DOGS AND FIREWORKS, “HOW TO COPE”.
In this topic I will look at how to help you cope with the fairly common behaviour problems associated with fireworks. I will also be giving advice on how you should handle the lead up to and indeed your first fireworks night to hopefully stop any serious future problems. Many dogs do cope fine with fireworks but many need a helping hand.
PLEASE READ THE WHOLE TOPIC FOR A FULLER PICTURE
I have used in the title above “how to cope” as I do believe that for a majority of dogs this is the way to go. A proper cure for problems with fireworks is rare and involves a lengthy process of desensitization, habituation and counter conditioning that few owners and dogs can stick too. There is also the added problem that dogs do a lot of associative learning and though they do have a problem with the bangs of fireworks the nervousness, fear and anxiety that they may experience can also be associated with other things in the environment at the same time. For instance: the smell of cordite in the air, the whoosh of rockets going up, the vibrations in the air and of things in the environment caused by the explosions, the bright lights of exploding fireworks.
Some may use a CD of fireworks to desensitize and habituate a dog to the sounds of fireworks but come the day of actual fireworks with the added sounds, smells and sights that the dog already associates with the scary stimulus, and for which you can not desensitize and habituate them too, things often go out the window.
As I cannot look at a particular dog with problems here I will give general hints and tips that will hopefully help the majority out.
Firstly we will take a look at the dog that already has problems with fireworks, later we will look at ways to prepare for your first fireworks event.
ADVICE FOR THE DOG THAT ALREADY HAS PROBLEMS WITH FIREWORKS:-
Many dogs do have a problem with fireworks and the way they have learnt to deal with it will be different for every dog. Some dogs may just lay down quietly and seemingly have no problems but often they do have, they deal with it in this way and will suffer in silence. Others will continually look for reassurance from their owners by pawing, nudging, sitting near or on their owners. Others may whine, bark or even howl. Some may carry out more active behaviour, continually on the move looking for or going to “their safe place to hide", others may cower and look scared at every bang.
Most owners will be able to tell if their dog has a problem with fireworks and if your dogs reactions are very severe and distressing to you then help from your vet in times of exposure, if you know they are coming, may be your only option. I am not a qualified vet but a qualified behaviourist and we did look at some drugs in my training. The only thing I would like to say here is stay away from the drug ACP (acepromazine), also known as ACE. This terrible drug sedates the dog by freezing the muscles yet still allows them to mentally experience all the scary stimuli, but not be able to react to them. Many dogs will come out of this sedation more noise phobic (scared of) than before. In my opinion it is a terrible drug for overcoming fear/phobia issues. ACP should not be used for phobia and anxiety disorders (Neilson JC 2002, Carey R 2002- Vet Sci ).
I know of some dog owners who live in Lewes in Sussex, England where they have a huge fireworks festival every year and they will go to family or friends who live away from there to help their dogs out, (where they go may still have some fireworks but the intensity will be drastically reduced), but this is only an option for very few. For those dogs with problems of a lesser nature all the following may help.
The first thing I want to look at is DAP (dog appeasing pheromone, brand name Adaptil). Now, this is not a cure by any stretch of the imagination. but I do definitely think it does help things in many dogs (not all dogs). DAP is a chemical copy of the pheromone that a bitch produces to calm her puppies when they are anxious or stressed and the association that the pup and juvenile dog have with this pheromone is carried on into adult life and so when used properly with other initiatives may help by calming the dog.
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF DAP obviously relies on the fact that your dog, when a pup, did spend it's puppy hood with the mother and so actually experienced the using of this pheromone in times of actual anxiety/stress. Pups that did not spend their first 8 weeks with mum: puppy farms, crated pups, isolated pups, mum not present, will not respond to DAP, SADLY THERE ARE MANY PUPS/DOGS OUT THERE THAT HAD THIS BAD START IN LIFE.
These DAP's are not expensive and should be purchased well before the event (fireworks night etc), the plug in version needs to be plugged in and working two weeks before the event to help with building up a calming environment (the day before is no good). The sort you want to go for are the plug in one (like a plug in air freshener) and the spray. DAP is in no way harmful to your dog (OR US) and I am a great believer in trying something that your pet does not have to ingest (swallow) or have injected to get possible benefits.
THE PLUG IN DAP (adaptil):-
Buy it online well before the time you want to use it as it needs to be plugged in and left in two weeks before the event until two weeks after the event, plug it in where your dog will spend most of it's time while the fireworks are going on (more on this later), if you have a huge house and the dog moves around a lot then two or more may be required as they cover a certain area. A full plug in should last about four weeks. Once plugged in you can forget about it except to see it still has liquid in it, if it runs out use a refill. Again plug it in two weeks before the event until two weeks after, the day before is no good.
THE SPRAY DAP (adaptil):-
Again buy it online well before the event, it will be cheaper than buying it from your vet or local store, if online is not available to you or a friend etc you will have to get it from such. This spray is the same product as the plug in and I have personally seen it's benefits with some nervous dogs in the grooming parlour. We will be using this spray in and around the “safe place” that we will have for your dog (more on this later). Give five or six sprays in and around the “safe place” before the fireworks start (before last light), every couple of hours you can spray discreetly a couple more times around the safe place. If you have left things too late then using the DAP spray on it's own will be better than nothing, use it as I later explain.
There is also a DAP collar, a collar impregnated with DAP, though in my experience these have been of most use for nervous/anxious dogs when out and about, not indoors. If though you want to use one of them too then it may help.
That's a look at DAP, now we will take a look at how you should handle things yourself.
Firstly make sure you take your dog out for their last walk before it gets dark, you do not want to be taking them out with fireworks exploding above them, and some will need to relieve themselves. Hopefully you have decent curtains to block out any flashes and help deaden the sound (a little). Have the TV just a little louder than normal all night and if possible go to bed after it's all finished.
Most dogs when they experience a perceived scary moment in the home will in the first instance look to you for reassurance, then look for what they consider to be a safe place for them; this may be next to you, between your legs, on top of you, behind the settee, under the TV, in the cupboard next door, in the corner of another room, upstairs under the bed; really it could be anywhere that they perceive as a safe place for them. If they do indeed have a safe place already to go to then we can reinforce this as the safe place to help them get through it. If they don't have a safe place then we need to give them one.
FOR THE DOG THAT ALREADY HAS A SAFE PLACE:
If your dog does already have a safe place then you must ensure that they have access to it when they need it, if not they will become even more worried and anxious. If that safe place happens to be on you with you continually stroking them then so be it if it works for you; you can still use DAP though.
With their safe place we can make it feel even safer by having a DAP plug in working in that room and spraying the DAP spray in the immediate area before commencement of fireworks, and at reasonable periods thereafter, as long as this further spraying does not cause further worry (some, not many dogs, may just want to be left alone). Put some used bedding of theirs in the safe place and some used clothing of yours with familiar smells may help too. Darken the room with good curtains and a familiar sound like a radio or TV that they are used to may help.
What we need to do if they don't already have a safe place is give them a safe place to go to, somewhere where they can go and ride out the storm so to speak. Preferably the safe place wants to be in the same room as you.
FOR THE DOG THAT DOSE NOT ALREADY HAVE A SAFE PLACE:
So, providing a safe place; ideally you want to provide a safe place in the same room as you. As we are dealing with fireworks we would like to make the safe place one that reduces the shock on their senses, that is: sound, light, vibration and smell. The best I have come across is a dog crate of decent size to allow the dog to turn easily with the door left open (or taken off). Place it on a thick blanket, rug or similar and cover it with a large very heavy blanket or similar draped completely over it, this will reduce the vibration effect of the fireworks and keep it darker. If possible have the crate tucked away somewhere like between a settee and armchair or under a table as this adds to the safe den like feeling. Do not use wooden boxes or the like as they will emphasise the bangs and vibration from close exploding fireworks. In the safe place we want a decent bed that they have used elsewhere and has good smells on it to help with a good association to it, it would be good to have some small item of used clothing of yours in it. Before it gets dark and the fireworks start you should spray the DAP spray in and around the safe place, half a dozen sprays should suffice and throughout the scary time you can intermittently and discreetly respray, try and be calm and normal throughout. You can get your safe place sorted well before fireworks night, you can play around and in it with your dog, give treats in it, put a kong in it etc; anything to get them liking the place beforehand.
REINFORCING NERVOUS BEHAVIOUR:-
The first thing I would like to say is that it is very easy for an owner to unwittingly reinforce nervous behaviour or even bring it about. By this I am talking about excessively consoling or mollycoddling your dog when they are going through what you think is a worrying time to them but they are NOT actively seeking reassurance from you. If you do this your dog will think that what is happening to them is indeed something very scary and worth worrying about.
If on the other hand your dog IS actively seeking reassurance from you then give it but give it without going well over the top with vocals. Some dogs may be happy to go through a fireworks session on the lap of their owner being stroked throughout and as long as you can do this (not a Great Dane) then so be it.
ADVICE FOR YOUR DOGS AND YOURS FIRST FIREWORKS EVENT :-
We are assuming here that you and your dog are approaching your first fireworks night. To be honest no one can tell you how this might go but there are things you could do to hopefully help things along. If you have a dog that you know already has a nervous predisposition then whatever you do it may not go well, especially if you live in fireworks alley so to speak. What follows is advice to help you out.
Firstly like previously have a DAP diffuser plugged in two weeks before fireworks time and leave it plugged in until two weeks after. Have a DAP spray to hand in case you want to use it to reinforce a safe place if one comes up, if your dog already has one known to you; use it there.
Make sure you have taken your dog out for a walk well before it gets dark, you do not want to be taking them out with fireworks exploding above their heads. Some may say “ oh, this gets them used to it” but believe me that would only work for a tiny minority of the most bold dogs; most dogs would be scared and you could cause a lifelong problem for them and you.
In the run up to fireworks night and on the night try to maintain a normal jolly (not too jolly) atmosphere and demeanour. When your dog reacts to some fireworks do not give over the top vocal reassurance but do give a reassuring pet or stroke if they ask for it, you could try playing with your dog the minute they react to something keeping the mood and the association good. Through out the night have a couple of extra little play sessions with your dog, give them a Kong with something nice and quite hard to get out so when they hear fireworks and they are doing something they like at the time they will hopefully associate good things with the fireworks.
If it turns out your dog does have an instant bad reaction to their first fireworks and they do actively seek reassurance from you then give it but try not to overdo the vocal side of things as I do believe this reinforces the nervous/fearful behaviour more than anything else, use calming strokes, slowly and the full length of the dog. Hopefully you have some decent curtains that will at least keep out the flashes and have the TV a little louder than normal throughout the night; go to bed at the normal time so your dog thinks all is well.
Fireworks are a problem of varying degree for most dogs, my own is generally a very bold fella who has no problem with most things he comes across in life but even he does have a slight reaction to fireworks and how I deal with it with him is have a little play session and wrestle when I can see the reaction, after the play he settles down again happier. This is just how I help my dog cope but they are all different and as I said earlier most do have some sort of reaction to fireworks, some need no help and manage OK on their own but others do need that helping hand or more. Again for serious problems that cause you and your pet serious heartache then intervention from the vet may be required, or moving away for a short time (not practical for most), or you could try a good behaviourist and a course of behaviour modification though as I said earlier this is a lengthy and committed process with varying degrees of success. If you have a dog that genuinely has no problems with fireworks then carry on doing what you are doing.
GOOD LUCK !
With dog cages, pick one that is large enough for your dog, that allows them to comfortably stretch out, stand and turn around, use plenty of good bedding and a heavy blanket to cover it, as I explain in all the text above (see above). Never use a crate as a form of punishment.
Why not take a look at my first book, Elmer no ordinary wolf, a novel about the trials and tribulations of a young wolf family, and get an idea about where your dog comes from.
copyright 2013-21 Paul lindley