As a pet owner, when it reaches mid-October your internal clock start telling you to prepare for fireworks. No longer do we just hear or see them at organised events, nor on specific days of the year, fireworks can last for months and begin as soon as the sky is dark and nights draw in.
As an owner of a noise fearful adopted dog, Danny, we don't know where his fear originated, but we do know that it is there and over the last two years have continued searching for advice on how we can better help him to cope.
Danny isn't alone, many animals find fireworks scary. In fact, a recent survey by the RSPCA suggests that it may be as many as 45% of animals who struggle to cope with many animal charities raising alarms throughout the festive season asking owners to be fireworks aware because many animals get spooked and run away.
To get some advice on how to help dogs cope and how we can prepare for the unexpected, K9 Magazine spoke with dog trainer and behaviourist Carolyn Menteith who explained more.
Can a fearful dog ever stop being scared of fireworks?
The first thing we wanted to understand was the longevity of noise phobia and whether Danny and other dogs like him, will ever stop being scared of fireworks and whether stress brought on as a result of something similar can change a dog's behaviour.
Carolyn shared her experience.
"Noise phobias don't go away – in fact, they will get worse as the dog becomes more and more sensitised with each exposure. Some dogs start being worried by fireworks but this can lead to extreme reactions to other sounds – including general household noises. This raises the dog’s general anxiety levels, which does affect their general behaviour and can lead to all kinds of problems – including chewing, destruction, loss of toilet training, and aggression."
Can you distract a dog from reacting to fireworks?
Often we can distract our dog from doing something undesirable with their favourite toy or treat depending on what they are motivated by, we wondered if this may apply in some circumstances to dogs who have noise phobias.
Carolyn explained to us that some dogs can easily be distracted from reacting to fireworks if their reaction is connected to a low level of concern and has experienced this with her own dog.
"I have had a dog who barked at fireworks but as his level of concern was quite low, he could easily be distracted by a stuffed Kong, and the calming element of the chewing was enough to stop that. In most cases, however, dogs are unable to eat because their anxiety is too high."
How should dog owners best prepare for unexpected fireworks?
It isn't always easy to plan ahead if a neighbour or local venue decides to have a last minute fireworks event and owners often need to act fast to help their pet with little time to prepare to combat their pet's anxiety.
Under these circumstances, Carolyn recommends having an action plan in place so although you may not know an event might happen until it does, she tells us if you are proactive in your preparation you can plan ahead for this season from the very start.
She continues, "Good breeders should have introduced noise CDs/apps and so on to the puppies they breed to get them used to unexpected noises as part of their socialisation and habituation, and owners should continue this throughout their dog’s life. Like most behaviour problems, prevention is easy and cure is sometimes impossible.
"Once you are in a situation where you have a sound sensitive dog panicking in the middle of a firework display going on outside, you can’t do much more than just try and make them feel as safe as possible.
"Try first to distract them with food or a game so they don’t notice the fireworks so much. This only works for mild issues however. Make sure the TV is on and that there is noise in the house to prevent the bangs being so obvious.
"Let dogs go to their den space if they need to – or if they need your comfort, give them that calmly and quietly. Don’t, however, push your attention on them if they don’t want it – that can just make things worse. Let them cope however they can.
"Make sure they have water. They probably won’t be able to drink while they are anxious but afterwards they will need it as they will probably have panted and even drooled a lot and may be dehydrated."
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What to Do When Dogs Are Scared of Fireworks
We asked Carolyn for some key advice to help owners prepare as best as they can.
Here's what she said:
1. Watch the local press to find out about local displays and ask neighbours if they are planning to set off any fireworks. This will help you be a little forewarned.
2. Walk your dog at a time when he is not likely to encounter fireworks – and make sure he has a chance to go to the toilet before the firework time starts so you don’t have to take him outside during the bangs and crashes. This might mean feeding him earlier than usual.
3. Build an area where your dog can go and ‘den’ and feel safer if he is scared (such as a crate covered in blankets and lined with vet bed).
Have this in your main room where you spend your evening so he has your close company to help him feel more secure. Spend time before the firework season making him feel comfortable in his den (so set it up a week or two early so he can get used to it, and you can even feed him in there on occasion).
4. Have the TV and/or radio on quite loudly so that the firework noises are less obvious to your dog.
5. Make sure you have things to help distract your dog (such as his favourite high-value treats, toys etc). If a dog is only slightly worried by sounds, they may be able to be distracted with some training, a game or something to chew.
6. Also have products handy that can help support your dog which works quickly and can help the dog cope. This can be used preventatively or as a first line of attack if your dog starts to show signs of noise phobia.