Fireworks are not only for the 5th November (sadly!)

After another long strung out period of loud bangs, fireworks night has thankfully been and gone for another year, but not before it affected many of our household pets.  Standby for one of my soapbox moments; Fireworks(or Guy Fawkes) Night seems to be developing into Fireworks Fortnight, as the celebrations begin a week early and do not finish for another week because people appear to wait for good weather to use their remaining fireworks.  Don’t get me wrong, I think fireworks provide a great spectacle and can make a fun event; however I have to get up on that soapbox and ask why members of the public are allowed to purchase as many pretty explosives as they like and set them off whenever and wherever they wish! From my biased point of view, I believe that if fireworks were only displayed at organised events on public premises, there could be fewer pets affected in their homes by these unnecessary loud noises.  Okay, I’ll jump down from that box now!

I am one of those pet owners that is affected each year by fireworks.  One of my collies, Eko, is very sound sensitive and finds it terribly stressful when exposed to firework’s loud percussions. We have recently moved from a country location and into a town environment where fireworks are far more commonplace.  He is so smart that he is able to differentiate between fireworks or explosions on the television and those in the real world outside; this means that the desensitising  sound CDs have not proved to be effective as he can tell that they are not the threat coming from outside the home.  So what can we do to help alleviate our dog’s anxiety?  Let face it, Christmas is around the corner and then it will be New Year’s where even more fireworks are going to be let up into our skies! Once again, I, and many others in a similar situation, are going to have to deal with a anxious dog.

In order to help our pets, I find that trying a variety of techniques or helpful accessories can be successful, although, maybe only a few of the remedies available will work for a particular dog.  Unfortunately, this can mean it becomes a bit of a trial and error situation.  The first thing to do is to act early; be prepared and do not leave your choice of action to the last minute, as some of the remedies require a lead-in time.  So what are the options?  Here are some useful ideas and techniques which I have found to have merit, and may help your dog through that difficult time.

The Sounds CD is a useful tool for many, but as I mentioned, has not been a success on Eko so far, although it can alleviate the symptoms in some dogs if the training is followed correctly.  It is definitely a method that requires early preparation in order for it to be effective.  The idea is to desensitise your dog to the loud bangs by pairing it with something pleasant, and so creating a positive association to the noise. We begin by putting the CD on at very low volume so that you can just about hear it and ensure you have some very tasty treats with you such as chicken.  While the noises are being played in the background, keep your dog’s attention by either doing a Watch Me, the Find It Game, or you can simply feed the chicken to your dog when he is displaying calm behaviour.  Gradually increase the volume and continue with the training.  This may be done over a number of consecutive days, and if at any time your dog becomes anxious, turn down the CD to the level where you were last successful.  I have not given up on this particular training tool just yet.  I just need to find an inventive way of fooling Eko, even if it means putting a sound system outside my house so that he thinks it is an external threat!

The Thundershirt is a purpose-made body wrap for dogs that applies gentle and constant pressure on the dog’s torso.  The pressure applied is designed to have a calming and comforting effect on the dog, and has been judged to help reduce the anxiety in over 80% of dogs whose owners have tried the product.  The application of pressure has been used successfully  for many years to help reduce anxiety and fear  by those such as the Tellington Touch Professionals.  People who suffer with Autism have had pressure used on them to relieve persistent anxiety, and there is the old-fashioned method of swaddling infants to help calm them.  The Thundershirt has been a huge success in the United States of America and is now over here in the UK.  I had the opportunity to try the product on Eko and found it did give him a little relief, but I was also pairing it with other techniques due to the situation.  My Assistant Trainer, Jenny, also tried it on one of her dogs who had issues, and she found it to be very successful;  Fen sat calmly beside her throughout an evening with a lot of fireworks.

D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) is a particularly well known product that is often recommended by many Veterinarians.  Essentially, it is a synthetic reproduction of the natural canine appeasing pheromone, and by using it, helps give dogs support through many stressful situations.  There are a number of differing methods of dispersing the chemical; plug-in devices that to go into a wall electrical socket, an impregnated collar, and a handheld spray.  Personally, I found that this had no effect on Eko due to the severity of his anxiety, but I have seen its effects successfully calm dogs in other spheres of my training.

Zylkene is derived from milk and is lactose free.  It is a fully natural product and has proven to help cats and dogs manage stress and anxiety.  It is not intended to be a cure for all behavioural problems, but is extremely useful to manage situations such as fireworks and coping in Kennels.  I have seen a great deal of success gained using this product with the shelter dogs, and I hope to use it on Eko for the next round of fireworks.

Dorwest Veterinary herbal tablets; Skullcap and Valerian is a herbal medicine for the relief of anxiety, nervousness, excitability and travel sickness.  This again, has shown to be particularly effective for those suffering from noise phobias such as fireworks.  It does need to be taken daily and works best when taken for the week prior to the stressful event, and its effects help produce a calmer dog without causing drowsiness.  I use these herbal tablets in conjunction with the Thundershirt to help Eko with his stress, and I find they a very effective product.

Training; Trick Training and Playing is a particularly effective method of distracting your dog from what is happening around him. Essentially it is a form of desensitisation;  doing something positive and fun while the loud bangs are present.  It certainly has been invaluable to me when dealing with Eko, and I hope that it can also be a useful tool in your training bag.

I love to trick train as it gives the dog something fun to do while he has to use his brain, stimulating  him, which in turn will help tire him by the end of the day.  I use simple tricks such as find-it, using three pots on the floor with a biscuit hidden under one of them, Play-dead games, high-five and fetch-it games with a toy.  There are great books available full of tricks and games for your dog, and they make a worthy addition to your bookshelf.  You can also do some simple training like watch me, sit, down and waits, but you must ensure that you maintain the interest level; some breeds are more easily bored than others, so ensure you have a wide variety of tasks to keep them occupied.  Playing simple games inside the home can also be fun.  You don’t need to be throwing balls inside, but simply train your dog to down-wait, roll the ball along the floor and then send him away to fetch it.  You can play another mentally challenging game by hiding his favourite toy somewhere accessible in the room and making him find it; great for dogs that love to use their nose.

During this period of distraction or distressing,  it is essential that you do not try and comfort your dog.   This can cause him to worry further, so be quite ‘matter of fact’ about the situation and give him a simple ‘good boy’ for being calm.  If he wants to lie quietly under a table, then allow him to do so, don’t try dragging him out of his ‘quiet place’.  Shut the curtains or blinds, and put the television or radio on to cover some of the noise if it is appropriate.  By putting some of these ideas into effect, you can begin to alleviate your dog’s anxiety.  If you choose to try herbal remedies, don’t use all of them at once, choose one and stick with it to allow it to work fully.  I also recommend pairing  it with something else like a Thundershirt, and don’t forget to engage with your dog by playing some games or doing training.  Now that we are close to town, I will continue working on finding a better solution for Eko, and hopefully one day my boy will be able to cope with firework noise.  To all of you out there with sound sensitive pets, I hope you find this blog of some use, good luck and start preparing!

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Positively Expert: Emma Collings

Emma Collings is a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer, an Associate Member of the British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers, and a Full Member of The Guild of Dog Trainers. She is the Founder and Head Trainer and Behavior Consultant of School for Paws, a dog training school in Shropshire, UK.


3 thoughts on “Fireworks are not only for the 5th November (sadly!)

  1. Lorrie Garrett

    Thank You Emma, I found your article very informative! I wish I had known about these techniques 3 years ago with my 14 year old Tibetan Mastiff who in her last 3-4 years of life had become extremely upset by the fireworks set off 6 weeks before until 2-3 weeks following 4th of July, and I am talking very loud booms for an hour or more every day and at night!!! It is a war zone out here in our little city of 4500 people. I have never been in a war or ant thing like it, and it set my nerves on edge!!! I also feel bad for the countless brave souls who have been exposed to wars and coming home to their country who allow such rude and obnoxious behavior, The fire works should only be allowed in organised and public events, think of the lives and injuries it could save, as well as the dogs ( & cats) who could be spared the stress!!!
    Fireworks are illegal in my county, yet the sheriff can not do any more than talk to the offenders, due to the fact that they have to record the offending sound with a special device they can't afford in order to prosecute in court!!! (what I was told by 2 sheriffs)
    Again, Thank you for your timely article as they also set them off New years! I shall get to work on my 2 year old Terrier who has yet to experience any symptoms from loud Bangs, but i think it would benefit her if I were joyous and offered yummy treats when the bangs begin, what do you think of preventative measures?

  2. Laura

    Thank you for your post, I feel your pain, the fireworks go on for weeks here too, I don't know how the people in my neighborhood can afford them!

    For the most part this is great information and I appreciate all the alternatives you offer. However, I would like to note that many behaviorists are letting go of the idea that you shouldn't comfort your dog when he or she is scared. Patricia McConnell has a nice post about this on her blog:

    I think maybe part of this is that there is some confusion between making a big fuss about something versus finding something that your dog actually finds comforting. Yes, making a big fuss with the "ohhh you poooor baby, this is so scary!" and hugging and patting her on her head is going to stress out my dog.

    However, I discovered during a class based on "Control Unleashed" that my very anxious dog happens to respond to massage. So over the last couple of years, during fireworks and thunderstorms I've sat quietly with her, rubbing her ears, neck and back. Also, while she was still too anxious to work for treats, I did discovere that having something she could work at in between thunder booms, like frozen home-made Frosty Paws or peanut butter smeared on a plate, seemed soothing to her.

    I don't believe she is more frightened because we acknowledged that she was scared and comforted her. In fact, I'm really proud of how well she's doing. She's really improved, showing a little less anxiety each time to the point where now we can take your advice and play training games with her. This was impossible before, until we found a way to get her anxiety level low enough to reach her brain.

    I believe another theory is that a dog will find being comforted rewarding and their fear will be reinforced that way. I haven't found that to be true either. Does she act scared even when she isn't, just so she'll get attention? I don't think so. She might come over and lean on me when a thunder storm is moving in, asking for comfort. But that's what I want, my dog to let me know she's uneasy and needs a little help, rather than a frantic pacing, whining wreck that's trying to dig a hole in the closet floor to hide in!

  3. Daniela Cardillo

    Hi, as professional dog trainer I felt usefull to focus an entire dog training lesson to explaing to my costumers what and how to manege their dog during the night of 31 dicember.
    Many of Emma's suggestions will be presented, because very usefull, expecially if well combined in relation of the specific subject/dog.

    Very well done article, Emma and thank you!

    Daniela Cardillo
    Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer

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