If you just adopted a dog, chances are you don’t know how it will react to fireworks and other loud noises. Wunderdog asks Luke Balsam of Luke’s Dog School for tips on how to deal with the initial situation and how to get over the fear in the longer term
1. I just got a new dog who is freaking out about fireworks. What shall I do in the first instance?
The first thing to do is secure your home, close windows, doors and cat flaps to ensure when your dog gets spooked they don’t run at the house and away. Alongside this, make sure you have your dog microchipped and the law requires a tag stating the owner’s name and full address, but I would also add a telephone number.
Draw the curtains and lower the lights and create a den in the quietest part of the home or a place you know your dog likes to spend time in. Try to use blankets to help soften the sound of the fireworks, and you can use some of your clothing, as the smell may be comforting. Put their favourite toys in there as well as a chew or some food and water. Putting the TV or radio on (low volume) may also help to mask some of the sounds.
You can also reassure your dog and spend time stroking them and holding them. There is an old myth that giving them attention when they are scared will encourage that, but you can’t reinforce being scared of something. However, your dog may pick up on your anxiety if you are worried about them so do try and be as relaxed as possible.
2. There are so many products on the market, such as room scents and comforting shirts. What’s your experience with these?
I have seen their effectiveness differ dog to dog, but they are definitely worth trying to help your dog’s anxiety. Products that I would recommend trying are Adaptil and Pet Remedy that you can use as a room diffuser, spray, collars and wipes. Body wraps can also be very effective: the theory is that the dog finds the contact of the wrap comforting. You can buy ones from companies such as Thundershirt, or you can have a go and DIY just google “Dog Half Wrap”.
3. And once this hell is over, how can we prepare for next year’s fireworks?
This is where your work will really pay off to help your dog long term. We want to desensitise your dog to the fireworks, so when they hear them, they are not that bothered any more. Don’t underestimate how much time you may need to prepare – I would say give yourself three months to be sure.
What you want to do is have the sound of fireworks ready to play on the lowest volume you possibly can. As you play it, if your dog already shows signs of anxiety (like moving away, heavy panting, pacing, repetitive yawning) then you need to start a step further back. Start by playing a soothing piece of music that your dog has not heard before, again on low volume. If your dog is relatively unaffected, then start to stroke them calmly, give them some nice bits of food and make them feel relaxed and comfortable (starting this after they have had a nice play or walk will help).
Then you want to slowly increase the volume of the music one setting at a time, ensuring they remain calm. Once you have this at a standard level to listen to, you can start to introduce the firework sounds. Keep the music at the same level, but now the fireworks will be playing in the background (at the lowest volume level). If you now see no signs of anxiety, keep it playing and continue your stroking and relaxing.
Then slowly, one volume level at a time, increase the firework noise. Once you have it at the same volume as the music start to decrease the music volume, so in the end, you just have fireworks playing. This needs to be done to the pace your dog can handle. Do short five-minute sessions at a time and only a few a day, but don’t rush.
There are ready-made products on the market that might help, for example, The Dogs Trust’s Sounds Scary website is free to use and download. You can also find examples on YouTube, but check reviews and comments by other people first to ensure they do what they are supposed to. You can also buy CDs and downloads from Victoria Stilwell to help train your dog to be calm during fireworks.
4. How long does it take to get a dog used to noise?
There is no time frame. It depends on the history of that noise to your dog and its severity, as well as the training the dog goes through to get over that noise.
5. And what are the signs I might need professional help for my animal, like a behaviourist?
If you are finding that either a particular or an array of sounds are causing your dog to panic or be fearful, then I would seek professional help. The signs from your dog can be small, but as well as the body language mentioned in question 3 also look out for destructive behaviour: shaking, soiling, refusal to eat. You can also talk to your vet about drugs that can help reduce anxiety, but don’t be too quick to go for these and accompanying training should always be happening so they can come off the drugs.
6. It’s not just fireworks – things like cars back-firing, loud motorbikes also freak my dog out. What can I do to help?
It is a similar procedure to the fireworks, but what helps is making a list of all the sounds that cause anxiety, panic or a reaction and work through them from the worst down. The Dogs Trust’s Sounds Scary has a large library of sounds you can use to work through.
7. Be honest, is it me or the dog? Can they sense I panic?
Dogs can definitely pick up on your anxiety, mainly due to body language. They can recognise if you are tense, relaxed, panicking, etc., especially if you have a lead on as you can send all sorts of information down a lead without even realising. For instance, if your dog is barking at something on the lead and you are stood behind them, looking straight at the object they are barking at, your dog may see this as backing them up and, because you are focused on it, so they should.
Always try to relax. If it is not a severe reaction then just try to be “whatever” and pay the dog no attention, no talking, stroking, eye contact and face a different way. However, if it is a learnt behaviour they have done many times when the training is needed as well.
Luke Balsam is a fully qualified London-based dog trainer who has worked with rescue dogs for several years. You can find out more on his website lukesdogschool.co.uk
Tom Bingham is one of our favourite illustrators. You can find him on Instagram @tomdrawsdogs