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Proven Training Method for a Dog Afraid of Fireworks
Will This Make My Dog Feel Safe?
Conditioning (or more properly called classical counter conditioning by animal behaviorists) is a technique that is used with animals to make them used to an unpleasant stimulus. In this example you will take a situation to which the dog normally acts negatively, like loud sounds, and you condition her so that she has a pleasant feeling about what used to bother her.
I suggest using food for conditioning because almost all dogs are well known for their love of treats; if your dog is not food responsive you might want to give her a favorite toy or a lot of praise along with a special food. The food should be something the dog thinks of as very special but be sure it is not going to provoke any health problems. Play around with the food and toys and see what works before starting this program.
This technique has been used successfully for many years. There are alternatives since dogs are individuals and will react differently. Even if your dog does perform less than optimally, using this technique will calm her and make her feel safe.
It will be time well spent.
How to Condition Your Dog Around Fireworks
- Prepare some special food. If using baked chicken breasts (a good lean meat) cut the treats up into pieces about the size of your little fingernail. If you prefer to buy a treat get something that is really small and tasty.
- Have your partner step into the back yard with a single firecracker. Give her a treat. Set off the single firecracker. Give her a treat no matter how she responds. (Do not be upset if your dog is too scared to even eat the treat. Just leave it on the ground for her.)
- Continue this process every day, lighting no more than a single firecracker each day. Every time the firecracker goes off give her a special treat. With time the dog will learn that the sound of the firecracker is a good thing, associated with getting a special treat.
- When the second week arrives you should set off a firecracker, give her a treat, set off another firecracker, give her another treat, and then stop for the day. Two firecrackers=two treats, which is still not an overwhelming noise and hopefully not enough to set off her phobias. Try this about a month, and then if she is doing better set off a third firecracker.
- (If she freaks out at three firecrackers go back to one and start all over with the treats. This condition took a long time to develop into a phobia and in some dogs it takes a long time to get over.)
After another month you can reduce the frequency but you need to remember that the problem has not gone away, it is just under control for the moment. Every week or so light a few firecrackers and give her treats after each “bang” so that the conditioning will stay current.
Alternative Methods That Help
- Keep your dog in a quiet room during the fireworks. It is never a good idea to leave your dog alone out in the yard, shove her in a crate (no matter how comforting someone told you it is for her), or put her in a room alone while you go to watch the fireworks.
- Stay home: This is one of the most important alternatives. Research has proven that dogs that are alone feel higher levels of anxiety than those that can depend on their owners.
- Play calming music to distract your dog.
- If classical counterconditioning techniques are not successful with your dog even after several months, talk to your veterinarian and ask for a prescription. In 2016 a new drug, Sileo, was approved to help dogs with this condition. It makes dogs less fearful by blocking norepinephrine. It is sold as a gel and the family puts it between the dog´s cheek and gum so that it is absorbed slowly.
It has been tested on several hundred dogs and about 75% of owners think it has good to excellent results. Dogs do not seem as upset during the fireworks. It lasts a couple of hours, so one or two doses might take you through the whole evening. Sedatives like acepromazine, which have always been used in the past, just makes dog quiet but do not reduce anxiety.
- A herbal remedy might be the better alternative since you cannot keep your dog sedated or on other medications all of the time. The problem with herbal remedies is that they take a lot longer to show effect so if you are concerned about the end of June/early July you really should start no later than May. If your dog will drink chamomile tea you can try that, if not you can soak her treats or kibble in the tea. The other herb I have heard about that works as a calming agent is Echinacea. This herb is sold as an immune stimulant so if you want to keep her on it year round there are other potential benefits.
- Try a thundershirt. This is a product sold that wraps the dog tightly and sometimes has a calming affect. It has worked in some cases, but the majority of dogs will still need counterconditioning.
This is one of the CDs that I have found to be helpful when you want to take the dog into a back room during a loud holiday fireworks display. This alternative method that can help a lot of dogs when the neighborhood comes alive with noise. Grab your laptop, take your dog into a back room and, if she will let you, put cotton balls in her ears. Play some loud music on your portable CD player and sit with her for the evening.
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Training your dog with counterconditioning will have long term benefits. When the firecracker season approaches next year she will be better prepared to handle the noise. This is a problem that will get worse as her life continues, and a problem that you will need to continue treating for the rest of the time you are together.
Help her with this. A little time spent now may keep her from running through a glass door later, and she will repay for your kindness in every way she can!
Staying home: Dreschel N.A. The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (3-4) 157-162
© 2012 Dr Mark