What You Can Do to Help
Many dogs are frightened of fireworks, and for those dogs, the next few weeks will not be easy. Fireworks seem incredibly loud to our dogs’ superior ears (their hearing is 4 times better than ours), they alter the air pressure, and worst of all, they’re unpredictable. The dog is aware that the frightening noises are coming from different places, and they don’t know when or where they’ll happen next.
It’s dreadful seeing your dog feeling frightened and not knowing what to do to make them feel better, but here are a few practical tips that might just help:
- Keep things as calm as possible coming up to and during the entire firework period. The hormones released by stress and excitement can take days to return to normal levels. So if lots of exciting or stressful things are happening around that time, your dog’s stress levels will already be quite high. So, keep walks calm, avoid throwing balls, sticks etc and playing chasing or any exciting games. Make sure your dog is getting plenty of sleep and rest, plenty of things to chew, and plenty of nice calm mental stimulation (sniffing and exploring!);
- If you can get them thinking (again some sort of nose work is really good- read more here) before the fireworks start, and activate the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain, this will help inhibit activity in the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain, and make it less likely for them to respond emotionally to the noise.
- Don’t go out and leave them home alone when fireworks are likely. If you’re not there, you can’t do anything to help;
- Don’t bring them outside when fireworks are taking place. Fireworks will sound louder out and about, and your dog will feel more vulnerable out in the open (and may try to slip his lead and run away). Stay inside, close doors, windows and curtains to muffle the sound as much as possible, and you can try turning on the tv or radio. Some dogs find classical music soothing;
- Provide your dog with a hiding place. Lots of dogs want to go into hiding when they’re frightened. Let them. You can cover their hiding place with blankets, cushions etc to try and further muffle the sound (make sure they can still get out easily- a safe place is only a safe place if the dog has complete control and is never locked in or dragged out!);
- If your dog turns to you for comfort, provide it. Contrary to what people say, you will not make your dog feel worse or encourage fearful behaviour if you comfort them. Here’s a link to a great article by Patricia McConnell on the topic of why it’s not possible to reinforce fear;
- If your dog does choose to be near to you, practicing some gentle canine massage might help. You can find some wonderful massage techniques in Julia Robertson’s book. Massage can increase dopamine and serotonin levels in your dog, as well as increasing oxytocin levels in both of you!
- Get your dog something nice to chew. Once a dog gets stressed he’s unlikely to take any food, but if you can give it to him at the first sign of the fireworks, there’s a chance he’ll get engrossed in the chewing and not be so aware. Try nice raw marrow bones, kongs stuffed with something really tasty, hooves, cows ears, etc. Chewing and licking produce serotonin, a feel-good hormone, in the dog’s brain;
- Try a DAP collar. These produce a synthetic version of the hormone produced by mother dogs when they are lactating, which dogs find calming and reassuring. Get it a couple of weeks in advance of the fireworks and leave it on for the whole of the firework period. You can also get plug-in diffusers and sprays. Others have success with Zylcene, Rescue Remedy, St John’s Wort, etc.
- I heard a great tip from another dog trainer recently- use bonfire night as an excuse to stay in cooking and making dog treats. Dogs’ primary sense is smell, so having lots of nice smells around will help create positive associations with fireworks.