If you've don't have a dog who's frightened of fireworks then I'm sincerely glad for you. However if you do, then you have my deepest sympathies.
People who have never witnessed the fearful suffering of a well-loved family pet during the course of the fireworks 'season' (because it's never just the one night now :-( ) are often quite scathing to those who have. "Just don't show any fear yourself, don't comfort them" are all phrases you'll probably be familiar with.
If only it were as simple as showing our dogs there's nothing to be frightened of - that our dog's personality and genetic heritage had no bearing on their reaction to strange, unaccountably loud noises which happen with no apparent warning.
That particular piece of advice is one of the most annoying I ever read. The truth of the matter is that fear cannot be reinforced by another kindly soul patting your arm and making soothing noises. Imagine a child who was scared of something and ignoring them when they came to you for comfort. It doesn't stop the fear and it potentially makes it worse if the person you trust most in the world isn't prepared to listen to your worries either!
That said, there is a difference between providing comfort when it is requested, and joining in with a dog's fears. When Diva my Sheltie runs around in a panic, for all the world crying "We're all going to die, we're all going to die!" in hysterical tones - me joining in and panicking with her would I'm sure, cause her to faint in alarm at my acknowledgement of a dire situation.
Behaviour like that would almost certainly create more fear and alarm than was already present in a fearful dog, and I wouldn't advocate that at all!
So being the owners of a couple of firework-phobic dogs, what do I do when the night terrors are upon us? Well I have tried a number of things - some of which have proved very successful, others not. But what I know of dogs is that they are very like people - they are individuals and what works for one won't necessarily work for others.
Here are a list of ideas to help your dog cope with fireworks fear - please do add any that I might have missed in the comments below:
- Provide a safe space such as a bed under a dining room table or a crate with blankets over the top. Please note if your dog is not used to a crate then popping one up won't be a miracle cure, and might even end up with a negative association with fireworks! So invest in some training time using Susan Garrett's Crate Games DVD and make it an enjoyable and safe place to be.
- Frightened dogs can bolt in terror - make sure that they are securely in a harness/ collar when you take them outside if you have to for the toilet, and if possible make sure they've emptied their bladder/ bowels before it gets dark. Be aware of opening doors to the outside world where a frightened dog might rush past and escape.
- Thundershirts have proved themselves useful for several dogs I've worked with, including some success with my own. These can be purchased from pet shops & online and work along the principles of Tellington Touch, by providing gentle pressure around the dog, almost like a safe hug.
- Plug in diffusers such as Adaptil or Pet Remedy are scents designed to calm and reassure anxious dogs, and although I haven't had amazing results I do know people who swear by them. Again it's a bit of trial and error to find out what works for your dog.
- Adaptil or Pet Remedy sprays - the same manufacturers as the diffusers, I have been DELIGHTED with the results of the Pet Remedy spray for my old boy Kai who had a very traumatic fireworks season last year. Whilst he and the other two who worry about them definitely noticed the bangs we had last weekend, they just put their heads down and seemed to be resigned to it. A big improvement so far as I'm concerned!
- Consult your vet on the latest tablets available - there are so many that listing them would take too long and I wouldn't be able to do the descriptions of each justice. Suffice to say that pharmaceutical companies are constantly at work creating new wonder drugs to help us dog owners out - again it's finding what works for your dog, but your vet would be the best to suggest what's now available.
- Homeopathic blends & tablets - specifically Scullcap & Valerian in either tablet or drop form. Dorwest have a range specifically targeting anxiety & behaviour which you might find useful. Otherwise consulting with a vet who specialises in homeopathic or alternative therapies is a great idea as you'll get specific advice designed with your particular pet in mind. Vets like this understand exactly that each animal should be treated like the individual it is.
- Training games! My dogs LOVE to tug with me and Kai taught me a long time ago that when he was highly aroused and excited tugging, he didn't care what noises were happening around him. Our new years eve night last year was EXTREMELY loud as I had all of the dogs in our living room together, taking it in turns to play with me. My usual policy of quiet whilst waiting went completely out the window and I actively encouraged them all to be as noisy as they saw fit!! No-one noticed any fireworks noise that night... :D
- Driving around in the car. Some of my dogs LOVE being in the car - they'll choose to go and sit out there on a nice day if it's open and available to them. So after Kai's fright last year I drove him around for a while, mostly to help me feel better as it felt like I was doing something for him.
- Many behavioural & dog training folk will suggest that you should use desensitization CD's in advance of fireworks night, claiming that we can get our dogs used to the noise. Now again, I wouldn't rule it out for all dogs (and for puppies in particular I think it's valuable) but I read a great article explaining that the reason it may not work is because our dogs hearing is so superior to our own. What sounds realistic to us just doesn't to them. They simply can't be fooled by the noise even when played at full volume from your stereo - which I had done with Kai with him looking at me with a wise expression which clearly indicated he thought I had gone a bit mad ;)
I do wish at times like this that I had a magic wand which I could wave to prevent fear and anxiety in my own dogs and other peoples. But life just isn't that simple and these suggestions are just that - suggestions to help your dogs cope with what can be a very stressful time.
If you have something that's helped your dogs that I haven't mentioned - please do let me know. If I can't live in a world where the sale of fireworks is only licensed to organised events and not stupid and thoughtless individuals, then I would at least like to live in a world which holds remedies to support the beloved dogs that I care about.
Today I'm grateful for each of my dogs for helping me understand and recognise the importance of seeing each of them as the individuals that they are. It's an important and valuable lesson which I feel obliged to share :)