Once again it is the time of year when many pets suffer from the effects of firework phobias. Phobias can be complex and it is important to tailor behaviour modification to each individual’s circumstances, but there are some changes owners can make that will benefit most noise sensitive dogs. The secret is to look round your home and watch how your dog is affected. See how you can use the principles to maximise the benefit for them. If you would like advice from David on how to do this for your dog, please follow the procedure on the Pet Behaviour Referrals page.
Why be Afraid?
To appreciate what is happening to dogs that are afraid of fireworks we must examine why they are afraid.
Firstly, some dogs are genetically more prone to anxiety. They are genetically less confident than others and may have a predisposition to acquire specific fears like noise phobias.
Secondly, the fear of loud bangs and the accompanying flashes of light is a normal adaptive behaviour in dogs. All species have their own version of fear of the unknown and we are all pre-programmed to be afraid of anything not familiar in our environment.
Fear of fireworks is normal dog behaviour. It serves to stimulate a response to take the dog away from the threatening noise and flashes.
Afraid of What?
To understand how to combat the fear, we must look at exactly what dogs are afraid of, from their point of view.
The first time dogs are frightened by a specific stimulus their senses go into overdrive. They have a heightened awareness of everything around them, caused by arousal of their sympathetic autonomic nervous system, sometimes known as the “fight or flight” response. Because of this hyper-vigilance, they are starkly aware of things associated with the feared stimulus and can generalise the fear to them as well.
With firework phobia this causes the dog to include all the other sensory aspects of fireworks in their generalised fear. So, although the noise is the most relevant part of the feared stimulus, dogs will incorporate other parts of the composite stimulus, including light flashes, the smell of fireworks and the sound wave vibrations carried through the ground. Each one of the parts of the composite stimulus contributes to the building of the whole fear. It may be that your dog has also picked up on other aspects that are not necessarily otherwise linked to fireworks, for example the particular place where they first heard them.
Dogs have three basic strategies for dealing with fear: hiding, running away or fighting. However, you can’t fight firework noise by biting it; home is the safest place you can be, so there is nowhere to run; and even if you hide, you can still hear it!
When fireworks frighten them, dogs don’t know when the next bang is going to happen and have no way of coping with the fear it causes. They can’t predict it, control it, or escape it.
This becomes a major source of anxiety for many dogs, resulting in symptoms ranging from depression, through panic attacks, to aggression. Dogs that fear fireworks may also generalise that fear to other noises, becoming oversensitive and generally noise phobic.
This can reduce their quality of life and also place severe stress on their owners.
There are two parts to the solution. The first is to have a strategy in place so that your dog is better able to cope when fireworks go off, and the second is to place “fireworks” within the scope of things that are normal in the environment, so they no longer cause fear. Remember we are always dealing with the composite stimulus, which may differ from dog to dog as each one has picked up on the individual parts most relevant to them.
Part One – Anxiety Reduction
A month before the fireworks season starts:
- Although only a veterinary surgeon can advise on drug support, the latest research suggests that whilst the commonly prescribed drugs alleviate some of the symptoms of fear, they do not alleviate the fear itself. Consequently, whilst the dog looks more relaxed, inside it is feeling the same anxiety as before. There are drugs that can help, but take the advice of your veterinary surgeon.
- Install a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) diffuser at least two weeks before the first fireworks. DAP has been shown to have general anxiety reducing effects for dogs.
- Make a “den”. Many dogs already have a favourite “place of safety”, for example under a bed, where they go to get out of the way. Either adapt an existing den or make one from an indoor kennel or a robust cardboard box. It should be totally enclosed apart from the entrance and just big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around.
- Site the den towards the centre of the house – away from outside walls and windows.
- Try to make it as noise and light proof as possible by draping blankets over it.
- Place cushions and blankets on the floor to muffle the vibrations caused by loud bangs.
- Put more blankets inside so your dog can burrow into them.
- Include some of your dog’s favourite person’s unwashed clothes (inside a pillowcase) so they have a comforting scent in there, or use a specially prepared bed-sheet.
- Cover windows with heavy curtains/blinds to keep out light and noise.
- Site the DAP diffuser as close to the “den” as possible. Plug it in and leave it on.
- Feed your dog in the den from now on. Give all bones, chews and other goodies in the den.
- Take your dog there regularly and reward with a treat (through a feeder hole at the back so they have to go all the way in).
- Hide treats in the den to encourage your dog to go there of their own accord.
- Stuff Kongs with pasta and treats and give them to your dog when they go to the den.
- Never be tempted to shut your dog in the den – they should WANT to go there, not HAVE to go there.
On the day of the fireworks:
- Take your dog out for a walk to empty before the fireworks start.
- Feed a stodgy meal of high carbohydrate, low protein, an hour before the fireworks (unless they suffer from stress related diarrhoea, when this is NOT a good idea).
- Put on some music with a heavy bass beat – not too loud, but loud enough to mask the more distant bangs.
- Take your dog to their den and provide chews, stuffed Kongs and dog food. Water should always be available. Don’t worry if the food goes untouched – some dogs are so stressed they are unable to eat.
When the fireworks start:
- Pet, praise or cuddle your dog if they are displaying anxiety – they may see this as approval and continue with the anxious behaviour.
- Tell your dog off – this will make them even more worried.
- Take your dog to their den.
- Ignore any anxious behaviour. They have to learn to cope on their own – dependence upon people will not help.
- Ignore the noise – set a good example.
- Reward any relaxed behaviour with stroking, a massage, or food treats.
- Play games if your dog is able – if there is another, more relaxed, dog, play games with them and hope that the stressed one joins in.
Part Two – Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning to Firework Noise
The processes of desensitisation and counter conditioning are used to help dogs with specific fears like fireworks.
One of the reasons that dogs become afraid of fireworks is that they only happen for a short period each year. They don’t have time to understand that the noise is doing them no harm before it stops, only to start again the next year. If firework noise happened all year round, dogs would eventually be able to understand it actually does no harm. It would become a normal part of their environment.
Before starting a programme of desensitisation and counter conditioning, the strategies outlined in part one must be in place for your dog to cope if there are unforeseen firework noises (like a neighbour unexpectedly having a party).
This is a matter of introducing the feared stimulus at an intensity that is insufficient to cause the fear reaction. It means that we need to make the firework noise very quietly, so your dog just notices it, but does not react. First we need a recording of firework noise; play it at the lowest volume, possibly in a different room if the player volume doesn’t go low enough.
If your dog displays a fear response, it is too high and we are making the problem worse. The idea is that it should become unimportant background noise. Only play the CD when there is someone in the house, so you can monitor your dog’s reaction, but the more often it is played, the faster the programme can progress.
Slowly, over the next months, increase the volume very slightly each week, but never high enough for your dog to be worried about it. If there is any kind of fear reaction, stop immediately and reduce the volume back two weeks.
Your dog currently associates firework noise with fear. The fear is conditioned to the firework noise. The idea of counter conditioning is to associate the firework noise with an emotion other than, and incompatible with, fear.
To do this, turn the recording up slightly when your dog is feeding. Eating is incompatible with fear, so if we are able to adjust the volume so that your dog is able to hear it, but still wants to eat, the firework noise will become conditioned to the pleasant emotion of eating instead of fear.
Likewise turn the recording up when playing games with your dog. We want the noise to predict having a good time, so it should be loud enough for your dog to hear and then do its favourite thing. If your dog doesn’t like to play games, save some favourite food treats (something very special, not just ordinary food) for the times when the recording is increased.
Like in the desensitisation phase, increase the volume a little at a time, taking care never to stimulate a fear response. The increases should be so slight that your dog isn’t even aware of it happening.
Once your dog is able to experience the recording at what we would consider a normal volume, start playing it out of the context, both in the desensitisation and the counter conditioning phases. Play it at very low volume in the car – play it louder if your dog is excited about going somewhere.
Play it at random times and volumes – there is never any harm in lowering the volume occasionally. Play it at times when your dog expects to have fun. Make the noise a reliable predictor of positive emotions.
Other Parts of the Composite Stimulus
You can desensitise and counter condition the dog to the effects of vibrations travelling through the ground by taking it for walks near a road used by heavy vehicles, or a railway station. If your dog is nervous of heavy traffic, stop occasionally and give food treats, or walk towards an exciting destination.
Flashing Lights: –
At times other than when the recording is playing, switch off the lights and play a torch beam around the darkened room whilst counter conditioning your dog with food or games. If your dog is extremely fearful of the light, only slightly darken the room and use a small torch, building up to a bigger stimulus as they desensitise.
Firework Smell: –
Likewise, you can desensitise and counter condition your dog to the smell of fireworks by collecting some spent ones in a box (make sure they are totally spent) and placing it near to them whilst they are eating.
Bring all these individual parts of the composite firework stimulus together, slowly and carefully – we still do not want to stimulate a fear response!
Bring out the spent fireworks, turn up the volume on the recording, switch off the lights and play the torchlight round the room. This is the nearest thing we can get to simulating the full firework experience. Try to do this regularly, so your dog gets used to it being part of the environment, otherwise we are back to square one.
This programme is extremely protracted and the best results are from owners who take great care in administering it meticulously. Each dog is individual but even in the easiest cases progress will be measured in months, rather than day.
Photo Credit: parvindersingh