Fear of bangs or loud noises is common…really common…with around 40% of owners reporting their dog reacts to fireworks, thunder, or big bangs in general [ PDSA Animal Welfare -PAW– report.] Knowing how to help your pet pal is important (along with what NOT to do!) This starts with recognizing the dog has a problem, which may be less obvious than you think.
Clues your Dog is Anxious
Your dog may not speak the same language, but they do communicate. Here are some body language ‘tells’ that the dog is anxious or fearful. From the subtle to the screamingly obvious, these are signs your dog is more of a Scooby Doo than a Gelert .
- Pacing, restlessness, trying to escape or hide
- Ears held back, drawing back the lips, or a furrowed brow
- ‘Whale’ eye i.e. showing the whites of the eye
- Tail down or clamped between the legs
- Shivering and shaking
- Unusual drooling
- Dilated pupils (large, round, and dark eyes)
- Freezing and refusing to moving
- Losing control of bladder or bowel
Why Do Dogs Become Fearful?
Back when dogs were wolves, fear was useful for self-preservation. Fear activates adrenaline and cortisol which prepares the animal to fight or run away – both of which are survival mechanisms. This means that as the millenia rolled by, it was dogs that felt fear that survived because their more chilled canine cousins were more likely to lounge around when that sabre-toothed tiger strolled into town, and therefore limited their life expectancy.. Of course this is a huge simplification but fast-forward to the modern day and why some dog breeds have acquired a genetic pre-disposition to be fearful.
To top it all noise sensitivity is made worse when pups don’t come across a variety of noises (in a safe, reassuring way) when young enough to accept them. On the other paw, lucky pups that have owners who understand the importance of socialisation for building a dog’s self-confidence, have a head start in coping with loud noises. Indeed, studies show us that pups born during the firework season (i.e. during their socialization period) are less likely to be fearful of loud noises than those born at other times of year.
As for the fear itself, this seems almost infectious. They are anecdotal reports of one dog learning from others in the household that reacting fearfully is the right way to respond in a thunderstorm. This is partly why it’s important owners keep calm and carry on as normal during a thunderstorm, so as to send body-language messages to their dog that there’s nothing to worry about. .
Canine Coping Strategies
You watch a horror movie and hide behind your hands. This is a coping strategy. By placing something in front of your eyes, it lessens the threat. Dogs also do this, but in different ways. Whilst a coping strategy doesn’t remove the fear, it gives the dog’s fear an outlet which lessens the impact. When a dog doesn’t have a safety valve (such as hiding in a den), they either become more anxious or divert their nervous energy into barking, chewing, or digging (which transfers the stress to you!)
With that in mind, here are some suggestions that can help.
Sometimes simple things make a big difference. When a firework display is likely, walk the dog before dusk. This avoids the four-legger facing their fears (noisy fireworks) on their usual evening stroll. Encourage the dog to run and play, so they are pleasantly tired. Then, feed the dog earlier than usual, so they have a full stomach and feel sleepy. This helps them to settle down for a snooze in the cosy cocoon you created.
Create a Cocoon
A mother dog creates a den for her pups, to keep them safe from danger. An owner can re-create this refuge by providing a comfortable, warm, dark place for the dog to hide, A puppy crate is a good starting point, with a heavy blanket draped over it to muffle sound. This does require planning, because it helps if the dog is likes to visit the den, ahead of the scary event.
However, a word of warning about dens or crates. The dog must be able to enter or leave as they wish. Avoid shutting the dog inside, since not being able to ‘escape’ will heighten their distress. A den only works if the dog seeks it out of their own free will.
If the dog already has a favourite hiding place, such as behind the couch, then amp up it’s value. Do this by placing a T-shirt (something with your smell on it) inside, so they have that scent reassurance.
Of course don’t overlook that the home is basically a big den. Make it a fortress of security for the dog by closing the curtains (to muffle sound) and having a quietly distracting background sound (such as the TV on low).
Just as a dog can learn to be frightened, so they can learn to be calm. If they are acting chilled despite a distant thunderstorm, then praise them and offer a reward. This teaches them that being relaxed is a good thing and encourage them to repeat the behaviour. It may even work, with mild anxiety, to distract the dog with a favourite squeaky toy.
To Pet or Not to Pet?
You may be aware of advice not to reassure a frightened dog. The reasoning behind this is that giving the dog pleasant attention (such as stroking) rewards their fearful behaviour. Whilst this is logical, the argument about petting isn’t that clear cut. Some dogs seek their owner out because their company is soothing; to deliberately avoid stroking these pets will add to their stress..
A sensible compromise is to give a dog seeking comfort from their owner, some low key reassurance. It might be that this particular pet’s coping strategy is to be with the person they trust, so some calm stroking and gentle words is the right thing to do.
It might be you already follow the recommendations and still the pet is distressed. There are non-drug options available which may make a difference. However, many of these products don’t have scientific backing to their claims, so be aware of this when deciding what to spend your hard-earned cash on.
Some options include:
- Passiflora extract
- St John’s Work
- Zylkene (alpha-casozepine)
As with most nutraceuticals, it’s best to start ahead of the worrisome time. They are most likely to help to keep an already chilled animal relaxed, and unlikely to work if the pet is already overly-anxious.
Synthetic pheromones such as Adaptil (DAP) diffusers or collars may be beneficial. These are a manufactured version of the pheromones a nursing mother dog gives off, which makes her pups feels safe and secure. Again, these work best when in place in advance of the firework displays.
We looked a pet pressure vests in a separate post. Long story short, pressure vests are said to comfort distressed dogs in the same way that a swaddled baby feels secure. For people that insist on proof these products work, hard evidence is lacking, but anecdotally some owners seem to feel they make a difference for their pets.
Alternatively, for dogs that hate flashes or bangs, consider some doggy eyeshields or headphones. Yep, that’s right, these are available for dogs. Just like hiding behind your hands in that scary movie (or sticking your fingers in your ears), it can help lower the perceived threat.
For the dog that’s super-distressed don’t let them suffer, instead get some professional help. This can include working with a registered animal behaviourist and/or seeking anti-anxiety medication from the vet.
Working with a behavourist gets to the root of the dog’s fears, but it takes a whole heap of time to see a positive result. In the short term, the best option to save the dog from undue distress, might be medication. There is a product (Sileo) that’s licensed for use in dogs to relieve noise-related anxiety, which is proven by clinical trials that prove it does what it says on the label.
Other pharmaceutical options are out there, so discuss these with your vet or a qualified behaviourist.
Sometimes, for the fearful dog, it’s a little bit of everything (such as a pressure vest,a safe sanctuary, pheromone therapy, and gentle reassurance) that add up to making a bigger difference. Whatever options you decide on, the one thing that’s not OK is to ignore the problem.