Firework fear – how to deal with your dog during Bonfire Night

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.

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.

The problem

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.

The solution

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:

DON’T:

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.

DO:

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.

(Article source: Dog Secrets)

 


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