Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Things that go bang...

What with Bonfire Night, New Year celebrations and any number of other reasons for bangs and flashes, this time of year is a nightmare for many dog owners. In a perfect world I’d like to see fireworks restricted to organised events. But fireworks must make a lot of money for the people who sell them and I suspect that restrictions are unlikely to be enforced any time soon. The problem is that we dog-obsessives have to share the world with people who aren’t really bothered about them – in fact, they might like fireworks more than they do dogs, or they might simply not know about the effect fireworks can have. We have to find a way to live together, and that means helping our canine friends to cope with the annual season of loud noises and flashing lights.

It doesn’t help that for each of us and for our dogs, fireworks can bring very different experiences. Whether it’s due to poor socialisation as a puppy or a negative experience in adult life, dogs can grow fearful of the loud noises made by fireworks, and if their fear isn’t addressed it can get worse. As with people, some dogs are naturally more nervous than others, and despite the fact that the firework season seems to bet longer every year, this isn’t a constant source of noise that a dog can gradually get used to. I’ve also found that a dog who had no problem with last year’s fireworks can still be taken by surprise when the bangs begin again after a peaceful, firework-free spring and summer.

Unfortunately, one of the most effective ways to ensure a happy dog – plenty of exercise – isn’t always an option for helping to keep them calm at this time of year. As soon as darkness starts to fall the fireworks come out, and whether or not my dogs are afraid of fireworks when they’re in the house, I don’t want them coming across one while out for a walk. So at this time of year the evening walk is a cautious affair. Early morning is the best bet for a good walk, but not for all dogs. Even at this time of day I’ve heard the odd firework being let off, and I’ve seen some dogs reacting fearfully to the noises.

Having owned fearful dogs in the past I know how easily fear can build into panic, and how distressing firework fear can be for both humans and dogs. It can be difficult to know what to do. Many of us will have been told not to respond to our dogs’ fear reactions and to carry on as if there is nothing to be scared of. But if you’re faced with a terrified dog and with the odd loud bang making you jump out of your own skin, how can you pretend to your dog – who is a master at reading body language – that nothing is wrong? Common sense comes in the form of a very helpful factsheet from Dogs Trust, which includes advice on how to help puppies grow accustomed to the noises they’ll hear as well as tips on dealing with a dog that has grown up to fear the fireworks.

Diffusing the firework fear
I know from my own experience that, as the Dogs Trust advises, acting as if nothing is amiss can work wonders if the dog has only recently begun to react to fireworks. My own dogs are pretty calm when the fireworks are going off, but they can be taken by surprise now and again and I’ve found that as long as I’m calm around them they will settle down again. If the noises are particularly bothersome to them, I’ll distract their attention with a game or a bit of reward-based training so they stop worrying about the noises outside. That’s fine for dogs like mine because they’re more surprised than frightened by the noises and I’m able to direct their behaviour and stop their surprise from escalating into fear.

However, many dogs have a serious fear of fireworks, and I’m really glad to see that Dogs Trust advises owners to give those dogs attention if they need it. We care so much for our dogs, who wouldn’t want to comfort them when they’re frightened? As the factsheet notes, dogs who are very afraid will be too scared to see such interaction as a reward so, contrary to some advice I’ve had in the past, giving the dog attention will provide some comfort, rather than reinforcing fearful behaviour. A key point here is not to force the dog out into the open if that’s not where it wants to be. The Dogs Trust advises that it’s essential to “try to find out what helps [the dog] to cope and be sure to let him do this – e.g. letting him hide under the table – don’t try to coax him out, if this is where he feels safest – he’ll come out when he’s ready and then you can praise him.”

Advice such as drawing the curtains and turning up the volume on the TV hits the spot for me – that’s what we always do in my house on bonfire night and I’ve found it works a treat. Having made sure the dogs have been outside to go to the loo before it gets dark, we’ll be settling down to watch a film with loud noises in it as the dogs don’t seem to mind if the noises come from the TV. (Fargo particularly recommends the second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I don’t know why, but he loves it!)

I hadn’t come across a couple of the other tips in the factsheet, although these make perfect sense to me now I’ve read them. They include:
·         Keeping internal doors open, as closing them can make the dog feel trapped
·         Feeding a stodgy high-carbohydrate meal in the late afternoon, such as well-cooked white rice, pasta or mashed potato with cooked chicken, turkey or white fish, as this can help to make the dog feel more calm and sleepy in the evening.

As many of us know from experience, even these measures aren’t enough to reassure some dogs and a longer-term approach may be needed. There is a growing range of options to help ease the anxiety of firework season – CDs to help accustom pets to loud noises, dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) diffusers, calming herbal remedies or the Thundershirt to name but a few. Different approaches might work for different dogs and if you’re using a product like DAP or a noise CD, you need to begin some time before the fireworks start. If your dog tends to get very frightened it's important to discuss the options with your vet or a qualified dog trainer to find the best approach.

There is no 'quick fix' for a fearful dog, but I think that with concerted effort it is possible to help make this time of year less stressful for our canine friends. The Dogs Trust factsheet offers some great advice which my own experience tells me is worth listening to. I wish I'd known these techniques years ago when my first Whippet was shivering with fear as the fireworks exploded overhead, but at least I've been able to apply some of them with my current three dogs, who are able to be pretty laid back about Bonfire Night. I hope the information is useful to you, and that you and your dogs have a calm and relatively peaceful firework season.

** Charlie Whippet (in the photo) isn't actually afraid of fireworks, which is good because his birthday is on 5 November!

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