A previous blog on this topic began with the words "fireworks season", however, here in Glasgow, we have experienced an increase in the use of fireworks throughout 2021.
We now need to learn how to assess and help our dogs with the effects of fireworks all year round. However, the period from the end of October, beginning of November is still the most intense for most dogs. When dealing with firework issues I encourage clients to focus on their dog as an individual, to plan their approach in advance, be prepared to question expert advice, and experiment.
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.
These emotions are different from each other, but both feel uncomfortable and we prefer not to experience them. With practice we can learn what body language and reactions from our dogs, correlate with which emotion and with this information you will be able to 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 have a purpose, prolonged episodes can lead to chronic anxiety, generalised anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or phobia can be seen. These will always require professional help, usually a Vet and qualified behaviourist working together.
Signs that your dog is struggling
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.
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.
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 long 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?
Focus on making your dog feel safe - before your dog can recover they must feel safe. You are the expert on your dog, you know what they need to feel better. Pick them up, hold them, talk to them, let them lie undisturbed in their chosen 'bolt hole'.
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, indoor games and activities instead of walks, mealtimes varied etc. Avoid routine vet visits, groomers, physio etc., during this time or schedule your appointment for daylight hours.
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. Ask your vet for help.
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.
Exercise – if your dog is happy to go out during daylight hours, take them to their favourite walking spots or hire a safe dog field. Appropriate play with other dogs or with you is another effective form of exercise.
Training/Play - Practising some well known training class exercises can help your dog feel better. Breed specific activities also help e.g. herding games for the collies, carrying games for the retrievers. Make time for some favourite games and play with you or other dogs.
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.
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.
Can I help? If your dog is suffering or has developed a phobia due to fireworks season then please drop me a line