Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Fireworks season! If your newsfeed or inbox is anything like mine, then there are plenty of solutions to help your dog cope. These promotions come from people who don’t know me, how I live and most importantly they don’t know my dog. This tells me is that we need an organised approach, to know our own dog and to appreciate the difference between anxiety and fear. With this in place we are enabled to work towards the best solution for the individual.
Anxiety and Fear
Anxiety and fear are adaptive emotional states that help us survive and thrive. Anxiety can help you prepare for an event, lock the door, take care crossing a busy street. Fear can help you survive by causing you to freeze, hide, run away or fight back.
At this point it is important to say that the terms ‘anxiety’ and ‘fear’ are only labels that have been constructed to describe an emotional state. You may not feel these terms are appropriate for your dog and that different labels are more suitable for the intensity of the emotion that your dog experiences.
For example - what colour is a banana?
If you answered Yellow, does that mean that the banana on the left and the banana on the right are no longer bananas?
By expanding our question, we can think more deeply, ask more questions, look for evidence and make our answer a little longer. Next time someone asks you ‘What colour is a banana’ you can begin your answer with ‘it depends……. ‘
We can learn what body language and reactions from our dogs, correlate with which emotion. This may take some time and practice, but once you have this information you will be able to evidence how your dog is feeling and apply targeted strategies to help. You will know if you are on the right track if the solution you apply begins to work quickly.
A useful equation for calculating severity:
Distress x Uncontrollability x Frequency
If you apply this to city dogs who suffer unpredictable fireworks for at least 3 weeks, it becomes easy to see why problems occur. You can also use the equation for dogs who have suffered long term convalescence from sudden injury or suffer with a chronic disease and/or pain.
Whilst short term fear and anxiety are adaptive emotions, they have a purpose or function for survival, if the fear or anxiety provoking event is frequent or uncontrollable then the problem may become more severe and the maladaptive emotional states of chronic anxiety, generalised anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or phobia can be seen. These will always require professional help, usually a Veterinary and qualified behaviourist will both need to be involved and work together.
Signs to look out for
Anxiety is overblown compared to the actual danger – for example a dog that runs away from, avoids or appears terrified of harmless novel objects such as plastic cones.
Anxiety continues past the stressful event – for example after an evening of fireworks one would expect the dog to be behaving normally by the end of the next day. They would still react to any bangs or anything that sounds similar to a firework, but they should be able to go outside, eat, play and sleep.
Anxiety gets in the way of normal activities – for example the day care dog who sits by the gate, stereotypic behaviours such as digging or foot chewing that prevent the dog from resting and sleeping, the dog who freezes when out for walks. Dog refuses to play or eat.
Dogs display the same physiological responses to anxiety and fear as us. Their sympathetic nervous system launches a flight or fight response, releasing chemicals that prepare the body to deal with danger.
Signs of this may be
Hyper-ventilation when dogs pant excessively, their mouths are usually drawn back, ears are back, and they may appear to be frowning (smooth haired dogs in particular).
Increased body temperature – dogs don’t sweat like we do but under stress they may ‘sweat’ through their paws, leaving wet footprints on a hard floor.
Shedding – stressed dogs may shed a lot of hair in a short period. Some dogs naturally shed a lot of hair and this is not always due to stress but genetics.
Shivering or shaking – as the body goes into a stress response the muscles begin to tremble
Diarrhoea, vomiting, inappropriate urination – the digestive system is affected
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE INCLINATION TO BOLT – your dog may have an overwhelming desire to remove themselves from the situation as quickly as possible, this can be dangerous and even lead to death. Always keep a stressed dog on a lead or line or make sure they are safely confined. If you are at home, provide safe ‘bolt holes’ for your dog to use in times of stress.
After an event like this your dog may be left feeling exhausted from the effort of dealing with the stress. Give your dog plenty of time to recover from one stressful event before introducing them to another.
What can you do to help?
Manage your expectations – remember that anxiety and fear are normal, functional emotions, and we have very little control over them. However, we can help our dogs before and after the event. The goal to change the emotions of a dog currently terrified of fireworks into one that is calm and self-assured under these conditions, may be unrealistic. Whereas a goal to help your dog recover faster is one you can influence and evidence.
Keep records – being able to evidence your progress will help keep you motivated. Noting down events, diet, games played, activities etc., will provide valuable insights into planning your dog’s recovery strategy.
Be prepared to change your routine – outings during daylight hours or suspended for a few weeks, mealtimes varied, 3am toilet trips etc
Calm the limbic system – like us dogs have a limbic system, and it is key to survival, allowing the brain to bypass the rational, thoughtful, but slower pre-frontal cortex and move straight to flight or fight.
Under periods of intense stress this system can get ‘stuck’, the chemicals in the brain circle and it is very difficult for the dog to use their pre-frontal cortex, to the extent that brain cells in this area begin to die off. This means that learning strategies, games, training etc might not be as effective as you would hope. Medication, traditional or herbal can cut through this circling and get the pre-frontal cortex back on-line.
Scenting Opportunities – scent is a primary survival sense. Pups are born blind and use scent to find their mother and her milk. Scent connects straight to the limbic system, putting it on alert or calming it. Scent games during the day can help calm your dog’s brain, or ‘scenting’ walks, find areas where there are plenty of scents, slow down and let your dog enjoy sniffing. Some essential oils can help, some oils are toxic to dogs, please do your research or take professional advice. https://www.clareteachingdogs.com/post/adventures-in-scenting
Exercise – appropriate play with other dogs or with you is an effective form of exercise. Alternatively, a safe run or field if your dog cannot be off lead.
Touch – some dogs enjoy touch and find it relaxing. Massage or grooming. Experiment with different types of hand movements or brushes on various parts of the body. Tellington Touch is a massage technique designed for animals http://www.ttouchtteam.org.uk/
Many dogs like gentle pressure against their bodies when they are frightened, they may press themselves into a corner or under something. You can provide something similar with a tight-fitting coat, TTouch body wrap, thundershirt etc., you can also sit with your dog so that they are in contact with your body.
Chewing and Licking – both will calm a dog, but they are not the same. Provide opportunities for each activity. There are plenty of enrichment sites on the internet for home-made ideas.
If your dog is suffering or has developed a phobia due to fireworks season then please contact your vet or complete the contact form for more help.