Emotional support for dogs with firework phobia

Brown Labrador sat under a rocking chair

As autumn approaches we should be teaching owners how to help their dogs cope with fireworks. Many owners leave it far too late to seek help and advice until the first ‘bang’!Brown Labrador sat under a rocking chair

There are several approaches to treatment of firework phobia (and other noise phobias) – pheromone therapy, diet change, body wraps and in severe cases medication, but what we shouldn’t lose sight of is that the dog is very fearful and needs to be feel more secure and able to control (to a certain extent) the situation.

Fear is a very powerful emotion and so it should be; it motivates us to avoid danger and is a very successful survival strategy. However, the inability to avoid/escape danger can create a plethora of behavioural problems.

When I was a child I was very frightened of strong winds…I have no idea where this fear originated from….and when it got very windy I would always run to my father who would pick me up and cuddle me. Did it make me any less fearful of the wind – probably not – but I felt safe and was able to cope with the noise of the wind because Dad was looking after me!

If we think of our dogs in this context; should we pet them and hug them when they are frightened? Traditional advice is ‘Don’t pet and try to calm your dog down as it will only make him/her more fearful.’ Well I and many other therapists think that this is rubbish. I certainly didn’t become more fearful of the wind…. I just learnt a coping strategy which was to run to Dad who would keep me safe and being able to take a degree of control of the situation certainly helped.

So, what should we do? We can give our dog a tasty treat every time he/she hears a loud bang to build a new association with loud bangs…. i.e. loud bang means something nice is coming, just as Pavlov did in his experiments. Without doubt this technique can work but if the fear is very intense then our dog is unlikely to take the treat and we may run the risk of our dog associating the treats with feeling fearful and potentially ruining the positive effects of the treats.

If we go back to the myth that comforting a fearful dog is going to teach him/her to become more fearful, we need to think about what reinforcement means……increasing the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated…. think about this – the key word is BEHAVIOUR.

If we comfort our dog when he/she runs to us we are reinforcing the behaviour of running to us (not the emotion of fear) and we are then providing a place of safety. Our dog can count on us to help when life gets scary!

That’s all very well but, we may not always be around when a firework goes off. In my experience, it helps if we can provide a ‘den’ for our dog. Using one of the excellent sound cd’s which are now available, we can teach our dog to run to his/her den when a banger goes off and praise and cuddle him/her in the den. That way our dog will have a place of safety to run to and hide in even when we are not around. A den could be the cupboard under the stairs, a crate covered with blankets, under the bed, in a wardrobe…the list is endless but the den should always be accessible for our dog.

Be aware that we may be able make our fearful dog worse, if we are frightened and are not calm and confidence but a trembling jelly then it is likely that our dog’s fear will increase, perhaps we might have to join our dog in a communal den, have someone give us a chocolate biscuit every time a firework goes off. I will be keenly watching who appears to have put on a significant amount of weight by the middle of November!!!!

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