As the leaves start to turn, mornings get chillier, walks get wetter and floors get muddier, we know Autumn is upon us. Clocks go back, evenings get darker and we turn our thoughts to winter celebrations – Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas and New Year. While we enjoy celebrating these festivities with the fun of bonfires and the thrill of fireworks with their whizz, bang and whistle noises as they light up the night sky, many dogs and other animals are terrified, even fearing for their lives.
This blog will discuss ways we can support and comfort our dogs through these stressful times, and considers some different products on the market to help reduce stress and anxiety.
Preparation is key!
Preparation well before the firework season is key. To avoid your dog potentially associating any item with the fear of fireworks, introduce these comforting tools as soon as possible.
Desensitisation and counter conditioning
Desensitising a dog to noises involves playing these at very low volume where there is no reaction, while the dog enjoys an activity such as a stuffed Kong or snuffle mat. The sound is gradually increased over time so that eventually it becomes so familiar that the dog ignores it (desensitisation) and comes to associate the sound as an antecedent to something nice (counter conditioning). Noise phobia training programmes start many months ahead of the event and if your dog is terrified of fireworks you may need to enlist the help of a qualified behaviourist and visit your vet, who may prescribe anxiolytic drugs.
Dogs have an incredible sense of smell. Their olfactory system is approximately 10,000 times more sensitive than ours, and a dog can detect substances at concentrations of up to one hundred million times lower than we can perceive. The olfactory bulb, where information about odours is processed in the brain, is about the size of a plumb in our dogs compared to the size of a raisin in us. Dogs have a second sensory system for olfaction called the vomeronasal organ. We may see our dog licking the air, mouth-smacking and tongue flicking. This ‘flehmen’ response allows scent particles to be captured by the tongue, opening ducts to allow pheromones to access the vomeronasal organ. Scent memory lasts many years if not for a lifetime.
Use scent to help relax your dog, such as Pet Remedy or species-specific Adaptil. Adaptil mimics the appeasing pheromone produced by a bitch suckling her puppies, while Pet Remedy’s blend of natural oils containing valerian enhances the production of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. Plug in a diffuser next to your dog’s bed a week or so before the fireworks, and spray bedding with calming scent. Some dogs benefit from skullcap and valerian tablets, too.
Foraging for treats
Dogs love to forage for food. Foraging is essential for survival, and engages the seeking circuit, part of the canine brain that makes exploring the environment exciting and pleasurable. Harness your dog’s natural instincts by hiding treats for him to find in a fleece snuffle mat or folded towel, sprayed with calming scent for additional support. Foraging requires much focus and concentration and can provide strong distraction from noisy fireworks.
The gentle pressure of clothing such as Thundershirts or t-shirts help some dogs feel safer. The light, constant pressure helps to relieve anxiety in the same way that swaddling an infant might, or the way in which those with autism benefit from pressure to help reduce anxiety and sensory overload. This has been documented and researched by animal behaviour expert Dr. Temple Grandin, who is herself autistic. Clothing can be sprayed with calming scent, too.
Managing the environment
Manage the home environment by closing curtains, doors and windows to reduce noise, and if you need to take your dog outside to toilet use a lead in case he is spooked and tries to run off. Crates provide a wonderful safe den for some dogs – cover with a heavy blanket to reduce flashes and muffle sounds, and leave the door open for your dog to choose to wander in and out. Many dogs can learn to enjoy crates if you feed all their meals and treats in there; this should be built up over a number of weeks and if your dog feels safe in his crate, you should see him choosing to rest in there.
Reassuring your dog
It’s a common myth that reassuring an anxious dog will make him worse – you can’t reinforce fear. Imagine how you feel when you have had a shock or are afraid and someone comforts you, it makes you feel better not worse. Now think how you would feel if you were ignored – even more miserable no doubt!
Tellintgon TTouch ear strokes can help dogs relax. Stroke your dog’s ear from base to tip with your thumb on top of the ear and finger underneath. Cover the whole ear with several strokes and then make small circular movements with your outstretched fingers, over the entire ear. The pressure should be gentle enough to just move the skin. Simultaneously play calming music to soothe your dog’s nervous system, and this winning combination of music and TTouch will make you feel relaxed too!
Bach flower essences
Bach flower essences support emotional ‘overload’ and may reduce fear and anxiety. Common ones for noise phobias are: Star of Bethlehem for trauma, Rock Rose for terror, Cherry Plum for fear of losing control, Walnut for protection and feeling safe among the unpredictability of the fireworks, Mimulus for known fears, and Elm for the feeling of being overwhelmed by the environment. Bach flower essences can be dropped into your dog’s water (even if there is more than one dog there are no side-effects for the other dog) or given on a treat, and several essences can be given simultaneously.
It is advisable to consult a qualified Bach animal therapist, who will only work under veterinary consent.
Dogs are individuals
Each dog is individual with particular likes and dislikes just like people, and what is effective in calming one dog not be as effective for another individual. Find out what your dog enjoys, and spend time learning massage strokes, listening to calming music together, enjoying relaxing scents and being ‘in the moment’ with your dog on regular occasions before the party season. Preparation for bonfire night and other festivities can have a positive impact on you both!
If you are concerned about your dog or want to use Bach flower essences, please seek the advice of a vet or canine behaviourist. Please note that Bach flower essence consultants must work on veterinary referral and cannot prescribe without your vet’s permission.
Bach flower essences www.bachcentre.com
Dorwest Herbs skullcap & valerian www.dorwest.com
Pet Remedy www.petremedy.co.uk
Blog photographs by Cheryl Murphy www.cam-ography.co.uk