So it’s firework season. For many dog owners, it’s a dreaded time of year. For every firework that lights up the sky, their dog is rocketed into panic and fear. Maybe you thought ahead this year and started preparing your dog a few months ago, building up to a fear-free firework season, but I would guess many of us weren’t quite so prepared…
Maybe you have a new dog or puppy and preparing for fireworks hasn’t been top priority, or maybe you simply forgot about the issue until that first bang went off. It’s so easy to forget. We can go months and months without hearing a single firework and then suddenly BANG that fear comes back and you’re reminded how tough it can be for your dog and everyone who lives with them.
Unfortunately, if you have a dog who is scared of fireworks, you’ve left it too late. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but for this season, you will have to struggle on through. Desensitising a dog to fireworks is a VERY slow process, it is one which needs to be started months in advance and ideally at a time when the likelihood of any actual fireworks is fairly low.
There are some methods you can try to help your dog through this season, for some dogs, simple management and coping methods are actually the best way to reduce their fear. For others, there is very little you can do to help them cope. It’s always worth a try though, and if nothing works, make a note to start that firework desensitisation as soon as the season begins to fade.
- Crates: For many dogs, their crate is their safe space. They can escape there when they need a break, when they’re overwhelmed, or when they need to sleep. A covered crate can help dull the sound of fireworks and remove any visual impacts of the flashing lights. If your dog is comfortable in their crate, settle them down with a tasty chew or food toy, cover the crate fully and place in a room where there is least impact of fireworks (e.g. central in the house or a well enclosed room), cover the crate with a good blanket (but allow for ventilation) and play some relaxing music next to the crate. Keep an eye on your dog to ensure they aren’t panicking, but for some dogs this is all the protection they need. If your dog isn’t comfortable in a crate, then prepare them ready for the next year … see our tips below
- Safe Spaces: For some dogs, crates are not seen as a safe space, especially when fireworks are firing off. Many dogs will be able to choose where they feel safest though, some may dive under a bed, some go behind a sofa or others may snuggle under a blanket. If your dog tries to hide, let them! Don’t force your dog to sit next to you so you can reassure him, if he would rather be hiding away then allow this choice.
- Reassurance: You cannot reinforce fear. Some people will say to ignore a dog who is panicking about fireworks, because by ignoring them, you are showing them there is nothing to worry about … Hmm not such great advice. Sure, if you run around screaming and freaking out, your dog will feed off this and panic, but you can behave calmly and remain relaxed, while also reassuring your dog. Some dogs will want to escape on their own and find efforts to be comforted more unsettling, but others will benefit from some reassuring human contact. This could involve calm stroking or gentle talking, try to keep yourself calm and relaxed but don’t be afraid to comfort your dog.
- Distraction: this is easier said than done when you’re dealing with a dog in panic mode. Some dogs will be beyond coping and will need months of desensitisation work, but you can always attempt some distraction techniques. Choose something which your dog finds fun, this could be catching a ball, trick training, or chewing. Encourage your dog to take part in some fun activities and distract him from the sounds of the fireworks. Just be careful that you don’t push your dog to participate if he’s really struggling, you don’t want to damage his favourite activities if he’s completely panicking.
- Other measures: there are other options like medication or wraps and jackets which may help reduce the fear your dog is feeling. However, speak to someone qualified in these areas to ensure you choose the best option for your dog. Your vet or a T Touch practitioner is a good place to start.
How to Work on the Problem
Coping strategies are great and for some dogs they will resolve the problem without anything else needed. For other dogs, coping strategies will not work at all until you’ve put some desensitisation work in place to help your dog’s fears.
Whether you have a dog who is experiencing more extreme fear or one who is just beginning to show some subtle anxiety, starting desensitisation work is really essential. You can try this during firework season, but ideally it needs to be done well in advance so you have many months to gradually build up the process and keep your dog within their coping limits.
- This is the absolute key for most firework phobic dogs. Desensitisation involves a very gradual exposure to the stimulus your dog is fearful of. It should be done in a way that means your dog doesn’t ever experience fear during the process, each step is small enough that your dog is always within their coping range and able to stay calm and relaxed. Blasting out fireworks every day will only worsen your dog’s fear, as seen in the fact that many dogs become progressively MORE fearful of fireworks as they get older.
- Find a good firework or sound CD, most will come with instructions of how to begin the process but seek help from a professional trainer if you need more guidance
- Pair the sounds with something fun and positive for your dog. This could be a game with a toy, a food dispensing toy, or rewards from you
- If your dog startles or is continually noticing the sound, then it’s too loud and you need to go back a step and turn the volume down
- Never rush the process, this will only worsen the fear. Start at least 6 months ahead of firework season so you can take it slow and fully prepare your dog
Coping within Training
Most dogs will benefit from learning coping strategies alongside desensitisation. Sound CD’s can rarely fully prepare a dog for fireworks, there’s nothing quite like the reality of a huge firework display which sends vibrations through the floor and lights up the sky. You may be calm while you’re playing the CD but in reality, you will probably feel slightly anxious when the real fireworks begin. These added stimuli will influence your dog, so teaching them to cope is as important as the desensitisation work.
• Choose a Safe Place: This might be a crate, or a safe, enclosed room where your dog will be well protected from the fireworks. Prepare your dog early by placing their crate in a suitable room. This is not the time for your dog to learn to chill in your open plan kitchen with huge glass doors. On firework night, your dog would be in full view of every bang and light. Pick an inside room which will be relatively sheltered from the sounds and lights.
• Build a Good Association: Within the safe room or crate, teach your dog to settle and relax. Give him food dispensing toys in there, lots of chews and other relaxing games (sniffing, licking and chewing activities). At some point in the desensitisation process, you can start playing the fireworks near this area while your dog is happily relaxing with a chew or toy. Make sure to start at a low volume again and build up slowly.
• Change the Routine: If your dog never goes into his crate before 10pm at night and then suddenly you put him inside at 5pm and fireworks start firing off, he’s more likely to be scared and confused. Get him ready for fireworks by changing up his routine and preparing for those nights when evening toilet trips are impossible and evening crate time might be essential. A sudden change in routine can cause huge stress, and when this is combined with scary fireworks, you have a potent cocktail. Mix it up so some evenings he spends time in his crate or safe room, keep his evening toilet trips varied and switch the routine as much as possible.
• Additional Aids: Some dogs find wraps and calming shirts comforting and relaxing, others will benefit from products such as Pet Remedy or other herbal aids. Research these well before firework night and seek some professional advice about what products will suit your dog best. With these in place, you can begin to pair these products with the above strategies so they are strongly associated with feeling relaxed and calm.
Firework-phobic dogs need lots of support and preparation. It’s not an easy journey and some will never be able to fully relax when they hear fireworks, but there are many ways to help make their lives a little easier. The key is to start early, never leave it until a week before Bonfire Night (sorry!), so make yourself a note and a New Years resolution to begin the training early next year when those New Years fireworks are finished and we have a clear run of months with fewer fireworks.
If you have a dog who isn’t yet showing any firework phobia, don’t assume you’ll be fine, because unfortunately for many dogs it’s an issue which can become progressively worse as they mature. It’s never too early to start desensitisation and preparation with a puppy or even an adult dog who shows no fear. It can take just one bad combination of events to trigger an extreme firework fear, as many dog owners will be able to tell you.
If you need some advice on where to start then get in touch with us at Adolescent Dogs, we often deal with a wide range of fears and phobias in dogs, and we can understand the worries and stresses surrounding this time of year. We’re always happy to help and offer more advice!