Your Dog and Fireworks by Nick Jones

It seems that many celebrations throughout the year bring fireworks. Gone are the days when one evening each year would bring about the bangs and flashes; fireworks can and do occur at all times of the year, day and night! For many dogs and owners this is a nightmare…I know, I see it frequently in my work as a dog behaviourist and trainer. Maybe if it were one night you could accept it, but no, it seems to go on for weeks, creating misery for the dogs and owners alike.

There have been campaigns in the past to reduce the sound volume of fireworks, but this is slow to take effect and in the real world there seems to be no change in the actual volume. There also appear to be more and more shops opening specifically to sell fireworks at peak season, with little or no control on how much people can buy or where they are let off.

It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public place, but again I feel this is frequently being disregarded. Our police are already over stretched. This brings our attention to the plight many dogs endure each year (for prolonged periods in some circumstances), especially for dogs living in more built up areas. This is the issue of fireworks being let off in an indiscriminate way.

So how can we begin to help a dog that finds these noises distressing? One common trait that I find after discussing the matter in detail with the owner, is that they seem to be giving the ‘wrong kind’ of attention to the dog during its stressful period, inadvertently reinforcing the dog’s behaviour. This is not particularly a fault of the owner as they are doing what humans do in such circumstances; if this were human-to-human interaction, the reassurance would be understood for what it is and some solace and reassurance would be taken by it. We are of course not born to understand dog language without reading books or studying their ways, hence this poignant communication gap between dogs and their owners often arises. As we are not able to discuss the matter with the dog, we will need to find other ways of showing that we ourselves are calm and in control of the situation, offering reassurance to the dog in the process.

An analogy is to imagine you were at cruising altitude in a plane as you make your way to your holiday destination. The plane experiences some serious turbulence and naturally you anxiously look to the flight attendant for any signs of concern. Of course, they always look calm and continue about their work with a fixed smile. So you say to yourself that if they’re not concerned then neither am I. Then imagine how you would feel if the attendants start to run up and down the aisle like headless chickens screaming that we’re all doomed! I know which approach makes me feel calmer and more reassured… so the same goes for our dogs in similar circumstances. The simple point I make to owners in this situation is that whatever state of mind the dog is in at any point (whether stressed or calm) when you touch, talk to or interact with the dog, you are likely to see more of this behaviour in the future, because you are reinforcing the behaviour at that time.

I once saw a lady whose dog suffered from firework related anxiety. It also had a wide range of behavioural issues that were in most circumstances further reinforced by the owner. Much of this I realise is inadvertent on the owner’s part, but none the less misguided. The reason I bring this up is that I also find a number of other (apparently unrelated) issues that are best dealt with at the same time as the foremost concern for the owner – in this instance fireworks.

This lady’s dog (a Bichon Frise – small dogs are often treated differently by their owners) also has issues with lead pulling and nervous aggression towards other dogs. She has also taken to feeding the dog by hand as it will leave its food from time to time.

So I often find myself doing a full circle and coming back to the simple yet effective aspect in all human-dog relationships, that is one of showing what I call ‘Positive Leadership’ to the dog. This is another, separate subject and I would like to return to this subject in the future.

There are things you can do, however, both on the day and ideally in advance:

  • Never walk your dog while fireworks are being let off.
  • Keep your dog indoors, close the curtains and play music or turn on the television to drown out the noise.
  • Consider making a den with old blankets for your dog to hide away.
  • Ensure you are not enforcing your dog’s nervous state by giving attention to its behaviour and allow the dog to settle where it finds a secure place.
  • To further minimise distress, you can use a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). It is a synthetic version of a chemical produced by the mother shortly after she has given birth. The pheromone reassures newborn puppies and naturally calms them down.
  • Scientists have discovered it also helps calm older dogs as well for a wide range of anxiety related behaviour.
  • You can combine a DAP diffuser with a CD that you can use to gradually desensitise your dog to typical firework noises. This usually takes a few weeks to see a marked improvement and is best carried out well in advance for optimum results. It is a wise move when also used as a preventative measure with a young dog.
  • A herbal remedy known as Scull cap & Valerian can also aid calming your dog, as can Bach’s Rescue Remedy.
  • If your dog is particularly prone to becoming very distressed, discuss sedatives with your vet, but do try the above first, as it is a drug free approach aimed at removing the root of the problem.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Nick Jones, for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Dog Behaviour & Training

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