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Dogs And Stress (Including Fear of Fireworks)!

Parent Category: Dog Talk
Created: 15 September 2013

There are many reasons why a dog might be stressed. Some dogs simply have a nervous disposition; other dogs may not be nervous all the time but may become anxious due to associations with people, things, sounds or situations.

Most of us probably realise that one of the things most likely things to cause a problem for dogs is a strange new sound or sight, especially people wearing strange costumes that dogs are not used to or sudden loud noises like a gun going off, a car backfiring or fireworks! Fireworks can be used for many different occasions and at different times of year, unfortunately some of our dogs may not enjoy them at all!

There are other sounds that can cause your dogs similar discomfort, such as thunder and lightening, large vehicles thundering past, the air-​brakes of trucks or an old fashioned steam train whistling as it lets off steam… no doubt you can think of others!

Whatever the thing that causes your dog stress, there is a lot we can do to help!

We’re sure that most dog owners will know that it is important for a puppy to be socialised when they are very young, not only with other dogs, but also with as many different people, things, sights, sounds and situations as possible.

Once a young dog has had their all important vaccinations, it is a good idea to take them out and about to lots of different places where there are noises and activities that they will not be used to at home. Even before they are vaccinated, they can be carried with you as you go out and about on routine errands or visits.

Early socialisation can also be supplemented with recordings of unusual sounds and puppy or dog training classes, where they will be exposed to lots of noise, people and other dogs, in a relatively small space. This is especially important if your dog is an only pet!

We came across a great resource on this page of the Dogs Trust website – it provides helpful information and sound files for a range of sounds: Sound Therapy for Pets

No matter how well this socialisation/​desensitisation is done, and whether or not your dog is of a nervous disposition, it is inevitable that there will be times when your dog experiences something they are not used to and may react nervously. Once a dog has a negative association, it is not uncommon for them to remember and react each new time this situation is encountered, so it is important that dog owners get to know what triggers a response in their dog and do their best to mitigate the effect.

Remember that their reaction could be harmless or it could be dangerous! Even the cutest, sweetest dog could react badly and, at worst, even attack someone if they feel trapped in a stressful situation…

When Halloween and Bonfire Night approach it can be a ‘nightmare’ time of year for many dog owners in more ways than one! And of course fireworks are not confined to specific dates; September/​October sees the start of a very long firework season in many cultures, that continues long into the New Year!

Not only is this time of year full of potentially scary sounds, it is also full of strange sights! The last thing you want is for your dog to attack a child because of a halloween costume that your dog isn’t accustomed to. It may even be best to keep your dog away from the door when you expect children to be knocking for ‘trick or treat’.

Especially for owners with nervous dogs, mid-​September is a good time to think about reinforcing any desensitising for your dog(s) in relation to the sight of people, especially children, in strange costumes and to the sound of fireworks if at all possible in preparation for the start of this potentially frightening season.

Needless to say, dogs who are afraid of fireworks may also be afraid of thunderstorms, gunshots, backfiring cars, bursting balloons, etc., in fact anything that makes a sudden loud noise.

In the case of our eldest, any one of these noises can send her into a spin or cause her to bolt… which can be dangerous if she’s some distance from home or there is a busy road between her and where she thinks might be safe. At best she may cause a vehicle to swerve, at worst she could cause an accident and harm herself or someone else!!!

For so many reasons we need to recognise stress in our dogs and know what we can to improve the situation for them and prevent any harm to them or others.

How do you even know if your dog is anxious or stressed? Of course your dog may shake, run and hide or growl, bark or whine; in which case it should be obvious that all is not well however, there are a number of classic ‘signs’ of discomfort that may not be obvious to everyone — your dog will freeze, with ears back, eyes wide and mouth closed… 

How should dog owners behave in order to turn their stressed dog into a calm, relaxed and happy dog? In most cases it’s entirely the opposite to what they think they should do and may currently be doing!

So What SHOULD You Do?

You should always remember they are not human, they are going to react according to their basic animal instincts…

Whatever you do, if you want to help them, it is better that you NEVER under any circumstances COMFORT AN ANXIOUS DOG!

Before we talk about how you should ‘behave’ with your dog, it is useful to look at the environment for your dog and of course you need to be mindful as to what upsets them (what their stress triggers are), as well as how good their recall is. If your dog is of a nervous disposition, it is more important than ever that their recall training is well ingrained, it is the most important tool in your tool-​box! It is also useful especially with a nervous dog, that when you go out you are equipped with whatever is their favourite treat (which could be physical attention, food, or a ball or other favourite toy).

When you are out and something causes your dog anxiety, the first thing YOU must do is stay calm, doing your best not to react to whatever it is that is affecting them. If they are on the lead, shorten it and hold them firm — preferably stop walking if you can (remember their ‘flight, freeze or fight’ instincts). If they are off the lead, then call them to you and be ready to reward their return, even if it takes two or three attempts to bring them to you. If your dog runs off, it is usually a bad idea to run after them, this can encourage them to keep going in the belief that you are either playing ‘chase’ or you too are running from something scary!

Don’t get angry with your dog if they don’t come back straight away — try to call them back in a friendly and playful tone — shouting at them can also escalate their stress and fear!

It can be helpful to walk or run in an opposite, safe direction while calling your dog, they may decide to follow you — although this may not always work if your dog has shut down with fear and will not even look at you.

If your dog ultimately ignores you and runs away, you will of course need to follow them and do the best you can to keep them safe. It is likely that they will run to somewhere they feel safer, either home (if you are close enough), to the car if you have travelled to somewhere with them. If your dog has neither of these options, try looking in places close by where they may feel surrounded in a ‘makeshift den’, like behind something or inside a small opening. Hopefully if your dog does run off, you will retrieve them without mishap.

Once you have retrieved your dog, please resist the temptation to scold them, comfort them or reassure them; instead as mentioned above, simply put them on a short lead, hold them firm - doing your best not to react to whatever it is that is affecting them. This may sound heartless, but it is the best thing you can do for a dog — they are NOT HUMAN and the only need they have is by your example to understand that there is nothing amiss and no need for any reaction.

However, the possibility of losing your dog because they run off when they are frightened should persuade you to keep your micro-​chip register updated with your contact details (see our article “Microchips and Dogs”) and concentrate on your recall training, so that it becomes second nature to your dog to come when called.

When you are at home and there is a thunderstorm or fireworks display outside, minimise the aural and visual indications for your dog by closing your windows and if possible curtains and blinds too. Be sure to have a radio or TV on as loud as practical to mask the sounds from outside, this should also help to reduce the negative stimulation for your dog.

If children wearing halloween costumes are likely to knock at your door and it is possible that your dog may react badly to the look of them, then consider keeping your dog behind a closed door when you answer. Even if you have a dog who does not otherwise react to people coming to the door, be aware that they may react differently to something which to them is very unusual.

If your dog normally lives outdoors, it is better to bring them inside. If this is not possible, then do what you can to provide a cover for their ‘home’ (whether it is a pen or cage); blankets can be useful for this but an area needs to be as sound-​proofed as possible.

Because you love and really want to help your dog, it is important to remember that they are not human! If you do what you’d normally do for a frightened person or child (such as give attention, affection, hugs, look at or talk to them), this will actually reward and nurture their stressed state of mind. This means that if your dog is exhibiting stress symptoms such as shaking, panting, pacing, barking or glaring eyes, by paying them attention at this time, you will reinforce that stressful behaviour — potentially making the problem worse for them.

Also don’t be angry or upset with your dog, this will only reinforce their fear by suggesting that there really is something to be worried about.

Although in human terms, it may sound cruel, the thing to do for your dog with all ‘unwanted’ behaviour that you would rather they didn’t do, is to ignore it and act as if nothing is happening. I know this is not easy when they are fearful, especially when you love your dog and care about their well-​being, your natural human instinct is to give attention!

If your dog shakes, pants, paces, runs to hide or towards windows or doors, it is best to put them on their lead and hold them gently but firmly by your side — and do this in a very matter-​of-​fact way with no words or other attention. 

By keeping your dog still, you will help them to calm down quicker. Of course you need to stay calm yourself and do your best not feel sympathy for your dog, as this will reinforce for them that they have something to worry about! You need to maintain strong positive thoughts and emotions, you could perhaps sit on the floor with them while you are doing something else, for example watching the TV or reading. It may take a little while but you will notice that your dog will gradually calm down as your calming presence and positive energy will be the reassurance they need.

If you allow them to continue their excited, stressed behaviour then you will help to escalate this behaviour. If your dog barks at the storm or fireworks then, as you would with any kind of ‘territorial’ barking, make sure you are looking in the same direction, praise them for bringing it to your attention and then act as if there is nothing to make a fuss about — turn away and go about your normal activities!

As with all dog ‘reprogramming’, you must be patient and supress your desire to try to distract your dog with other activity. Provided you ignore their stressful and upset state, you will allow them to move on much more quickly towards what is their more natural, balanced state.

If your dog likes to build a ‘nest’ or hide somewhere, then you can help to create a safe place for them to do this, perhaps by providing a covered crate or extra bedding that they can dig or ‘burrow’ into. But please do your best not to coax or reassure them at this time (as you would a child) or this will again reinforce and escalate their fear! What they need is your calm and confident, ‘matter of fact’ presence to give them all the reassurance they seek that there is nothing to worry about.

Some dogs that have been ‘practicing’ this behaviour for a long time may have it so ingrained that it has become a habit and may take quite a lot of time, trial and error, love and devotion to change. Needless to say whatever you are prepared to do to help relieve stress for your dog, will be more than worth it!

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us or speak to your own vet or behaviourist if you need further advice.

Alternative Remedies…

We know that many dog owners have experience with dogs who need calming, for example before visits to the vet, car journeys or other travel, noises like fireworks or thunderstorms, competitions, separation, changes to routines or with new pets or other people in the home, etc.; and while the long-​term solution to all types of anxiety is proper desensitisation ‘training’, this can take much time and patience. In the meantime, what can you do to help prevent “anxiety attacks”?

If you want to try something else that may help, there are some calming preparations like Bach Flower Remedy, Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), Dorwest Scullcap and Valerian tablets, Chamomile or Dorwest Organic Valerian Compound. These remedies can be purchased via the internet or sourced from a vet.

Bach Remedies come in the form of drops that you can add to their water and DAP comes in the form of a plug-​in, collar or spray. DAP mimics the pheromone produced by lactating mothers which gives comfort to their puppies and helps to reassure and calm them. These remedies may also be effective in calming dogs who suffer from nervousness and separation anxiety.

Chamomile can be very easy to administer, either mixed with food or as tea or by soaking treats or kibble in the tea.

Dorwest Scullcap and Valerian is said to be “particularly effective for calming pets suffering from noise phobias such as fireworks, gunshots and thunderstorms as well as anxiety related travel sickness and hyperactivity.” They apparently do not cause drowsiness, sedate or impair a dog’s normal behaviour or performance. The Organic Valerian Compound is a liquid supplement said to provide prompt relief for anxious or hyperactive dogs (and cats) and is “ideal for occasions when fearful behaviour is a problem such as noise phobias including fireworks and thunderstorms, visits to the vet, moving house and training sessions.”

We know pet owners that have had success with the alternative remedies but have no personal experience of calming ‘gadgets’ such as thunder vests or caps… however, we will be trying some of these out and will update our webpage and leaflet with our results.

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Be Safe With Your Dogs!