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How to Train a Dog to Have No Fear of Fireworks By Using Conditioning
What Is Conditioning?
The theory behind counterconditioning is that you take a condition to which the dog normally acts negatively and you condition her so that she has a pleasant feeling about the stimulus. In her case I suggested using food for conditioning because the breed is well known for its responsiveness to treats; if your dog is not food responsive you might want to give her a favorite toy or a lot of praise along with the 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.
I first wrote most of this article in response to a woman with a cute little Miniature Schnauzer suffering from a fireworks phobia. I want to emphasize that this technique has been used successfully for many years but it is not a total cure; since all dogs are different it may not even work for you. If it helps a few dogs and makes them more comfortable during the fireworks it is time well spent.
How To Condition My Dog
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.
Continue this process for about a week, lighting no more than a single firecracker each day. Every time the firecracker goes off give her a special treat. In theory the dog will learn that the sound of the firecracker is a good thing, associated with getting a special treat.
After the first week 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, 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.
I want to point out again that this is not a cure. This is a method that can help a lot of dogs when the neighborhood comes alive with noise. I still recommend that you 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. There are dog music CDs, like the one advertised here, that may be of help.
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It is not 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. Take this time to be with your dog.
If classical counterconditioning techniques are not successful with your dog even after several months, you can call your veterinarian and ask for sedatives that can be given around the time the fireworks are scheduled.
Of course you cannot keep your dog sedated for several days so if the neighbors are more of a problem you can use an herbal remedy also. 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.
There is also a product being sold called the thundershirt. If this works for you there is no reason to countercondition your dog. You can just buy the shirt and solve the problem easily. I don´t think problems are solved that easily, but if you want to give it a try it is certainly an option.
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. She will repay you in every way she can!
If you have tried other techniques and they do not work there is a new noise aversion drug, Sileo, available in the US as of 2016 after being approved by the FDA. 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.
© 2012 Dr Mark