Fear of Fireworks

Fear of Fireworks - With November fast approaching it is important to prepare our dogs for the firework season.

It is believed that as many as 40-50% of dogs have a sensitivity to sounds with thunderstorms, fireworks and gunshots the most recognised. Some behavioural responses can be extreme in nature and result in dogs becoming destructive, running away, hiding and toileting. For many, pacing, shaking, barking and panting are also common symptoms. Despite the prevalence of such problems, very few owners seek professional help as they deem their dog’s fearful response as normal. As a result, treatment is often delayed until the problems are extreme and have become generalised to lots of sounds.

Many dogs may not like the sound of fireworks but have strategies to help them cope. This could be seeking owner-contact or hiding. If left untreated their fear may develop into a phobia where there is an ‘all or nothing’ response to even low levels of noise. Management and treatment is therefore essential for the welfare of the dog.

Preparation and treatment:

In preparation for the firework season it can help to modify your dog’s emotional response using desensitisation and counterconditioning techniques.

  • Desensitisation is a process used to gradually reduce an animal’s fearful response by gradually exposing the animal to increasingly intense forms of the stimulus while the animal is relaxed and behaving ‘normally’.

In respect to firework fears and phobias, CD recordings can be used by introducing the sound on the lowest possible volume (ZERO!) and gradually increasing the volume over lots of short sessions. The volume should only be increased until the dog recognises the sound by a prick of the ears or lifting of its head. This volume should then be maintained until no response is seen. The process is then repeated until the firework sounds can be heard at an audible volume.

As the fear or phobia may also be triggered by things associated with fireworks (smell of bonfire, flashing lights), it may also help to work on these stimuli ensuring that each component is introduced separately and at their lowest intensity first.

  • Counterconditioning is a process by which an animal’s emotional or behavioural response to a stimulus is altered, by conditioning a response which is incompatible with the unacceptable emotion or behaviour that currently exists.

In respect to firework fears and phobias, this can be achieved by pairing the sounds from the CD with something pleasurable, such as the dog’s favourite treats or games. This can be combined with teaching the dog a ‘settle’ or ‘sit-stay’ but the behaviour must be reliable before using it in the treatment programme.

Alongside the use of the treatment CD, creating a ‘safe haven’ that you can train your dog to start using is really important. Many people make something on bonfire night which the dog will have no previous positive association with and therefore may not want to use if they are already scared. Ideally the ‘safe haven’ should be made as sound proof as possible, usually helped by using thick blankets and cushions. The dogs food, toys and when possible a tasty treat, should then be added to the area. Most dogs already have somewhere they go when they become worried, such as a cupboard or under the bed, so try to utilise the area the dog has already chosen.

Management during the firework season:

During the firework season it is important to take steps to manage your dog and its environment. This can be achieved by:

  • Ensuring that someone remains at home with the dog at least one week leading up to bonfire night and the week after.

  • Avoiding walking your dog as it becomes dark for the same period. If you do find yourself out and about then ensure that your dog remains on the lead so there is no risk of it bolting and causing harm to itself or anyone else (e.g. running into the road).

  • Closing all the windows and curtains and playing rhythmical music, preferably music the dog is used to hearing.

  • Ensure that 24 hour access to the ‘safe haven’ is provided. It would also be beneficial to place a water supply either in or nearby.

  • Install a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (ADAPtil) diffuser, as these provide a feeling of comfort, safety and reassurance. ADAPtil diffusers can also help support dogs who have not experienced a firework season before (e.g. puppies, or dogs that have moved into a town). The ADAPtil should be plugged in as close as possible to the ‘safe haven’ or the area the dog spends most of its time.

  • Many books recommend that you should ignore your dog if it becomes fearful as you run the risk of reinforcing the fear. As only behaviours not emotions can be reinforced, this is misleading and can result in more anxiety for the dog. If your dog is showing signs of concern, petting it is therefore very unlikely to make things worse but it may help to comfort the dog and provide some distraction. ‘Jollying up’ games or finding their favourite toy for a game may also help. The main thing is to give the dog choice and if it would rather stay hidden under the bed, do not try to make it come out.

If your dog has previously shown concern about fireworks, thunderstorms or gunshots try filling out the following sound sensitivity questionnaire (http://surveys.ethometrix.com/s3/CEVAssqtp) to see how affected your dog is by these sounds. If your dog is showing any fear or anxiety it is strongly recommended you speak to your vet and asked to be referred to a companion animal behaviourist.

** Recommended treatment CD – ‘Sounds Scary’ www.soundtherapy4pets.com

NB. Ensure that you read through the supporting manual thoroughly before commencing the programme.

If you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s response to sounds, please do not hesitate to get in touch on 07738817775 or by visiting www.dogbehaviourconsultant.co.uk

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