The Human Thundershirt

It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m awake. I got up around 3:30 to use the restroom, only to realize that there was a gnarly thunderstorm going on outside. “This is my time to shine” I thought to myself, and raced into my mother’s bedroom—privacy isn’t really a thing in my house—to attend to Maggie.

Maggie playing with her Christmas present. It almost survived the day!

Maggie playing with her Christmas present. It almost survived the day!

Maggie is a 5-ish year old rescue dog. She was about to be put down (in Kentucky, of all places), when my mom—who at the time was volunteering as a foster mom for rescue dogs—got the call: would we save Maggie’s life?

Duh. The person on the other end of the phone knew exactly what he or she was doing, because the fact is, we’re terrible foster parents. No dog that we’ve taken in has ever been adopted. Each one has been absorbed into our menagerie, so like those who came before her, Maggie went straight from the doggy version of the green mile into her forever home.

This photo of my little brother communing with Maggie is a few year old, but I love it.

This photo of my little brother communing with Maggie is a few year old, but I love it.

Whatever happened to her before we did… it left a mark. While never hostile, this is a dog that approaches people with trepidation. You have to know the right and the wrong way to engage her (in fact, to this day certain kinds of human contact will cause her to lash out in fear). When we first got Maggie she was completely silent, a first for us, as we’ve always had “guard dogs” that protected us by alerting entire neighborhoods to the presence of squirrels, human puppies on tricycles, etc. It was pretty exciting to have a dog with no bark, until we realized that she did indeed have a voice, a voice that fear and abuse had long stifled. Within a week or two in our house she’d assimilated beautifully, and now she barks with a reckless abandon that is as endearing as it is annoying. She throws back her head with such relish whenever she barks… it’s truly a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, in learning how to bark, she’s also learned how to cry. We’re exceedingly good to Maggie, and she knows it. So great is her fear of losing her forever family that coming home—be it after six months in California, or, you know, six minutes at the grocery store—elicits the kinds of yelps and doggie tears normally reserved for YouTube clips of returned servicemen and their pets. No matter what we do, this is a dog that believes we will abandon her.

Sad as her aforementioned separation anxiety is, it’s not unusual in rescue dogs. But don’t be fooled: Maggie is special. She is quite possibly the most neurotic dog in the world.

Another oldie but goody. Both Maggie and Dibbles (the geriatric chihuahua, who will one day have her own post) really brought their A game.

Another oldie but goody. Both Maggie and Dibbles (the geriatric chihuahua, who will one day have her own post) really brought their A game.

This is a creature who recently picked up the habit of hiding in my brother’s room whenever my mother picks up or answers a phone. Why? Because one time, while on an important business call, my mom yelled at her to stop barking. Now her tail goes between her legs every time a member of her family tries to contact the outside world.

Dinner? No way… you can’t eat that without adult supervision. Even with a human sentry standing guard, you need to stare at the kibble for at least a half hour (or four) to make sure it’s not, in fact, a threat.

At the tender age of five, Maggie takes evening walks measured in feet, not miles. After all, who knows what’s behind that stop sign? Trying to get her to expand her boundaries in the slightest throws her into a panic, as if you’ve suddenly decided she’s not allowed to come home. (This is a trait she shares with another of our three pups, Sadie. It’s hard not to feel like a bad pet owner when walking all of your dogs separately only takes about ten to fifteen minutes.)

And then there’s thunder. Many dogs are afraid of thunder; three out of four members of our animal family (three dogs and one cat) have storm-related anxiety. But Maggie dials it up to eleven.

At even the hint of a storm, Maggie begins trembling… not shaking, trembling. She drools, and her tail goes between her legs. Sometimes she’ll content herself with hiding in the bathtub or behind the toilet, but more often than not she responds to thunder by going into a blind panic. She runs from room to room, family member to family member, too frightened to be soothed by any of us. “Get a thundershirt” you say? Hah! Been there, done that. Despite numerous efforts, it’s become clear that no amount of tightly-wrapped fabric will soothe the likes of Maggie.

Then I came home for a month.

When mom went out of town for a conference last week, I became Maggie’s surrogate person. This is what I woke up to each morning.

My mom was the first one to notice it. Around the time I started this blog, Maggie started spending more time with me generally, and starting sitting in my lap for extended periods of time when thunder threatened. “You must be in a good place mentally,” my mom suggested, “because Maggie doesn’t normally sit still this long during a storm. You make her feel better in a way the rest of us can’t.”

My family is currently living in South Florida, so storms are an almost daily occurrence. That meant I had time to test the theory. And test I did. Taking a cue from thundershirt technology, I started grabbing Maggie whenever the thunderstorms began. I held her so tightly I worried that I was going to scare and/or hurt her, but after a couple of seconds of struggling, she’d lay down. Even after I released her from my grasp, she rode out the rest of the storm on my lap, trembling and drooling, but calmer than we’d ever seen her.

It worked day after day after day. I am, as it turns out, a human thundershirt.

So at 3:30 AM or so, when I realized that Maggie was in distress, I jumped into action. I am not this dog’s primary person—my mother is—so she doesn’t automatically come to me for relief; I have to go to her. I tried bringing her into my bedroom, but she didn’t want to leave the rest of the group. So the two of us crawled into my mother’s bed (permission neither requested nor attained) and assumed the position: me curled up on my side, her laying in my arms. It took almost a solid hour, but Maggie finally stopped shaking. And I decided to go blog about it, because who needs sleep?

Taken yesterday.

Taken yesterday.

As a kid I was terrified of thunderstorms. To be honest, they still scare me a bit. I don’t let it show anymore, though, because somebody’s counting on me for protection. In fact, part of me actually looks forward to thunderstorms these days. The light and noise offer me an opportunity to bond with my crazy dog, to—through nothing but love and a decent gripget her through her terror. I’m not here foreverin fact, I’m heading back to California tomorrowbut for the time being, I get to be Maggie’s hero.

Being a canine thundershirt also validates all the Six Million Dollar Scholar-style work I’ve been doing these past couple months. The more I do to get right with myself, to be the best version of myself I can be, the more I radiate peace. The more I radiate peace, the easier it is to bring peace to others. As of 4:30 this morning, I have a new mantra to deploy in the moments of self-doubt, the moments where I start to wonder if this blog—if all of the self-improvement crap—is motivated by narcissism:


And now… this thundershirt is going back to bed.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.