Many dogs are terrified of the crashes and bangs of the firework season and others find it terribly stressful. Laws that are supposed to control the noise level are not always very effective, so sadly we have to learn to live with them.
Normal fears are natural as they protect from harm, however mild firework fears can develop into a more serious noise phobia if left untreated. Options for dealing with noise phobias can be divided into short-term management and long-term treatment. Short-term management is unlikely to minimise or stop your dog's fear response to fireworks overall, but it can help to reduce the fear and anxiety on each occasion. The aim of long-term therapy is to treat the problem so that it is less severe in the future, thus reducing the need for short-term treatments and improving the dog's quality of life during these events.
Here are some practical tips to help your dog get through the firework season:
Fear or phobic responses can be reinforced or intensified by your behaviour. You should try to remain relaxed and unreactive to the firework noise. Hard as it may be, try your best not to comfort him as you will encourage his fears. If you give him too much fuss, this will reinforce his belief that there really is something to be scared of; ignoring him as much as possible when he seems scared will help him to learn to cope on his own. Of-course, once he has cheered up a bit and relaxed, you must give him some love and attention so that he knows he's acting in the right way.
Try to keep your dog busy with games or reward-based training to keep his mind off the noises.
At very noisy times around Bonfire Night, provide your dog with a safe hiding place (a cardboard box would do) in his favourite room of the house - you could cover it over and provide bedding for him to snuggle in to. Close the curtains and turn up the volume of the TV or radio to help drown out firework noises.
When afraid, dogs will attempt to escape from the source of their fear. Therefore, it is important not restrain him or shut him in one room otherwise he may feel trapped and panic. Allow him unrestricted access around the home, and try to avoid leaving him alone in the house.
A stodgy, high-carbohydrate meal (for example, with well-cooked rice or mashed potato) in the late afternoon will help make your dog more sleepy and calm during the evening. Make sure he goes to the toilet before it gets dark and the fireworks start.
- Please don't punish him for his behaviour - this will only increase his distress and can make his phobia worse.
Medication for firework-phobic dogs
The aim of medication is to reduce the emotional impact of the event. Medication may produce adverse effects, and therefore it is essential that at least one trial dose is given before the anticipated event (i.e. before the start of the firework season), and your dog should not be left unsupervised once medicated.
If you require medication for your dog, our vets must check him over first - please don't leave it until Bonfire Night evening.
Remember medication is not necessarily enough to treat a phobia - it only manages the symptoms. Veterinary advice is to use behavioural therapy with pheromones (e.g. DAP/Adaptil) in conjunction with appropriate medication.
This is an anti-anxiety drug which has amnesic effects - this means that it reduces the dog's memory of the event, and therefore does not worsen the phobia. Many owners of firework-phobic dogs may notice that their dog starts to show signs of anticipatory fear as soon as it goes dark in case a firework goes off - using Diazepam can help break this response. Diazepam can be used in conjunction with pheromone treatment (DAP) but should not be used during a desensitisation programme. Diazepam can produce variable results in each dog and for this reason at least one trial does should be given.
For many years, sedatives such as ACP tablets were commonly prescribed for these kinds of situations. They were believed to work very well as the dog appeared calm and quiet and didn't exhibit the usual signs of stress and fear that would otherwise be seen. However, we now know that this type of drug is only preventing the dog from reacting - it doesn't stop him being terrified, but it does stop him from telling you. Understandably, this can add to the dog's phobia and makes the problem even worse, as he will now associate the fireworks with being unable to move or respond as well as being fearful. He will still be able to remember the event, and the tranquilising effect of the drug can be quite prolonged.
Pheromones are chemicals naturally released by most animals, and they can have a profound emotional effect on members of the species. DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) is a synthetic version of a pheromone produced by nursing bitches which makes the puppies feel safe and secure. It has anti-anxiety properties, and has been shown to reduce signs of fearfulness during firework events. DAP has no known side effects, and can be safely combined with other treatments.
DAP is available in the Adaptil product range in the form of a plug-in diffuser and a collar. (There are also sprays indicated for use during different situations, such as travelling). Adaptil has been proven to reduce the signs of fear shown by phobic dogs when fireworks are going off.
The plug-in diffuser should be inserted into a plug socket at floor level as close as possible to your dog's den or hiding place. It should be left plugged in all the time and will provide coverage for around 4 weeks. As with all treatments and therapies for firework phobia, it is far better to start this before the firework season - ideally, about 2 weeks before.
The Adaptil collar is available in 2 sizes. It fits snugly around your dog's neck and is activated by his body heat, ensuring that the appeasing pheromone is with him wherever he goes. This is particularly useful if your dog is anxious when he goes outdoors. One collar lasts for approximately 4 weeks.
Behavioural therapy uses a process of desensitisation and counterconditioning with the aim of long-term reduction of noise phobia in dogs. These have been shown to be safe and effective methods for the treatment of fears and phobias. The desensitisation programme consists of a CD, called Sounds Scary, which aims to gradually desensitise the dog to the sounds of fireworks, thunder etc. and ultimately help them to associate these sounds with pleasurable activities.