm.
- If chewing helps to calm your dog, have chew toys and/or bones in the shelter, particularly if there is chance you will be in the shelter for a while. It is very common for storm systems to train over the same area for long periods of time.
- Keep the leashes with the high value treats outside the shelter. While we don’t use leashes during monthly practice, we always leash Wally and Murphy when we are leading them into the shelter during a storm. If it is a particularly loud storm, we put the leashes on before the sirens sound. Why? Two reasons, 1) a leashed dog tends to be a calmer dog because they feel you are in control and 2) if the dog gets spooked it is much easier to just step on the leash than to try to catch them.
Go-Time – Tornado Warning – Sirens Are Sounding
This is where all the practice and planning pays off.
Get all children and elderly into the shelter.
- Grab the high value treats and leash up your dog as you give him/her your shelter command.
- Once in the shelter, use your best judgment to comfort your dog.
- For our dogs, it helps if we sit down on the floor and let them snuggle up with us.
- For other dogs it may be a kennel with a blanket over it.
- Use the high value treats as a distraction. If your dog is very food motivated, you can probably run through all their training and tricks, and keep both your minds off the storm.
Having bones or chew toys in the shelter can help. Chewing is a natural stress reliever for dogs.
Regular practice is key for both humans and pets. We are indeed creatures of habit. You cannot practice tornado drills once or twice then expect animals or people to respond correctly six months later. Spaced repetition saves lives. Take a few minutes every month when the siren drills sound in your community to practice.
I hope you never need to implement any of this information, but if you do, I pray it helps.
I’d love to hear your critter tornado plan! Living in Tornado Alley, I’m always looking for better ways to keep my family and critters safe.
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