Fireworks: What can I do to help my dog cope?
If you have ever had a dog who is terrified of loud bangs or fireworks, you will know how agonising it can be. Symptoms include:
- panting, drooling and whining
- restlessness and fidgeting
- anxiety and aggression
- hiding or scrabbling at furniture.
I remember on the eve of the new Millennium, Buzz was left at home while we went to a neighbour’s to celebrate. We came home to find he had destroyed a door, trying to escape. Poor boy!
It’s really hard to know what to do. We want to reassure them, but they don’t really want to hear it.
Ignore it and it will go away
When I first went to training classes with Sunny, I remember being told very clearly “Don’t make a fuss if something scares your dog. If you cuddle them and fuss them, you are drawing attention to their fear and ‘rewarding them’ for wanting your attention. Just ignore them and they will realise there is nothing to be afraid of.”
I do understand where this advice is coming from. If you are anxious about your dog being anxious, they will become more anxious, because they are feeding off your anxiety! I see this most often when we are out walking and we walk past someone whose dog is ‘nervous of other dogs’. They have the dog on the lead and are gripping hold of it. Or they might even be clutching the dog to them – I’ll protect you! Even if they are just holding the lead though, the owner’s anxiety is being transmitted down that lead to the dog.
It’s a vicious circle; the dog is afraid so you become afraid, so the dog thinks “there must be something to be afraid of” so becomes afraid. This ‘transmission of emotion’ also happens with horses, as anyone who has been nervous about riding a horse will tell you! Another example is when you are faced with a dog you don’t know and aren’t sure about – you know that they can ‘smell your fear’. In fact it is true; dogs (and horses) can smell fear and will react accordingly.
Fireworks – training or ignoring?
Getting back to the fireworks then, how should we tackle it? If we completely ignore it, we are not helping the dog to cope with it, we are just being mean! What we need then, is a strategy to positively develop coping behaviour for the dog. There are a number of ways we can tackle this:
- Provide alternative noise to counteract the bangs, such as a loud radio playing
- Use a Desensitisation CD for dogs
- Provide a safe place for the dog to go into, such as a dark corner with a comfy bed or blanket
- Shut curtains and move the dog away from the bangs if possible
- Put the dog into a Thundershirt
- Give the dog medication, obtained from your vet, or buy some calming tablets
The Training Solution
Distraction is a crucial factor in persuading your dog that there is nothing to worry about. It’s not about ignoring them when they are afraid, as about ignoring their fear – making light of it. If you can clearly project to them that you are perfectly fine with whatever is going on, in fact you think it’s time to have a game, then the dog may be able to move past it with you. You need to be convincing! But if you can get their attention on you and persuade them to play fetch, or do tricks, or even just a bit of rough and tumble, then they are less likely to be thinking about ‘that scary thing’. So go on, play with your dog?
This works if you are out and another dog goes past. Thinking to yourself “that’s not an interesting dog, playing with you is much more fun” will help to encourage your dog to ignore other dogs. They won’t feel the need to protect you. This also works for bangs and loud noises.
Not just fireworks
It is useful to enable your dog to cope with loud bangs, not just for when the fireworks are around, but for all sorts of other things. Thunderstorms are an obvious one, but also bird scarers, gunshots, hot air balloons, cars backfiring, starter pistols etc. In fact if you want your dog to become a Pets As Therapy volunteer, they will need to cope with someone dropping something loud beside them.
Eventually, we want a dog who is secure and confident enough to find loud bangs and flashes a bit boring. Don’t think that you cannot cuddle your dog if they are scared, just make sure that you are not afraid of their fear!
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