Imagine being a dog and all of a sudden an endless stream of scary monsters show up on the doorstep and keep ringing the doorbell. For many dogs, Halloween, just like July 4 and New Year’s Eve and late summer thunderstorms are days of infamy.
I received an emergency call from a family who was frantic about their newly adopted Australian Shepard, Duffy. Duffy had crashed through a second-story plate-glass window. Thankfully, Duffy’s humans were home and heard the crash. They ran outside, rescued Duffy from the bushes, and rushed him to the vet.
What caused Duffy’s near-fatal crash through a window? He was trying to “escape” the sounds of the neighborhood’s July 4th celebrations. The vet told Duffy’s family that he sees a lot of dogs who are injured when they react to fireworks and thunderstorms. Duffy was lucky because he suffered only superficial cuts and bruises. Other dogs aren’t so lucky.
Shelters all over the country are filled on July 5th, Halloween and in hot summer months with lost dogs who took flight and escaped from yards and even, like Duffy, from inside homes, all because of their fears and anxieties. Once on the street, these distressed dogs often become disoriented and, fueled by the intermittent crack of fireworks and the smell of gunpowder in the air, or intense thunder and lightening flashes, run for miles until there is no hope of them finding their way back home. Sometimes only luck and the help of kind-hearted rescuers bring a distressed and exhausted dog safely back home. Sadly, many others are hit by cars and injured or even killed. Some dogs simply disappear and are never seen again, leaving their families heartbroken. So what can we do to help our beloved pets get through the holidays and help them relax through storms?
Frequently, you’ll see articles online, in newspapers and in magazines about how you can help your dog acclimate to fireworks and thunderstorms. But these often appear too late to do anything to help your dog. It takes weeks and months to change a dog’s behavior. Why not get started now before the terrifying popping, cracking, booming and exploding of New Year’s Eve happens? To begin, I strongly suggest working with a qualified professional dog trainer who uses only positive methods and can show you exactly what to do and how to do it.
That being said, I’ve come up with a list of tools all trainers carry with them to help build a dog’s confidence, raise their stress-management threshold and help them weather the storms, both figuratively and literally.
- Prevention and Management Safety for your dog, you and your property are your primary concerns. First and foremost, be extra careful and anticipate problems before they occur. Prevention and management means creating an environment that sets your dog up to not only be safe, but actually teaches her to relax. When all hell breaks loose outside, supervise your dog so mistakes can’t happen. It is imperative that she always wears her collar with some kind of identification just in case she does manage to escape when storms and holiday noise erupt. Never put an anxious, distressed dog in a crate or tie her to something and leave her there. She would likely injure herself while hysterically attempting to get free.
- Ambient Sounds. Turn on the air conditioner and TV or radio to help create a room filled with familiar sounds. Often this can distract your dog or even help muffle the fireworks or storms outside. There’s also a pretty good relaxing music tape on the market called “Through a Dog’s Ear.” The trick to this though, is to turn the radio or TV on 30 minutes before the fireworks start so there is some continuity. Otherwise the dog will quickly learn to associate the approaching stressors with the soothing sounds!
- Exercise. Provide extra exercise so your dog has less energy to pay attention to the fireworks and may even sleep through the displays.
- Play and triggering “feel good” chemicals. Playing with your dog with his favorite toys can trigger neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, the same chemicals responsible for us feeling “in love” and other calm, relaxing feelings. These chemicals can help counteract the stress of the situation and help your dog tune out the sensory environmental and holiday bombardment.
- Massage your dog everyday so he or she loves the time with you. Then, when the storm or fireworks appear, the massage will help relieve her tension. There is also a touch-related therapy called T-Touch that has been found to be very effective for many dogs. A brief internet search should point to several sources.
- Do not coddle your dog when he or she acts fearful with words like “It’s ok, don’t worry” unless you combine it with deep massage. If you coddle her when she is frightened, it can reinforce the fearful behavior.
- Be a good actor or actress. Keep a happy attitude around your dog and maintain her daily routines. Dogs feed off your energy. If you act stressed, your dog will feel stressed too.
- Leave the area. If things get really rough, put your dog in the car and go for a ride. I know families who plan a one or two day vacation around July 4th so they are away from fireworks.
- Try holistic aids. There are holistic options such as Bach Flower remedies, aroma therapy, and even pheromone therapy that can help many dogs. Check out products called DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) and Thunderspray. Lots of info if you search the internet.
- Thundershirts. A Thundershirt is a wrap that comfortably and snugly fits around the dog’s body and has been found to work on a high percentage of dogs to help them relax. I used it with success with my Golden Retriever Grady for many years.
- Dietary and Herbal remedies. I have found products like Nutricalm and Composure effective for some dogs. Always check with your trainer and healthcare professional.
- Consult with your veterinarian. There are pharmacological aids that can be prescribed to help your dog get through the roughest time where fireworks or storms are of greatest intensity. Check with a vet who is well versed in behavioral modification.
- Train Your Dog. By teaching your dog to stay relaxed in the midst of intense distractions like banging pots and popping bubble gift-wrap, you can gradually build up your dog’s trust and raise his stress management threshold.
This then can be a big help, months later when the fireworks start or storms appear. Obviously training like this takes time and it’s important to never ask more than what your dog can do. Hiring a qualified professional trainer is highly recommended. Part of the training includes two very important tools:
Counterconditioning and Systematic Desensitization
You probably remember learning about Pavlov‘s famous experiment in which he linked the sound of a bell with food, which caused dogs to salivate every time the bell rang. This is called classical or “associative” conditioning. One no-value thing, like the sound of a bell, is linked or “associated” with a highly valued thing like food. And the bell then becomes associated with the promise of food.
The principal is the same when trying to change the way a frightened dog feels about fireworks. You use a form of classical conditioning to counter the way the dog feels about something he fears by linking the scary thing with highly valued treats. So every time fireworks go off, the theory is, if you quickly throw your dog a highly valued treat, the dog will eventually learn to not react to the sound of fireworks because he anticipates a treat’s on the way.
This is often used together with a process called systematic desensitization, which is used to get him used to the scary thing in baby steps or small increments until they’re no longer a problem. A trainer can demonstrate the step-by-step methods used to do this.