I love the majesty of thunderstorms and fireworks. However, my adopted Weimaraner was terrified of them. She would cower and shake in the corner until well after the storm or display subsided. I would lie next to her and hold her, stroking her until the ordeal was over. That meant I often didn’t get to enjoy the storm or fireworks myself, but that didn’t matter as long as I had the opportunity to comfort my dog.
Offering her the most delectable rewards didn’t make a difference when she was in that state of fear. To understand why, imagine someone points a gun at your head: Would you be tempted to take a bite of your favorite food?
Loud noises, thunderstorms, natural disasters, and events such as fireworks on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve tend to scare dogs (and people). These stimuli are typically loud, scary, novel, and not part of your dog’s everyday life. Dogs don’t get a chance to become desensitized or habituated to these stimuli — most of them have not been exposed to these aversives during their critical developmental period at the age of roughly 3 to 13 weeks, in order for them to more easily make a positive association and to be comfortable with these aversives.
For the Fourth of July holiday and other potential scary events, these are some of the things I recommend to comfort my dog and to prepare for the event:
You don’t expect your dog to escape, but dog tags fall off or are taken off. Too often, guardians forget to update all of this information and the microchip becomes useless when you need it the most. Make sure your microchip company has the correct name, address, phone number, and email address for you on file.
In the event that your pet escapes, it is wise to have current photos of your pets (together, by themselves, and with you, in digital and physical copies) and descriptions; include detailed markings of your pets, which are very important to rescuers to identify and bring your pet back safe and sound. These will serve as proof that you are your pet’s guardian.
I realize the July 4 holiday is just around the corner, but it’s a good idea to work with a certified dog behavior consultant (CDBC) on behavior modification, desensitization, and counterconditioning to help your dog adjust to unwanted stimuli in a slow and gradual manner. It may be too late for this year, but another holiday with fireworks will come soon enough.
Close the blinds, dim the lights, block windows, and drown out external noises with soothing music. Through a Dog’s Ear specializes in musical therapy for dogs and offers CDs of canine classical music. Note that the rhythm, pitch, and tone of your voice can also rile up or settle down your pup in no time, so speak soothingly to her and project calm.
Move your dog’s crate (assuming she loves her crate), toys, and bedding to an appropriate safe zone — she may even choose this herself. Put a lightly worn article of clothing or towel in the crate or your dog’s preferred spot to reassure her with your scent.
D.A.P. (dog-appeasing pheromone) comes in sprays, diffusers and collars; try the products Adaptil and Comfort Zone. You can also try anxiety vests like Storm Defender, ThunderShirt, and The Anxiety Wrap. Also, lavender chamomile and other calming essential oils tend to have soothing effects on dogs, just as they do on people.
This week is particularly important in the buildup to the holiday weekend. While regular dog training, enrichment, and exercise are vital to your pet’s well-being, they are particularly important before a potential scary event, so that your dog will be tired and fulfilled mentally and physically, which will help her settle down and relax. Use food-dispensing toys like Kongs or puzzle toys for all meals and treats, to exercise your dog during mealtimes.
Now is not the time to be parsimonious with your pet! Stay away from the kibble and dry dog biscuits and break out your dog’s favorite high-value rewards (typically human food, meats, and cheeses). Remember your dog is unique, and it is incumbent upon a pet parent to learn your dog’s hierarchy of rewards to speed up learning.
On the Fourth, it’s best to not leave your dog alone or bring her to the fireworks display or scary event — it’s important to take care of your dog during this potentially traumatic experience. Also, never scold or punish your dog for being afraid.
You may still have time for mock trials, however, if you plan on going out. If you’re taking your dog, go with her to where the celebration you’re attending may take place. At home, dim the lights and stay up late, and pretend you’re having a party. Get her used to hearing noise at night.
Remember: The best results come from a combination of the above. They make not make your dog love fireworks, but they could become less dreadful!
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About the author: Russell Hartstein, a pet expert, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, and Certified Professional Dog Trainer in Miami, is the CEO (canine executive officer) and founder of Fun Paw Care, which specializes in dog training and behavior, dog boarding, pet sitting, and dog walking. He likes to blog about dog training and behavior issues and nonhuman animal rights.
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