It’s that crazy time of the year again, and regardless of the warnings given to people there will always be someone who wants their own firework party just across the road from you. Now we can debate the fact that fireworks are a good or bad thing, or whether celebrating the prevention of a plot hundreds of years ago to bring down the then government of the UK really applies to people in New Zealand nowadays, until we’re blue in the face. The sheer fact is that fireworks are here to stay in one way or another. With that in mind we need to make sure that we look after and protect all our animals. This article concentrates on our dogs.
If you ask any Animal control person, they’ll tell you that Guy Fawkes night is a busy time for them, with lots of runaway dogs, mainly without tags, desperately trying to re-unite them with their owners. But, this doesn’t have to be the case, as there are some simple things that you can do that can help a dog through this traumatic time.
What is happening to your dog.
But first, we must understand that the dog response comes from a place of fear, so any NEGATIVE response by us is only going to make things worse. You would never, ever use a shock collar on a dog to stop them barking when they are scared of fireworks (or anything else for that matter). Likewise shouting and screaming at them will not have any positive effect. Adding more fear to existing fear is not suddenly going to make a dog feel confident.
When your dog is scared of fireworks, they move into a survival mode – Fight, Flight or Freeze. The flighters run away, the fighters become more aggressive and bark lots, the freezers sit in the corner of the room and shiver. Which one is your dog?
In an ideal world we would desensitize our dogs to the threat. This can be done by getting a recording of fireworks and repeatedly playing it to your dog in short managed intervals that are spread over a long period of time. Firstly, you should start at a low volume, and then gradually increasing the volume until it’s the level of the fireworks outside. Whilst doing this we are also using a technique called counter conditioning, where we are giving the dog lots of treats, so that they can start to build a positive association with the noises they are hearing. This takes time and should never be rushed, as we do not want to allow the dog to ever enter a flight, fight, or freeze mode. I strongly recommend that this is done with a puppy in the first 20 weeks of their lives.
What to do with an anxious dog
But what if we haven’t been able to do this and its now the 5th of November? Well there are 3 things that you must do to help your dog.
- Keep them inside
- Create a calm place inside your home
- Take their mind off the noise
- Calming techniques and Wraps
Keep them inside – This sounds obvious, but you would be amazed how many dogs I see frantically running around in the garden on bonfire night. Also make sure you close or lock any windows; dogs are amazing at escaping out of even the smallest gaps. Do not allow your dog to escape.
Create a calm place inside your home – All my dogs are crate trained so they have their crates available if they want to use them. NEVER lock you dog in their crate during Fireworks, make sure that they can leave if they choose. If you think about it a dog in survival mode only has 3 choices, Flight, Fight, or freeze. If we lock them in the crate, they only have 2, FIGHT or FREEZE. You may inadvertently cause your dog to become aggressive or overanxious by doing this. I certainly wouldn’t give my dog free run of the house either. Try restricting their movement to one room.
Take their mind off the noise – This can take a bit of investment on the owners side. Interact with your dog in a positive way, during the fireworks. You could play tuggy with them or play find the treat. Make the games very simple as you don’t want them to have to think too hard, as their brain is already struggling to cope with the threat of the noise.
You could also try and drown out the noise by playing loud music or raising the volume on the TV. But this only really works well if it happens before the fireworks start. Providing your dog with alternative things to do is a great idea. You could freeze treat filled Kongs, throw them down on the floor so your dog can chew them all night. Chewing helps reduce the stress hormones in the body.
Calming techniques and Wraps – There are many commercially available wraps that your dog can wear which have been shown to help the dog through there anxiety. Due to the contact of the material on their skin this brings the dog back to the present moment and helps them to focus. This would also work with thunderstorms. Many people have great success with chemical relaxants such as Adaptil or lavender based homeopathic prepartions.
Killing with kindness
It is human nature to want to comfort and cuddle someone when they are scared, and we do this all the time when an infant is worried. When we comfort a dog, we need to make sure that we are not making things worse. Research has shown that our emotional state is important when helping a dog through anxiety. If we are sympathetic to the dog and our emotional state is one of fear for them, then our comforting efforts are likely to make the situation worse.
One thing to remember about cuddling, by holding onto your dog we are restricting their movement and therefore taking away one of the three survival options? People have been known to get bitten when they are cuddling their frightened dog.
Positive words, actions and praise are always going to be more comforting to a dog during this time as they foster confidence and balance from the owner and the dog.
It can get better…
Firework night does not have to be a stress, remember there is always a way to help your dog become more relaxed. Every dog is different, so some things are not going to work for your dog. But there is always something. And remember your dog is certainly going to be better if someone is present at home during this time, if you’re not with them, they’ll still feel stressed – it’s just that you won’t be there to see their suffering!
Cottam N, Dodman NH, Ha JC (2012) The effectiveness of the Anxiety Wrap in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia: An open-label trial. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 8, 154-161.
Gácsi M, Maros K, Sernkvist S, Faragó T, Miklósi Á (2013) Human Analogue Safe Haven Effect of the Owner: Behavioural and Heart Rate Response to Stressful Social Stimuli in Dogs. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58475
Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012) Social referencing in dog-owner dyads? Animal Cognition 15, 175-185.
Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012) Dogs’ Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47653.