The RSPCA estimates that between 40-60% of dogs are frightened of fireworks, and the older a dog is the more likely they are to become fearful or more fearful of the loud bangs and unpredictable noises. So, more often than not dogs and fireworks don’t mix well.
How does your dog cope with fireworks?
Dogs that are fearful of fireworks will react in different ways depending on their personality. My quiet lurchers will pace, pant and shiver. Dogs that tend to face fear with aggression – such as lurching and barking at other dogs – might bark and growl at the scary noises. Some dogs will seek out a quiet, dark place and hide, or they might try to dig their way to safety. No matter how they behave, the underlying cause is FEAR.
Dogs, Fireworks and Pain
If your dog is experiencing pain, for example from arthritis or a muscular strain, they are likely to be even more reactive to loud noises. This is one reason that dogs can develop a rapid onset of fear around fireworks. Do if your dog has been getting more reactive towards fireworks over the years it might be time to have a chat with your vet to rule out pain.
Dogs are extremely good at hiding pain most of the time and it can be difficult for owners, veterinary professionals and therapists to identify if pain is present, however there are often subtle cues you can look out for.
The Canine Massage Guild has produced a free assessment tool which you can download here. Using this tool will allow you to assess whether your dog is in pain and can be helpful to help you frame a discussion about with your vet.
So how has your dog been coping this year? Have you noticed changes in their mood, activity, or engagement with others?
Did you know that most chronic pain is caused by soft tissue, that is the muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments? This is the case even if your dog has been diagnosed with arthritis or other joint issues. So why not also discuss massage as a drug free pain management option for your dog. A consent form for massage therapy and some supporting information for your vet can be found as links at the bottom of this page.
How you can help your dog cope with fireworks this year
Helping your dog starts early. So if you know your dog is likely to react get them on a regular calming supplement asap. My boy has been on Dorwest Skullcap and Valarian for a while now to help with his anxiety around other dogs. But I will be increasing his dose over the coming weeks and he will be on the maximum dose at least a week before the fireworks are due. I will also be using hemp calming treats nearer the time. Other products are available and every dog responds differently so you may have to experiment to find a product that helps.
You can try playing firework sounds - You Tube have lots of options. Try playing sounds during the day and quietly initially and slowly increasing the volume. This may help your dog cope with fireworks that are going off at a distance to you but is unlikely to help if your neighbour is setting them off.
If your dog is a chewer why not get some long lasting chews in. They can be offered earlier in the day to help the dog relax before the evening (my dogs anticipate fireworks when it gets dark at this time of year) and through the evening if they are able to be distracted. I will also have stuffed and frozen Kongs on standby.
Change up their routine so you walk them in daylight for at least a week before the fireworks, where you can. Keep toilet breaks to a minimum after dark. I always walk my dogs with a harness and collar so that my lead has two points of contact. This makes it highly unlikely that they will be able to bolt on a walk...fireworks do go off in daylight too! Check your dog's microchip and tag details are legible and current now, just in case your dog does panic and finds a way to run.
Build them a den to take themselves off to. A small dark place that is enclosed but in the same area as you are can be a real comfort for some dogs. Ideally build the den now so that it doesn't just appear when fireworks are expected. My two have been going in and out of a soft crate for nearly a week already so they can take themselves off now if they want to. This makes it a much more appealing and safer place to be when things outside are scary.
On the night
Never open the door to the outside after dark without a barrier to prevent your dogs accessing the exit. So many dogs will run when frightened and so keeping them from any exit will keep them safe. This includes any back gates too. My larger lurcher barged through my back gate and disappeared in a thunder storm earlier this year. So I will be moving my garden bins to cover the gate after dark. You can never be sure that a firework won't go off when your dogs are having a toilet break - so go out with them and secure your fencing and gates.
If your dogs love to work you can try some obedience, scent work or sport specific training indoors. Many dogs will not be able to cope during the peak of the fireworks, but any brainwork before, during or after can help them settle faster. But don't push it. Training should always be fun, if it isn't then this strategy is not for you.
Act normal! This is one I have to keep reminding myself about. Your dogs are stressed and you react to their stress which makes you stressed. They pick up on your stress and it cycles. Act normal. Make yourself a cuppa. Put the washing on.
Offer reassurance if your dog seeks it. You cannot reinforce fear by offering reassurance, but not providing this attention when you normally would can be very confusing and even scary for your dogs.
Keep calm, breathe and concentrate on keeping your own stress under control. You smell terrible when you are stressed and your dog can smell this along with hearing your heart rate and breathing rate. You can keep your heart rate slower by concentrating on your breathing. I will be doing this alot over the coming month.
After the fireworks
Stress takes time to dissipate. So be aware that your dog may be stressed for several days or more.
Remember, the following day the air will wreak of fireworks. You may even be able to smell it but your dog will definitely smell it. So stay present with your dog on your walks. Watch them, use some obedience and just interact with them. You should be doing this all the time anyway, but when your dog has had a scary night and the air smells funny it is not the time to be walking around on your phone and oblivious to your dog.
Avoid known stressors during this time. My lurcher can be dog reactive when stressed, so we will be walking in areas with less chance of encountering a dog. If your dog is worried by busy roads then go out of your way to avoid them where you can whist they decompress from the stress.
Start planning how you will make New Years Eve easier for your dog. You know there will be fireworks so take note of what worked or didn't this month and apply those lessons and try other approaches to prepare them for the next ones.
I hope some of this helps you and your dog cope with what can be a nightmare season. Let me know how your dog gets on this year.
If they are struggling and more reactive check for pain using the Canine Massage Guild tool, a vet visit or book them in with me for a muscular health check.