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, in a survey by the RSPCA suggests that it may be as many as 62% of animals who struggle to cope with firework phobias 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 with firework phobia 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."
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.
Bonus Tips: How To Help Your Dog Cope With Fireworks
Having owned working gundogs and other breeds at various stages in life, sometimes one young, one old (and deaf), until three years ago when Danny became a part of our family, I’d never owned a dog with a fear of fireworks. He spots the flashes of colour in the sky and waits for the bangs, writes K9 Magazine's Ryan O'Meara.
It’s been a learning curve trying to find ways to help keep him relaxed during fireworks season but with the help of veterinary nurse, Siobhan Griffin, we have compiled some of the best ways to calm a dog during fireworks season.
1. Learn about local events and plan accordingly
One of the biggest lessons we’ve learnt at home is that preparation is key.
We feed our dogs early so we can walk them earlier than usual, it’s like a military operation really. We get done, we get home, we close the windows, we draw the blinds and close the curtains and try to learn as much as we can about local events from neighbours, newspapers and social media so we know when to expect fireworks events.
Siobhan shares her advice on what to do to mask the sounds of fireworks to help keep a dog calm and somewhat oblivious to what’s going on outside and she makes a good point about keeping our own behaviour in check too.
“TV or Radio can be a good way to mask the noise of fireworks and distract them.
"Also, try not to fuss over your dog too much as this can make them worse instead of taking their attention away from the fireworks – similarly distracting with treats won’t work if they are too anxious to eat. It’s best to feed your dog during the day and avoid food in the evening to avoid them potentially bringing it back up.”
2. Create a calm space at home for your dog
Fireworks going off throughout the winter season often makes this time of year terrifying for the nation’s dogs, with unexpected and loud bangs going off across a number of weeks.
Lintbells have developed a process they call PEEP. This helps dog owners to spot the warning signs of stress and anxiety easier.
It goes like this:
P = Posture – Is your pet hunched, tense, cowering or defensive?
E = Eyes – Are their eyes wide, strained or pupils dilated?
E = Ears – Does it look like their ears are flattened or pinned back?
P = Position – Is your pet turning away, hiding or fleeing/freezing?
Once you can spot your dog’s telltale signs of anxiety, you can then put a plan in place to create a calm space in the home, your dog’s own ‘zen den’.
Danny chose his own zen den in our home. When he first moved in, he gravitated to a small bedroom upstairs and whenever he is stressed (or knows he’s about to be discovered as the latest bin raider), he runs to it, so we now fill the room with noise, a TV or radio and have his favourite things ready and waiting.
Siobhan shares these top tips for creating a zen den for dogs to retreat to.
“Leaving an old jumper or their favourite toy in there can be comforting by providing a familiar scent. Make sure to shut all doors, windows and curtains and keep the radio or TV on for distracting noise.
“Acting calm and relaxed yourself in the house will also help your dog keep their cool – by preparing as best you can by researching local fireworks displays or checking in with neighbours in case they plan on having a party, you can make sure you have measures in place to limit the damage as much as possible.”