Sue Ketland DipCABT from Wood Green The Animals Charity talks to us about her experiences with keeping animals calm during fireworks.
It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in and the temperature is dropping. The time of year that many pet owners dread. The time of year when calls for behavioural advice from pet owners with sound sensitive dogs increases dramatically. The anxiety in the owners’ voices is heart-breaking.
I am of course talking about fireworks. Many children and adults love nothing more than to ooh and ah at the amazing light shows that these innocent looking little sticks of ‘black powder’ provide.
However, there are also a number of adults and children that are terrified of fireworks, namely the loud bangs rather than the pretty sparkles.
Even though these individuals know exactly what fireworks are, how they are made, what they contain and that they offer no physical harm (providing they are not lighting them), they are still absolutely terrified of them. These sufferers often reach out for help to find a potential cure for their phobia. The options can include hypnosis, talking therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and/or medication.
However, the fact remains that many of our fellow human beings often live in fear as soon as the sun goes down for at least half of the winter months.
So what about our pets?
Wood Green’s experience shows us that dogs seem to create the biggest cause for concern for their owners.
Science tells us that there are four standard fear responses – fight, flight, freeze and fool around. These responses cross all species, including humans.
Small animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs tend to adopt the ‘freeze’ response in their hutches so a lot of owners don’t really consider them to be frightened as they are not ‘acting up’.
Cats naturally adopt the ‘flight’ option when they are scared. They will bolt in any direction available to them until they can find a small space to squeeze into and hide away. Cat owners can recognise that their cat is scared but because they appear calm and quiet they accept that leaving their feline friend alone during a firework event is the preferred option.
Then we come to dogs. This is where managing fear becomes more difficult. It can also have devastating consequences.
There are numerous symptoms that dogs present. They include panting, pacing, whining, hiding, barking and digging. A dog may want to be alone or cuddled up with its owner. It might lunge at the window barking and growling at the sight of a firework. It may claw and scratch at its owner. It may dig into cables whilst trying to get behind a desk or unit. It might urinate in the house, not just because it has got so scared it has lost bladder control but also due to the fact that it is too scared to go outside when it needs to. And so the list goes on.
Dog owners often find themselves under house arrest from dusk ‘til dawn during firework season. These owners often experience ‘firework rage’ especially at the random one or two that are set off early in the evening as they know that’s all it takes to terrify their dog for hours to come.
To see any animal in such a state of fear, panic or terror is hard enough but when it is a four legged member of your family that you love, the experience is heart-breaking.
So why are dogs scared of fireworks?
As already stated, animals have a tougher time dealing with fireworks than humans as they are unable to understand what is happening and that they are not in any danger.
Some dogs are going to be genetically predisposed to developing sound sensitivity related issues. Others may have had a bad experience involving noise during a critical stage in their emotional development.
During any form of behaviour modification, good trainers know that allowing dogs some level of control with regards to what is happening speeds up training/learning considerably.
Sadly this is not an option for sound phobia. It is often the randomness, the differing volume of each type of firework, the whizzing, popping and squealing as they go up into the air. The noises come from all directions at any time of the evening. Even the air smells different. There is no escaping it or controlling it from a dogs’ point of view.
Instead they become victims of their central, peripheral and sympathetic nervous systems.
The dog’s behaviour once an external threat (bang) has been registered becomes something that they no longer have control of.
On hearing the first bang they immediately become hypervigilant and adrenaline is released into the dogs’ blood stream.
A highly adrenalized dog cannot think straight. This is partly owing to what an increase in adrenaline does to the body.
It’s caused by increases to:-
- blood flow to the brain and heart
- the heart rate
- blood pressure
- blood flow to muscles and so on.
So what can we do to help them?
Some dogs want to cuddle up next to their owners for comfort and protection. Out-dated views state that owners shouldn’t do this as it was said to reward them and therefore increase the fear. This has been proven to be a myth. It’s perfectly ok for an owner to calmly reassure their dog and offer them comfort. In fact it’s more stressful for the dog to be shunned by their owner in their time of need and this could well go on to damage the trust between the dog and its owner.
It’s important to ensure that your dog has eaten and been to the toilet before nightfall. To experience extreme stress on a full stomach can just add to the dogs discomfort and could, in some cases lead to the dog bloating which then becomes a medical emergency.
Make sure all windows are closed tight to reduce the outside noise and close all curtains so that the dog cannot see the fireworks exploding.
Make sure that any room the dog has access to either has a television or radio/cd player on at a volume that will drown out at least 80% of what’s going on outside. Selecting an all-out action block buster movie is always better than a quiet psychological thriller.
Some dogs like a den to hide in when they are scared so providing a covered crate can work wonders.
Some dogs can be distracted by playing fun games in the house like tuggy or catching squeaky toys. Some are happy to lose themselves in a stuffed kong or three.
If someone knocks on your door whilst your dog is in a fearful or hypervigilant state do not open it unless the dog is secured. A lot of dogs that get out when scared just bolt for the horizon which can sometimes end up with devastating consequences.
Whilst there a number of medications or supplements available to help your dog they often don’t help unless they are used in conjunction with behaviour modification which will include a number of the previously mentioned points.
At Wood Green our ‘go to’ nutraceutical is always Calmex. Especially for young dogs or dogs that have only recently become sound sensitive.
We have had great success with this product both for sound issues and kennel stress. But that’s a whole different story.
The important thing is to be prepared this firework season, in order to make it as stress-free as possible for our canine companions.
Sue Ketland DipCABT
Sue Ketland has worked at Wood Green The Animals Charity for nearly 30yrs. She lives with her two Australian Shepherds and has participated in many forms of canine disciplines including working trials, agility, heelwork to music, showing, competitive obedience and talking dogs rally obedience.
Sue achieved her Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour & Training back in 2000 and has tutored on COAPE’s Rescue and Rehabilitation courses. In 2004 Sue was responsible for bringing the Syn Alia Training System (SATS) to the UK and is one of the first people in the world to be officially certified in this technique.
Sue runs puppy and pet dog training classes twice a week. Sue has lectured on canine behaviour and training in Japan and the Netherlands as well as for a number of other animal rescue shelters in the UK. After 15yrs of working within all the levels of the dog section Sue’s current role is to deliver training in all aspects of husbandry, training and behaviour to the dog staff and volunteers, she is also part of the charity’s ‘Hands On’ educational team where she delivers the ‘responsible dog ownership’ message to the general public. Sue is also a member of the shelters Animal Advisory and Development Group.
Sue has worked in the past on the tv series Pet Rescue, a BBC documentary on dogs as well as a series on rehoming dogs for Shine TV. Sue is Wood Green’s main media spokesperson for all things dog related.