12 October 2021
It’s that time of year again… The season when it seems like every other night the sky lights up with spectacular starbursts of colour, and the bangs and crashes from a seemingly endless myriad of fireworks invade the peace and quiet of our homes.
Fireworks are a joy for us to watch as they spread their magic across the skies but for the nation’s dogs, they can make life a misery.
Studies show that around half of the country’s dogs suffer from noise phobia – and that number may just be the tip of the iceberg – and while it can be caused by thunderstorms, gunshots and any loud unpredictable noises, the main and most common cause at this time of year is fireworks.
The symptoms of noise phobia are wide-ranging, and go from the slightly worried to full-blown panic attacks. They include panting, pacing, trembling, salivating, loss of toilet training, becoming clingy, hiding, vomiting, digging, trying to escape and even aggression.
This is a nightmare for owners but it is far worse for the poor dog who is in an almost constant state of high stress during the firework season, with the stress hormone; cortisol, taking up to 96 hours to return to normal after a severe noise phobic episode.
Symptoms tend to be progressive too – with each episode producing more severe reactions, and fears to other sounds may also develop as the dog becomes more and more sensitised.
While noise phobias can be cured, or at least managed, it requires dedication and a lot of hard work from owners. Prevention however is easy, and given firework season comes round every single year, both breeders and new owners should make sure they work hard on this to make sure their dog doesn’t suffer in this way.
If however your dog is already noise phobic, you need to try and manage firework season in the very best way you can.
1. Take your dog out for their last walk of the day early so they are relaxed and tired, and also they don’t have to go out when fireworks are likely.
2. Use the TV or radio to try and mask some of the noise.
3. If your dog is only slightly worried, distract them with a treat, a game or some training to take their mind off the fireworks.
4. Don’t try and make your dog face up to their fear. For them it is very real and it is scary. Far better give them somewhere that feels safe – and most dogs find comfort in having a den that they can go to.
5. Set up a crate or a pen in a quiet corner of the room as far from windows and doors as possible with plenty of comfortable bedding and ideally a cover over the top so the dog has somewhere they can go and hide safely. Provide water and some treats you know your dog likes (although they will probably not be able to eat them). If they chose to use the den, let them stay there as long as they need without disturbing them – but stay close so they can feel your presence and in case they need your comfort.
6. Ignore the old fashioned and out-dated advice about ignoring your dog when they show fearful behaviour. The thinking used to be that by comforting your dog you were rewarding their fearful behaviour and would make it worse. Thankfully we know far better now… I mean if you were feeling really scared or panicky would you feel better if your friends, family or loved ones ignored you or told you not to be so stupid? No, you would take comfort from their presence and support – and your dog is exactly the same. Don’t force them to stay with you but if they come to you for comfort or reassurance make sure you give them just that.
7. Watch the press and local advertising so you know of organised events in the area. If you have a local firework display, consider leaving the area for that time rather than give your dog the stress of having to deal with it and also have them associate the noise and panic with home. Go out in the car, miles from anywhere – and stay there until you know it will be over.
8. Consider complementary treatments such as Adaptil, Breakthrough dog food, herbal remedies and other natural, drug-free products that may help. If your dog’s symptoms are extreme however, talk to your vet about possible medication.
Most importantly, as soon as the firework season is over, plan for next year. Find an accredited and experienced behaviourist who can work with you over the year to try and reduce or cure your dog’s noise phobia before it all happens again next year so you can enjoy the fireworks without worrying about your dog.
Article written by leading behaviourist and trainer, Carolyn Menteith