WHAT IS FIREWORK FEAR?
Any time from October onwards right through until after the New Year can be a stressful time for our dogs, and us owners. Why? Because this is when the dreaded firework season begins!
If you have a dog that doesn’t react to fireworks you are one of the lucky ones. Many dogs are upset by fireworks in a range of ways. Some dogs will bark or whine to alert you to the potential threat. Others will go into full panic mode, vocalising, panting, shaking and trying to escape the terrifying noise. Dogs have been known to harm themselves by trying to escape out of their crates and even patio doors.
But why the dramatic response? To understand this we need to understand how dogs become used to certain noises in their lives. Because that’s what fireworks are, just a big noise! Dogs become accustomed to lots of big noises – think of lorries and bin trucks, children shouting and screaming. With all of these noises they occur regularly throughout a dogs live in most cases. They will be used to lorries and bin trucks when they are out and about on walks. If you have small children they will get used to the noise they make. The more regularly they are exposed to these noises and see that nothing bad happens the more they will get used to them. Even better if something good happens to them when they hear the noises!
Fireworks happen only once a year for a short but intense period of time. If they happen at a time when the dog is receptive to new experiences and nothing bad happens to the dog at the same time as the noise they may well be unconcerned. Or if you pair the noise with nice things such as food or toys they may learn a positive response instead of a negative one.
However, the fireworks may well happen at a time when the dog is feeling particularly fearful of new experiences, in which case the automatic response may be a fearful one. What happens next serves to prove to the dog that they are right to be fearful! Their body will respond with automatic panic. They may start shaking and trembling, their heart rate will increase, they may begin panting and whining. They may try to hide, bury themselves or escape. These are all part of the fight or flight response which is built into us all. They can’t possibly fight these unpredictable loud sounds which seem to come from nowhere, so they take the flight option.
These upsetting automatic responses serve to prove to the dog that they are right! When they hear fireworks they feel horrible and they can’t control that feeling. It’s a panic attack! And it is directly connected to those scary loud noises. If I had a panic attack every time I heard fireworks I’m pretty sure I would be terrified of them! And I know what they are, whereas dogs don’t!
So that is why and how Firework Fear happens. But how can we prevent this from happening? Prevention is always better than cure, and training a dog not to be scared around fireworks is a long slow process if they have already developed a fear response.
Prepare for fireworks year round with dogs who haven’t heard fireworks before or dogs who haven’t developed a fearful response. You can do this by searching online for firework sounds or using an app like the Sound Proof Puppy Training app or the Sound Scary programme.
Start playing the sound at a barely audible level so that your dog can only just hear it and at the same time pair it with something positive such as some amazing treats or a brilliant game. This experience needs to stick in their minds as something they definitely want to happen again! As long as your dog isn’t worried you can very slowly start to increase the volume. This may take many sessions over weeks or even months, doing a little bit at a time.
Watch your dogs body language closely for any fearful responses. If they show any of these immediately stop the session and next time take it back to a level the dog was comfortable with. Keep any sessions brief to reduce the chance that your dog will become tired and less able to learn.
BUT WHAT IF MY DOG IS ALREADY FEARFUL?
If your dog already has a negative response you will need to work with an experienced trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques to put together a programme of behaviour modification. In some situations medication can be necessary to help the dog be able to learn. Left untreated firework fear may continue to get worse, and it is very unlikely to improve by itself.
Sedatives are not usually recommended as although they prevent the dog from displaying the fearful behaviours, they don’t stop the dog from feeling scared and because of this the dog may feel trapped and it may worsen the fearful response.
MANAGEMENT AND PREPARATION
Regardless of whether your dog does or doesn’t like fireworks there are precautions we can take to help them.
Make sure you exercise your dog well mentally and physically long before any fireworks are likely to go off. Keep your dog indoors before it goes dark. Make sure they have been fed and been to the toilet. Provide them with a warm, safe, covered and cosy den that they already love in case they want to hide and blankets to bury themselves in. Don’t shut them in so that they have choices. And ensure that they can’t hurt themselves trying to escape so stay with them! Putting background noise on like the radio or tv will help mask the sounds, and keep curtains closed so that they don’t see any strange lights.
Alternative therapies such as Adaptil collars and plug ins can be helpful near to their favourite area, but always put these into use well before the fireworks begin to get the best results. Thunder shirts can also be effective in some dogs, but again make sure your dog is happy with it before firework season.
LASTLY, TO COMFORT OR NOT TO COMFORT
There is a long held belief in the dog world that if your dog is afraid we must ignore it and not fuss it because we will reward their fear.
We now know that that is wrong! It is not possible to reinforce fear so we cannot reward our dog for being afraid and thus encourage them to be afraid even more! We cannot reward emotions!
Our dogs love us and look to us for protection and comfort at all times, never more than in their times of need. If your dog seeks you out for reassurance, wants to be close to you that is fine.
We would comfort and reassure a frightened child or friend, and we should do the same with our most loyal furry companions.