Our Dogs and the Northwest Houston Explosion

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA and Amanda Rietheimer CDBC CPDT-KA

At about 4:20 a.m. on Friday January 24th the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing Plant on North Gessner Road in Houston exploded. Two people were killed. The blast leveled the plant as well as neighboring businesses. Windows and doors were blown out of neighboring houses. Our house is less than mile away. It shook so hard pictures flew off the walls along with the nails they were hanging from.

We weren’t home. I woke up nearly 4-thousand miles away to a series of texts. “Are you okay?” “Are the dogs at your house?” “How are the dogs?” “Call me.”

My friend and colleague Amanda Rietheimer was staying with our dogs, Stella and Stewie. She and the rest of our neighbors had no idea what had just happened.

Amanda: Stella screamed for a long time, we think, because of the immediate pressure from the explosion.  Both dogs began to pace and shake, having a hard time settling. None of us went back to sleep. Both dogs startled to just about any sound, such as the hot water heater crackling, the toilet flushing, the dishwasher running, or walking on the hard wood floors. 

Michael: We were texting back and forth, but Amanda already had a plan for emergency behavior care. I don’t think we coined that phrase. but a follower on facebook asked me what it meant. Of course it included comforting the dogs, touching them and allowing them to stay close by. But there was more.

Amanda: We drilled the basic skills the dogs had long identified with fun and food.

  • Hand targeting sits and downs all over the house.
  • Hand targeting used to re-direct both dogs from fear of low flying helicopter outside (there were lots of those).
  • Scattered treats in grass to help them adjust to being outside for potty breaks. 
  • Desensitization to common house sounds (mentioned above) using counter conditioning.  Each sound was worked on in individual sessions, always using food as the reinforcer and using the familiar hand targeting behavior to re-direct.  
  • As training progressed that day, we began to tap on the wall and windows to help dogs work on recovering from vibrations and sounds of this nature too.  
  • To give the dogs breaks, mental stimulation was interspersed.  This included snuffle mats, Kong’s filled with apples and a JW Pet Hol-ee Roller ball filled with apples.
  • The dogs began to get nervous to go in other rooms so we worked on relaxation going upstairs in the office first where they were comfortable then used hand targeting, sits and downs in the guest room to progress them with comfortability in a room they were unsure about.  Jumping on bed to lie and lying on floor were key parts to training in guest room.

Michael: That’s emergency behavior care. In fact, it could well be the new standard in care. The dogs had human contact nonstop for the next 36 hours (never left alone). And, the training and enrichment continued for days after the explosion (as did the sirens and the buzz of helicopters). And that wasn’t all.

Amanda: We used Stewie’s medication (Diazepam) to help him cope with a storm rolling in mid-day that made him pace in the house.  Stella had a hard time during the storm as well, but powered through with training. The dogs were sometimes hesitant to go outside but enjoyed the food-scatter game in the grass and seemed to relax. We fed all their food during training sessions and in enrichment toys to avoid stress diarrhea.

Michael: In fact, after we got home I talked to the office manager at Village Veterinary Clinic. They treated a large number of diarrhea cases the day of the explosion, most likely related to stress. On that same call we got a prescription for Stella just in case she has a hard time in the future with thunderstorms.

But, so far so good. By the time we got back home it was as if nothing had happened. Stella and Stewie, by and large, are their typical old selves. It was a scary morning for all of us, but they bounced back, thanks to a great deal of help and love from our friend.

Michael Baugh owns Michael’s Dogs Training and Behavior.  Amanda Rietheimer owns Behavior Focus of Houston. Both are professional dog trainers and behavior consultants in Houston, TX