Helping Your Dog Through Fireworks and Noise Phobias

Starting from the beginning of October we have about 3 months of potential fireworks and dog fears that can be pretty tricky to navigate as a dog and a parent…

The best thing to do is to start your fireworks strategy a year in advance and not right on top of the season. However, the Autumn does seem to be the time when most dog parents get started! Cough, cough, yes we can all be guilty of this…

Even if you think your little one is ok with fireworks, a phobia can manifest itself at any time so it is best not to tempt fate and still keep your dog indoors if you can hear fireworks going off.

It’s important to understand the psychology of fireworks and dog phobias so that you can empathise with how your dog might be feeling, it’s a serious condition. And when we understand more – we can do more! Have you ever had someone dismiss your feelings with a “don’t worry”, “don’t be silly now”? Doesn’t it just make you feel worse? Like us, dogs will retreat into their anxieties and feel more alone if they are not understood. A dog will start to switch off to you if you do not approach with an energy of understanding or at least open receptiveness. It’s tempting to try and talk our loved ones into a sense of safety but the threat of the noise is greater than anything you can say. It is your energy and approach which is going to be more useful to them than your words.

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chilled-out-dogsFirst thing, it is important to understand the link between how YOU feel about fireworks and how your dog reacts to them… Getting angry may be the worst thing you can do for either of you. It just reinforces to your dog that what they perceive is a real threat and that you fear it too. Anger is a negative emotion and is just another thing adding to an already problematic situation.

 

Many dogs are afraid of loud, sudden, unpredictable noises, not just thunderstorms and fireworks. If a dog is noise sensitive, it’s very likely that these noises will be frightening to them too. The tips in this blog post can also help your highly sensitive dogs develop coping strategies.

Dogs in the wild react to thunderstorms fearfully. This is appropriate, because storms can be dangerous. If you can’t take cover from a storm, you risk being struck by lightning, drowning in a flash flood, or being injured by falling trees or flying debris. Seen from this perspective, fearful behaviour during thunderstorms and therefore also fireworks is not really abnormal at all. It is instinctual!
The best thing to do is to build your dog a den just like they would for themselves out in the wild. You may have noticed that when your dog is fearful it chooses to cower under tables, chairs and in corners. This is what you can base your den on. Build a nice dark covered corner for them with blankets/covers over the crate/den to make it as dark and cosy as possible. Dogs who are noise sensitive are overwhelmed by this sensory stimulation. Therefore we want to dim down other stimulants like light to try and calm them and at the very least to minimise other sensory stimulants. It may be helpful to have blackout shades in the room to minimize the effect of fireworks and lightning.
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Make the den very comfy and practice sending your dog to their safe place in normal day-to-day activities. You can give them a treat inside their den to encourage them in and to make it a positive place to go. The more time they spend in there the more it will smell of lovely treats and their own smell. Throw in a jumper or an item of clothing of yours so that they have the comfort of your smell too. DO NOT FORCE YOUR DOG TO GO INTO THEIR DEN AND DO NOT CLOSE A DOOR ON THEM. Dogs locked in crates can panic and injure themselves. We want them to feel like this space is theirs for their choosing. How they feel about their den is very important and it needs to feel like a positive, safe place to go. A bit like a man’s cave…
The unpredictable nature of fireworks can set a dog off that didn’t have a problem before. Firecrackers that kids set off all through these months are close, very loud and extremely frightening. But again, if you get angry this only tells your dog that there is a real danger. If one goes off near you and your dog, make sure you have a treat on you at all times. Bring your dog into a corner or by the side of a wall where you are both safe and calm them down with focus exercises. If they do not accept the smell of a treat as a focus for their attention then you know their fear has gone beyond what you can manage out on the street and you need to get them home. Remain calm and pick your dog up as otherwise they are likely to drag you in a frenzy back home or to your car and this reinforces in their mind and their body the feeling of panic. For larger dogs or those who are just too panicked, simply get home as quickly and calmly as you can manage.
If your dog is receptive to the smell of a high reward treat then ask them to sit and reward their focus. This helps to change their state of mind and energy so that you can then calmly move forward and on with your day. We are looking to speed up your dog’s recovery time from a fright which helps in their long-term rehabilitation and their ability to handle unpredictable events in their life. But if we do not catch the signs early enough of how they are feeling and they are in full blown panic this strategy will not be effective. Always consult a professional dog behaviourist before attempting these exercises on your own. Have a look at my consultation page if you like: booking a 1-1 behaviour consultation

 

chilled-out-dogs-fireworks-dog-therapy-3Always remain calm when you are helping your dog. Imagine yourself as a paramedic arriving on the scene. If they start screaming and flying their arms about it would make everything seem worse for the patient. Your dog is the same, they will pick up on your energy and how you are responding to the situation. Make sure your tone of voice is low and calm and not high pitched. If we are not genuinely calm our dog will see through us. Channel a paramedic’s energy whenever you are trying to help your dog.
The behavioral signs of fireworks and thunderstorm fears often begin before a storm arrives or the fireworks have been set off. Dogs who are fearful pick up on or even look for signs like the smell of firecracker smoke, the vibration, in the case of storms: increasing wind, low barometric pressure (muggy, humid days), and darkening skies, or even just the feeling of static energy and excitement in the air. Some dogs are even intuitive enough that they receive visual mind images of what’s to come, which can set them off.
Panting; pacing; whining; salivating; trembling; urination and defecation (including diarrhea) in
the house; digging and clawing at floors and walls; chewing household objects, woodwork or
walls; attempts to hide or escape (which may include digging and chewing); running away or the opposite: attempts to stay near a family member, are all signs of thunderstorm fear. And if you are outside they may try to run off.
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Aggression can occur when dogs suffer from fears and phobias or even over-excitement. Sometimes the afflicted dog can become aggressive, using growling and snapping as a coping mechanism. Some dogs exhibit redirected aggression to other household dogs as a result of their fear.
Or it’s other dogs who interpret the dog with the phobia as having an imbalance and they may themselves be having an emotional response to the agitated state of the fearful dog and behave aggressively because they cannot themselves cope with the stressful energy. This can result in dog fights. So be mindful and separate your babes if necessary.
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It is important to remember that fear responses are not voluntary; that is, a dog doesn’t decide to
feel and exhibit fear of storms. We cannot try to reason with them… The part of the brain which processes both negative and positive emotions is called the amygdala, and is a part of the central nervous system that is not under voluntary control. What we can do to help them is to provide a coping strategy to our dogs and this is where behaviour management training comes in.
Because fear is not a voluntary behavior, it cannot therefore be changed through punishment. Not that you would want to change any dogs’ behaviour through punishment! As this can often cause more problems than it solves and is for me, unethical and completely unnecessary. However, it is useful to know this so that we can explain to people who do not realise the detrimental and counter intuitive results of punishment.
The goal of managing firework fear behaviorally is to change the dog’s emotional state from frightened and distressed to neutral or even content. To give them positive, coping mechanisms.

Training tips for helping your dog cope with fears and phobias:

 Below are some training tips and please do also read my article on how to treat fireworks last minute with your dog: which I wrote last year.
1. First, do not ignore your dog during fireworks and storms. Some people falsely used “ignoring behaviour” because they incorrectly believed that giving attention during storms would reward the fearful behavior. Ignoring a fearful, panicky dog deprives them of whatever comfort and psychological support you can give him. It also leaves him without any information about what he should be doing. What I would say here though, is that if you try to comfort your dog while you are in a “weak” state of mind yourself, then you will likely be indicating to your dog that neither of you can cope! Do not feel sorry for your dog, be empathetic – but don’t fall into a trap of communicating negative emotional signals to them. You want to communicate that you understand and that you are calm about the situation and all will be ok. It’s not that you are trying to change their fear state by giving off this energy but you just don’t want to exacerbate their fears further with an emotional response. You want to provide empathy and support in a non-emotional way. Channel that paramedic into your psyche again.
2. NEVER PUNISH A DOG WHO IS BEHAVING FEARFULLY!
Some people don’t realise that even by yelling “NO!” and “shut up” etc. that this is punishing your dog. this type of response can only make the situation worse for both of you. Other forms of puishment are  holding them down, squirting them with water, jerking their collar or anything else aversive, it may temporarily stop some behaviors like pacing, digging and whining. However, punishment only inhibits behavior; it does not calm. Dogs will then repress these fears and may well develop far worse problems such as reactive aggression. Never use a citronella collar to stop fearful behavior during fireworks, loud noises and storms. It’s just not the right approach for this type of behaviour due to the fact that this is not a voluntary response on your dog’s part. So a citronella collar will appear to them as punishment. What you can use instead is an adaptil collar and plug-in which helps to calm them down and is very useful for those dogs who exhibit generalised anxiety to other things too.
Inhibition and calm may look somewhat similar (absence of agitated behavior), but calm is an absence of stress and inhibition is a very stressful state. E.g. excessive panting, drooling, licking lips, looking nervously, whites of eyes showing, cowering. These are all symptoms that must be taken into context as just like us, in dog language a certain response can mean different things in different situations. You will know what their response feels like to you if you seek to communicate with them.
Punishment will only add to the stress of an already stressed out dog; adding to their fear as they will anticipate the punishment he now associates with the noise that was originall frightening them. This will decrease your dog’s trust in you and therefore the possibility that you will be able to calm them during frightening experiences.
3. It may be helpful to try to do pleasant things with them during fireworks in an effort to prevent fear from developing. This includes having a supply of things they really love to chew, and providing these special things during storms. These can include food toys stuffed with really delicious food or marrow
bones in the freezer, and special chewies like bully sticks or pigs’ ears. My preference is freshly cooked chicken as the strong smell of real meat will really help activate their senses.
If possible, get your dog started on one of these items as quickly as possible before the fireworks and before the storm is really raging because once they are in a full on fearful state it will switch off their taste senses and only survial instincts will kick in making them disinterested in even the tastiest morsel until they have calmed down.
Some dogs are able to direct their anxiety to destroying “sacrifice items”, such as cardboard boxes or paper items like old phone books. This destructive behavior can function as a way to displace the dog’s anxiety onto a pleasurable activity. This is also the way that some dogs cope with separation anxiety ect. However, these should be resorted to as a last measure when all else is failing you.

4. Create a calm environment in the house prior to fireworks or as night closes in if you are experiencing unpredictable bouts of fireworks. Have your dog’s den permanently in place. Put on some soothing calm music or classical music. You can even purchase classical music that has been attuned to your dog’s ears called Through A Dog’s Ear. This activates their sense of hearing in a positive way and can diffuse the noise of fireworks. Their sense of touch can also be activated by giving them a soothing massage. Please read my article published in Animal Magazine and on my blog: Why We Should Be Massaging Our Dogs

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You could use essential oils like lavender to help calm your dog or the spray Pet Remedy (although it doesn’t smell that great for humans), spraying this on their beds. If using essential oils I would recommend the DoTerra range as you need to make sure the oils are dog friendly and uncontaminated and this is even more necessary if you are using the oil to massage them with. Not all oils are appropriate and take advice if you have a cat in the family as this option may be completely unsuitable for them. I would advise diluting oils as dog’s sense of smell is so sensitive.

5. When storms/fireworks occur, some dogs can be comforted by being allowed in bed with you.
Again, this is not going to reward or encourage his fear, but it may be comforting enough that
you can both get some sleep.
6. If you do have a light on in the room. Make sure it is not the “white light” of computers, television and electrical items which cause EMF stress of their own. We want to create a calm effect so nothing too bright. Less stimulation will be better. Things like Salt Lamps emit a calming light source that counteracts “white light” from computers and televisions which are a potentially stressful light source on the eyes.

7. Some dogs are probably attracted to bathtubs and showers by the fact that bathrooms are often somewhat sound insulated, and bathbtubs and showers even more so.

chilled-out-dogs-thundershirt-for-fireworks-fears8. Some dogs seem comforted by wearing a Thundershirt (which has a money back guarantee) or an
Anxiety Wrap. Sometimes this can help with the feeling of the vibration from fireworks. Others find these kinds of apparel distressing, and they shouldn’t be made to wear them. Every dog is an individual… Any dog wearing any sort of clothing needs to be carefully monitored so that his temperature does not rise, especially in his agitated state during fireworks and storms. Although dogs do regulate their body temperature mainly through panting, as stated on the Thundershirt website.
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9. Don’t leave your dog alone during fireworks and thunder storms. This may mean hiring someone to stay home with your dog asking family members to help out. Forcing a dog to stay home alone behind a closed door or gate, or in a kennel or crate, can be very dangerous. Attempts to escape can cause injury and sometimes death.
Although positive reinforcement training may not work for all dogs, I have personally found great success in this form of behaviour training with fireworks both on my own dog and with clients. It is the timing of this method which is essential and also assessing whether the dog is the right candidate for this particular technique. If you would like to try this please visit my blog post from last year on Top Training for Fireworks Night and your Dog

Just to recap:

1. Keep calm and positive in yourself as your dog will pick up on how you are truly feeling
2. Create a calm environment in your house with a dark den, soothing music, maybe some essential oils burning or diffusing and some special treats.
3. Practice sending your dog to his/her den at normal times through the day with treat incentives and making it a positive place for them to retreat to
4. Invest in things like a thunder jacket, natural calm tablets to at least try what is on the market
5. If your dog is in panic mode and/or displays general anxiety at other times further meds may be necessary and you can speak with your veterinarian about these
6. DO NOT use citronella collars, or any punishment techniques. Instead try an adaptil collar and plug-in
6. Give your dog massage to try and soothe them and bring them into a state of calm before the fireworks start.

Symptoms of fear of fireworks:

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Written by Nicky