How to keep your dog calm on Bonfire Night - our 10-point action plan...
This is the time of year that so many owners dread, when their normally happy dogs suddenly become quivering wrecks, completely traumatised by fireworks. Bonfire Night might be just a single date on the calendar, but from October to new year the night air is filled with bangs, crackles, and flashing lights as people host celebrations.
1. Diary dates
Contact your local council and ask for details of local displays so that you can make arrangements to help your dog cope. In addition, ask your neighbours to let you know if they are planning any firework celebrations in their garden. If you don't know your neighbours well, write a polite note explaining that you have a nervous dog and ask them for details of any parties they might be planning.
2. Big bang theory
Buy a CD of thunderstorms and firework noises to help desensitise your dog to loud bangs. Play the CD at a low volume initially, while doing something he likes such as feeding him treats, playing a game, or stroking him. This isn't a quick fix, but will help to build positive associations and you can gradually turn up the volume until your dog tolerates the noise.
3. It's a wrap
Consider investing in an anti-anxiety wrap, such as a Thundershirt, for your dog. There is some evidence that dogs find the constant, gentle pressure of a wrap comforting, in much the same way as a crying baby is soothed when swaddled in a blanket. You can put the shirt on your dog before, during, and after the firework display and help reduce symptoms of anxiety such as shaking, panting, drooling, and hiding.
4. Safe haven
Training your dog to go in a crate can be very useful, particularly if he is anxious about certain situations. Choose a nice big crate and place it in the centre of the house, away from windows and walls, but leave the crate door open. Place a comfy bed inside, with extra blankets for him to burrow in, plus a selection of tasty treats, a stuffed Kong, and some favourite toys. Cover the crate with a blanket and tune your radio to a classical channel.
5. Shaken, not stirred…
Stock up on some action movies. Choose ones with plenty of explosions, car chases, and loud music - James Bond's ‘Skyfall' is a perfect example. On the big night draw the curtains, close the doors, turn up the surround sound on the TV, and cosy in with your dog until it's all over.
Comforting a scared puppy/dog won't necessarily reinforce his fear, despite what you may read or be told by other dog owners. In certain circumstances, it is OK to hold and comfort your dog if he seems worried, but if he prefers to hide behind the sofa that's absolutely fine too!
7. Trick and treat
You can try to distract your dog from the commotion outside by doing fun things indoors such as playing retrieve or trick training, offering tasty treats, toys, and verbal praise as rewards. You can also try some gentle Tellington TTouch moves to help him relax. Using very light pressure, move the dog's skin in tiny circles.
8. To the rescue
If your dog shows signs of extreme phobia, ask your vet for advice. Your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication, or suggest that for a couple of weeks before Bonfire Night you use a dog-appeasing pheromone (Adaptil) plug-in or spray to help soothe his fears. There are a number of natural remedies that some owners find helpful, such as Bach Rescue Remedy for Pets. Alternatively, Dorwest Herbs' Scullcap and Valerian tablets may help to restore peace and tranquility.
9. Early birds
Exercise your dog earlier in the day to help relax him. Offer food a couple of hours before the event and provide lots of fresh water. Schedule your last walk of the day at dusk, well before the fireworks are due to start. Check that your dog's collar fits properly and his ID tag and microchip details are up to date just in case the worst happens and he does panic and somehow manages to run away. Finally, never try to force your dog to face up to his fears by making him watch a firework display, as this could be extremely stressful for him.
10. Fear not
If none of these suggestions help to improve your dog's fears or the situation worsens, then ask your vet for a referral to a qualified animal behaviourist for professional assessment and advice.
Signs of anxiety in dogs
- Cowering and hiding.
- Decreased activity.
- Urination and soiling.
- Destructive behaviour.
- Refusing to eat.
Preparation is key
Trainer and behaviourist Jackie Drakeford emphasises the need to be prepared. She says:
"I have one noise-phobic dog. She is given Dorwest's Scullcap and Valerian for a few days beforehand and then each evening I expect fireworks, with Bach Remedy Rock Rose just before it gets dark. I avoid veterinary drugs, as some stop the dog from expressing fear although he or she is still afraid.
"I provide dens for her to hide in if she needs to, and create a cosy calm environment. I always give her quiet comfort if she asks for it. If I know a display is due, I'll prepare by doing the following:
- See that the dogs are tired. Physical exercise is not enough - they must have some mental work too, so that they are more in need of sleep.
- I feed a supper that takes a while to eat, such as a suitable raw meaty bone. The chewing action releases endorphins and relaxes the dogs.
- The last toilet outing should be before dark. We can always get up early next day.
Top tips from Dorwest Herbs
- Create a haven: Create a safe, quiet den, away from windows and doors and insulated by blankets where your dogs can hide. Teach them to use it long before fireworks night by feeding your pet, playing with them, and stroking them in there.
- Teach dogs all noises are good noises: Get a recording of fireworks sounds, even the shrill whistles. At first, play these at low volume only at times when you are playing with or feeding your pet. Look for only a tiny reaction, and only when your pet settles should you increase the volume a tiny amount.
- Be happy, jolly, and reassuring: If you worry, your pet will worry too. Stay calm and allow your pet cuddles if he wishes. Why not play his favourite game, or feed his favourite food? If he would rather just sit on your knee, or hide in his haven then allow him to settle himself down.
- Last minute tips: Walk your dog earlier in the day. Provide extra-tasty food, toys, and toilet breaks for your pet. If you want to go out, get a pet-sitter so your pet is not coping alone. Use curtains or blankets at the windows, and along the bottom of doors to block sound, and turn the radio or TV up.
If you are particularly worried, consult your vet who can refer you to a professional behaviourist for help.
Prepare a den
Sarah Endersby, senior veterinary adviser to Ceva Animal Health, offers tips on how to make a retreat for your dog:
- Ideally, a den should be prepared two weeks in advance so your pet can become accustomed to using it. Place a crate or carrier in a quiet and safe place and cover with blankets and towels to help block out noise and flashing lights.
- Use healthy treats and toys in the den area to entice and reward your dog for using it.
- Close curtains and doors, and put the TV or radio on to further drown out the loud bangs.
- For further support, an Adaptil diffuser can be plugged in nearby - ideally two weeks prior to the event. Adaptil spray can be applied to your dog's bedding on the night. The appeasing pheromone will help comfort your dog.
- Worried dogs pant more, so a water bowl should be placed either in or near the den area.
- Walk your dog early, to avoid having to go out while the fireworks are going off.
Tellington TTouch expert Sarah Fisher explains how simple techniques can help your pet relax. She says:
"Many dogs who are fearful of noise carry tension in their lower back, tail, and hind limbs. Tension in the lumbar area can trigger the fight or flight response. Tellington TTouch can change a dog's habitual behaviour by influencing the posture in a positive way.
"How you touch a dog is important. Ruffling the coat and ears, or forcing contact can be highly stimulating. Non-threatening, gentle contact can increase levels of oxytocin which can help to override the fight or flight response.
"Stroking the ears one at a time from the base to the tip can lower the heart rate and breathing. Slow zigzags along the back can also help release tension. Many dogs find gentle TTouches on their chest reassuring too. Some dogs, however, may be irritated by slow rhythmical contact on the body. Enlisting the help of a Ttouch practitioner will help you learn ways of connecting with your dog.
"Anxious handlers can increase stress levels in their dog. Anyone interacting with any dog should remember to breathe - holding our breath can make hand contact heavier and faster.
"The use of a body wrap, or Thundershirt, can help as they engage the tactile part of the sensory system, but these should be introduced prior to fireworks night. If your dog freezes, the wrap or shirt should be removed immediately and introduced gradually over days or even weeks.
"Engaging other senses can also help dogs become less focused on noise, so scent work games can be useful and relaxing."
TTouch ear slides
- Sit or stand beside your dog and hold the ear gently with your thumb on the ear flap.
- Stroke the ear from the base right out to the tip. If the ear hangs down you will work from the base down, and if the dog has upright ears you will work from the base up to the tip.
- Make sure the whole of the ear is covered by strokes before moving on to the other ear. Work gently but intently.