Helping your dog or puppy through fireworks season

October 23, 2020

2020 has been an awful year, and now with organised fireworks displays being cancelled due to COVID-19, there is the very real possibility that more people will be setting fireworks off from their gardens.  This has the potential to be devastating and distressing for hundreds, more like thousands, of animals, both pets and wild animals. A lot of people love fireworks, and when I was younger I used to be one of them. I loved seeing the sparkles and the beautiful lights lighting up the sky. But then a few things changed as I have got older. Firstly, fireworks never used to be as loud when I was a child as they are now. Nowadays they are deafeningly loud, with people often having to wear ear defenders in order to watch a display. Secondly, when I was a child, and definitely when my parents were young, fireworks were only set off on 5th November. Nowadays sadly it has got out of hand and fireworks are set off for weeks on either side of ‘bonfire night’. I write this on Friday 23rd October 2020, and I have several friends who had fireworks set off close to them at the beginning of this week….19th October. Its so unnecessary. Thirdly, as I have got older, learnt about animal behaviour and made it my profession, I see so many animals suffer every year, including my own, that (along with the points mentioned above) it has taken the pleasure out of fireworks for me.

Plan ahead

On nights where there could potentially be fireworks, make sure to plan ahead, take your dog out for their last walk well before dusk hits….. remember people often seem to set fireworks off before it actually gets dark so dont get caught out. If possible walk in places that are secure, or hire a dog walking field so that if fireworks do get set off unexpectedly your dog will be safe. Dogs often get spooked by random fireworks when out on a walk, bolt and sadly have been known to run into the path of a car.   If they are likely to bolt keep them on a lead or long line attached to a secure harness which they cannot wriggle out of, and put a light up collar and reflective dog coat on, so that if the worst does happen, they can be seen.  Make sure that you garden is secure, the gate is shut and there are no holes or gaps in the fencing…..and if in doubt, keep your dog on a lead to take them out into the garden for their toilet breaks. Prepare some food toys in advance and place in the freezer or fridge…cut some high value treats up in advance, such as chicken or cheese, so these are ready when you need them without having to spend time preparing them

Contact neighbours

Put a note through neighbours doors, and post on local Facebook pages, asking people to let you know in advance if they are planning to set fireworks off. Forewarned is forearmed, and if you know when they will be set off you can make arrangements to either evacuate the house and go for a drive, or ensure that you are at least fully prepared.

Talk to your vet

If your dog is anxious and scared around fireworks, now is the time to speak to your vet about any medication that may be suitable. Medication can be very helpful but you will need to give your dog a test dose prior to when it is needed to ensure the dose is suitable for them. People sometimes seem reluctant to give their pet medication, but it can help them cope. You do not want to sedate your dog, as they will still feel fearful but simply wont have the ability to move as much, but giving them something that can help their anxiety can be very beneficial. Remember that dogs have died as a result of heart attacks when fireworks go off from sheer terror.  Examples of medication that can help are Xanax and Sileo…but please discuss with your vet what is appropriate for your dog. There are herbal remedies that are designed to help reduce fear and anxiety…..Pet Remedy or Adaptil are in the form of sprays or diffusers or collar and  there are other natural remedies such as Zylkene or Nutracalm.

Build a positive association for your puppy

If you have a puppy, you may find they are not worried by the sounds of fireworks. But you may find they are. For me it is not worth the risk to just wait and see. I prefer to be more proactive and set your puppy up so that they associate fireworks with really good things, so while they may not actively love fireworks, they can build a positive association with them and therefore will not be worried by them.  Please be aware, however, that there is a genetic component to how an individual dog will react in certain situations, and this applies to sound sensitivity and fear of firework sounds. Pair noises of fireworks with something your puppy finds fun and enjoyable. This could be treats, a game, some fun training. The aim is your puppy will start to associate fireworks with something great happening. It is really important that you puppy hears the noise, and then immediate afterwards the fun event happens….either drop loads of food, or have a game with them straight after the sound. You can prepare in advance as well by playing firework noises and starting this association before the ‘main event’. On the Dogs Trust website there is a great sound therapy section where you are able to download sounds of fireworks (and thunderstorms) in order to start the process of desensitising your puppy now. The idea is that you play these sounds at a very very low volume (so low that you may not even be able to hear them), while your puppy is doing something they enjoy (eating, having  a chew, licking a lickimat, playing a  game). As long as your puppy is not worried, and carries on eating, then continue this for a couple of days, and then you can very slowly increase the volume. Ideally this would happen over a period of weeks. If at any stage as you are increasing the volume your puppy seems worried, then reduce the volume again and work at that level for a couple more days before increasing the volume again. We want the noises of fireworks to be associated with great stuff, but also longer term to be no more scary or worrying than the sound of the tv or radio being on.

You CAN comfort your dog!

People are sometimes under the impression that they should not comfort their dog when they are scared because they are worried they will reinforce that fear. Fear is an emotion, and it is known that emotions cannot be reinforced in the same way that behaviours can be.  If your dog is scared, and seeks comfort from you, please do give it to them.  It is so important your dog knows you are there for them and that they can come to you for emotional support. If you ignore them at a time when they are scared, this is likely to cause more stress. However, if your dog is not seeking comfort from you, do not force attention on them…if they choose to hide under the bed or in their ‘den’ then let them be. Try to remain calm yourself too….if you are stressed or acting differently to normal, your dog will sense this and could increase the stress they are feeling.

Prepare your house – help your dog feel safe

If your dog likes to hide when they are scared, set up a ‘den’ for them – this can be a crate with blankets covering it (keep the door open so they can choose to go in or come out), or you can set up a den behind the sofa or between the chairs using blankets.  Some dogs like to hide in dens, but not all – if your dog does not fit into this category then dont try to make them. Make sure their bed, den or safe space is positioned away from an external wall or windows so they are as far away from the sounds of the fireworks as possible. Close all the blinds and curtains, and close doors to other rooms to avoid sounds travelling in from other rooms. Have the tv at  higher volume than usual, and have a couple of CD players or radios ready, at different corners of the room.  Have some rock music or even heavy metal music (if you can stand it!) ready to play during the evening, at the same time as the tv potentially. This kind of music, although not relaxing, is most effective at drowning out the firework noises. Relaxing, classical music is all well and good but the firework sounds will easily be heard over such gentle music.

Don’t go out!

If your dog is scared of fireworks, or if you have a new puppy or rescue dog and you dont know how they will react, please stay home with them.  This year you should be staying at home anyway as gatherings in peoples homes are limited, and it is illegal to set fireworks off on public land (hopefully one day fireworks will not be so freely available to the public as well), but it is really important you are at home with your dog to support them.

If you need any advice or professional help please do not hesitate to contact us – www.politepawdogtraining.co.uk

By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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