Welcome to the Fireworks “season” (for those of you in the UK). When did that happen? When did it stop being about November 5th and start to become an excuse to set fire to things at any time of the day or night for at least a week, and probably up until New Year?
Let’s face it, fireworks are a slightly strange idea. Ok, humans generally love them (although I’ve seen many a too-small child being laughed at by their own family for being petrified at a display) but really what is the fascination with making the sky explode, loudly and repeatedly? Evolution would suggest that we should run away; we certainly wouldn’t be standing around watching if it was a bomb exploding overhead. But then we can differentiate between “safe” fireworks (?) and dangerous alternatives.
Dogs (and other animals of course) cannot. Every fibre of their being is telling them its not ok – loud bangs, flashing lights, missiles raining down from the sky. It is entirely normal for your dog to be scared. That does not mean it is ok.
This topic is of particular relevance to me as my own outgoing, confident, adult terrier developed a rapidly-worsening phobia after the guy who lived upstairs from our flat decided to host a firework extravaganza on his roof terrace. Without telling us. My dog was petrified, panicking and trying to dig through the floor of our basement in an attempt to escape. Nothing would console her. It took a year of my expert training, a cocktail of psychoactive drugs, and eventually a house move to finally sort her out to the point that she could at least tolerate loud bangs without flipping out.
Yes, people, this is serious.
So, what to do? Well, if your dog is already scared, you should get professional help ready for next year. It is most definitely not the kind of problem to which there is a quick fix, and you need to see a qualified professional who will use gentle, reward-based training methods to gradually desensitise your dog to the scary sounds.
Meantime, there are things you can do to alleviate the effects, and to make sure your as-yet-unitiated-to-the-joys dog copes with their first experience.
1. Stay home. Sorry to be a party-pooper, but if your dog is scared, it is likely to be able to cope better if someone is home to provide reassurance. Many a dog has developed a full-blown phobia after experiencing a scary noise-event whilst home alone.
2. Close the curtains. The combination of noise + flashing light is worse than the sound alone. Also, curtains can help reduce the sound level to some extent. Plug in an Adaptil diffuser where you think your dog will most likely spend the evening (you can always move it), prepare a pile of human – and doggie – snacks and hunker down.
3. Make a hidey-hole. If your dog wants to lie in the shower – fine! Give him / her an old or spare duvet to dig into. Alternatively, wrap the duvet around your dog’s crate if he / she has one (but don’t shut the dog inside or you may induce panic). Stuff a yummy Kong, find a nice chew-bone, keep feeding delicious treats. You are trying to fight fire here and ameliorate your dog’s emotional reaction to the fireworks, this is not a “good-behaviour” training exercise so, if your dog will eat, shovel in the food. All diets are cancelled tonight! (Obviously is your dog is on a special diet prescribed by your vet you will have to work from this – we don’t want to make things worse by creating a sick dog.)
4. Pee time. Tricky this one. Make sure that your dog is on a safe lead, with a super-well fitting collar / harness that can absolutely not come off. Maybe tighten it more than usual to be sure (without actually strangling your dog obviously…). Try and time it between firework episodes, but remember that there is likely to be a very odd smell in the air, and possibly smoke, so don’t go far from the house and if your dog wants to stay in, respect that. Don’t let the dog into the garden loose unless you are 100% sure there is no escape route (including jumping onto your garden table and over the fence) – at least go out with the dog and probably best to put that lead on for extra safety. If your dog won’t go out, put some newspaper down in case he / she just can’t wait. You’ll be glad you did in the morning!
5. Sleep together. If your dog is very frightened, or the bangs are likely to go on past bedtime, consider bringing the dog into your room, or sleeping on the couch together. I promise it will not ruin your dog forever, whereas leaving him / her to face the fear alone is quite likely to do exactly that.
And finally, anything you read that tells you to ignore your frightened dog, or even worse punish it in any way, is rubbish. Do. Not. Listen. You will not be “rewarding” your dog’s behaviour by acknowledging it. Remain calm, behave normally, put some music on (Bon Jovi works well I find!), sing, dance (join in with Strictly!), do anything that will distract your dog from waiting for the next scary bang to happen. It’s going to be a long night, so you might as well enjoy it in any way you can!
Deborah Colella – The Dog Nanny