Halloween is almost upon us, and with that, the accompanying terror experienced by so many dogs.
Because so many pet owners report that their dogs show fear to fireworks (and other sounds like thunder), it’s become somewhat normalised. That reduces proactivity , meaning that so many pets, and their people, suffer through fireworks season.
Fear is a significant stressor that affects dogs’ welfare, and may even cause the development of anxiety, panic and phobic type responses having long lasting effects.
Where anxiety and phobia develops, the dog is exposed to intense, chronic stress which is damaging, physically and emotionally.
Although helping dogs who show fearful responses to sounds, whose fear generalises, who develop anxiety, and/or who develop phobic responses, is by no means easy or straight forward, we have lots of tools that we can put in place to increase their comfort and improve their welfare.
It’s too close to Halloween, and even New Year’s Eve now, for us to help your dog learn a more relaxed response to fireworks and other loud noises, but there are lots of effective strategies that we can put in place to help them, reduce their distress, and avoid this escalating further.
(That’s why we are not discussing counterconditioning and the use of recorded sounds etc. – the best time to start that is in the summer!)
How does a fearful dog respond?
Dogs experiencing distress may show responses such as:
- alerting to the sound, especially where the dog remains alert and on edge, even when all is quiet again
- barking at the sound
- wide eyes, panting, trembling, pacing
- sitting close to you, attempting to snuggle in to you
- looking to hide, or move away from the action in the house
- checking doors, windows, boundaries
- lying or sitting very still and quiet
- …each of these may progress as the dog’s distress worsens due to not being able to escape the terror
Just as we are concerned for a dog who is showing less activity than normal, due to their normal responding being suppressed by fear, stress can also cause increases in activity.
This is often in the form of displacement behaviour including play and play related behaviour that’s often quite intense, so you might see bows, bouncing and jumping. We might also see greeting behaviour, jumping up, humping, mouthing, overly affectionate behaviour and persistently seeking attention and interaction.
Which dogs are likely to be affected?
It’s pretty normal for a dog to be aware and possibly frightened of loud, booming noises and light flashes, just as a person may be. But, where this normal response is seen, the dog will recover pretty quickly and be capable of going about their usual activities again.
- Some types of dogs are most associated with developing noise sensitivities, so there may be some heritable component. (Sheppard & Mills, 2002)
Many types of dogs were developed to be extra sensitive to their environment, and to be proactive if even the slightest threat is detected. We may have been selecting for the underlying components associated with various types of reactive behaviour when breeding dogs for particular functions.
- Puppies who, in their first few months of life, didn’t receive proactive and well-rounded habituation and socialisation, especially in relation to the presentation of novelty (Fuller 1967)
- Adolescent dogs go through fear periods during which they are more sensitive to scary situations and more likely to form long standing fear responses to these scary situations. (Dehasse 1994) (Thompson et al, 2010)
- New dogs who might not be fully settled in their new home, so everything might be a bit overwhelming.
And in general, dogs who are experiencing chronic stress or stressors, not necessarily related to sounds, are more likely to show signs of sound sensitivities (Daginno-Subiabre et al, 2005) (Iimura, 2007)
- Dogs who have had a traumatic experience in relation to sounds like fireworks (Iimura, 2007)
- Sound sensitivity and separation related behaviour may be linked, so dogs who demonstrate behaviour associated with distress at separation may be more likely to show sound sensitivity. (Sherman & Mills, 2008)
- Dogs who show fearful responses to other sounds such as the smoke alarm (particularly the beeping when the batteries are going), thunder and storm sounds, booming or low frequency sounds, household and machinery sounds such as blenders, lawn mowers etc. (Overall et al 2001)
And dogs who show behaviour associated with separation anxiety and other distress or panic related behaviours. (Overall et al 2001)
- Which paw your dog prefers may even be related to the development of sound sensitivities! (Branson & Rogers, 2006)
- Dogs who show signs of sound sensitivities should also be assessed for pain, particularly musculoskeletal pain (Lopes Fagundes et al, 2018) – another reason I emphasise talking to your vet!
- there might even be connections between sound sensitivities and early neutering (Spain et al, 2004)
Trigger stacking is also worth noting here. A dog, who has been exposed to one loud noise in isolation, may have time to recover from it, but fireworks are generally repetitive and unpredictable.
The dog will not have had time to recover from one, before another goes off.
Because they are unpredictable, the dog can’t prepare himself so may be on edge in anticipation.
What can we do?
It’s not hopeless. Don’t just watch your pet suffer through Fright Night – we have some time to get planning and prepared so that you and your dog are more comfortable.
We know this is going to happen, indeed, in lots of areas it’s already happening. Let’s get a plan in place to reduce canine stress surrounding Halloween activities.
- make sure your dog has a tag on his collar, and that his microchip details are up to date
- stock up on HIGH value food rewards that your dog LOVES like hotdog, chicken, cheese, pate, peanut butter, roast beef, liver or whatever really gets your dog going
- stock up on some of your dog’s favourite toys that he loves like squeakies, tugs and toys for dissection
- check out #100daysofenrichment for tons and tons of ideas for puzzles and activities to keep your dog’s brain busy and distracted.
- start to plan toilet breaks – how often does your dog need to go outside? what time will it be dark? is there a quieter area that you can bring them to?
- plan how you will exercise your dog at home or in quiet areas so that they are a little more settled
- where will you and your dog be set-up on the night? This might require a bit of planning, especially if you have family or party plans.
Set up in a room that is well insulated from sound (surrounded by other rooms, for example) and has at least one door between the dog and the entrance/exit to the house.
- exercise your dog on lead at and around Halloween, and make sure their collar or harness is adjusted to fit them snuggly and securely
- Your dog will very likely be comforted by your presence so being with him or her is important.
- Start to play the TV or music louder than usual now so that you can use it to drown out sound on the night, and your dog has some time to get used to it.
Set-up a safe bunker for your dog now! If you only use it when he’s likely to be scared, he will associate this change with feeling frightened.
- Make a comfortable, cosy refuge by laying some blankets over a bed, chair, table that your dog can go under, or a crate.
There may already be a spot that your dog likes to take cover in – use that, if it’s safe!
- Set up a bunker in places your dog chooses to hide, if safe
- have your dog’s bed in there and his favourite toys there
Start to feed your dog a yummy stuffed toy in their bunker every day in the run up to Halloween so that you are establishing this as a nice place for them to go.
Needless to say, it is not recommended that you bring your dog to bonfire or fireworks events, or to costume parties or trick-or-treating, or even greeting trick-or-treaters at the door.
Most dogs are not comfortable wearing costumes, even though it can be super cute!
Preparation & Safety
Halloween isn’t just spooky for us!
Children and people in costumes, funny decorations, candles and reduced light, lots of forbidden and even dangerous food, excitement and doorbell activity will cause any dog to become stressed out – throw in fireworks on top of that…
If a dog is stressed out, his normal ability to cope with stress is reduced, so even though he may tolerate excitement and activity at other times, Halloween might be too much.
Special consideration needs to be given to child-dog safety at this time of year:
Other safety concerns include:
- dangerous and inappropriate foods
- routines out of whack so it can be difficult to keep track of everyone
- door opening and closing
- children in costume, excited and possibly worrying to the dog
Halloween is a bit of a minefield when it comes to dog care!
Fearful and spooked dogs can panic and attempt to flee, even injuring themselves in the process.
- make sure your dog wears a collar with ID, and is chipped (make sure the chip is registered and the details are up to date)
- check fencing, gates, boundaries etc. and it’s best to exercise and toilet your dog on lead, even in your own garden. A panicked or spooked dog will go through an “invisible” fence, over or through a boundary that they normally wouldn’t.
- keep your dog on lead when walking, just in case he is spooked while out and about
- have at least one closed door between your dog and the front or back doors
- spend time with your dog in a quieter area of the house; it’s better to have children and other pets spend time elsewhere especially if they are active or noisy
- close the windows and curtains in the house
- play music or the TV louder to drown out some external sound.
You can run the washing machine or dryer, or use a white noise machine or app too.
- while inside and supervised with you, have your dog drag his lead so that he can be easily restrained if needed by stepping on the lead or grabbing it, rather than the dog
You may act as a safe base for your dog, whom he uses as a reference point. This means that your presence and your behaviour may help your dog cope with distress.
- be calm
- don’t scold your dog – this will cause him to feel even more uncomfortable and distressed
- talk to your dog, use a jolly voice
- sing happy songs or listen to upbeat music – this will help you and your dog be calmer!
- stay close to your dog – try not to come in and out too much
- listen to your dog: if they seek contact, pet them; if they just want to stay close to you, be there; if they want to hide, let them and make sure they have a safe space
- YOU CAN COMFORT YOUR DOG!
- it may be better that an adult is responsible for the dog, rather than children, for safety and so that kids are free to enjoy the festivities
Massage and touch may help your dog, and it can be relaxing for you too. But, remember, listen to your dog and it’s best to do this between booms and bangs, rather than when he’s stressed. We have more on this here.
There really isn’t a whole lot of reliable evidence that a fearful dog will cause other dogs present to respond fearfully (Iimura, 2007), although some dogs may be more impressionable than others, especially when with another dog they view as a social model.
There really isn’t evidence that a human who is behaving nervously will increase a dog’s fear either. (Dreschel & Granger 2005)
But, the research on noise sensitivities is lacking, at best, so we have much still to discover.
Keep ’em busy
With all this planning and preparation in place, you will be doing an excellent job of managing your dog’s response to scary sounds.
If we can successfully reduce the impact of the noise, we might be able to further take the edge off, by providing your dog with lots of distraction, to keep their minds busy.
- if they can eat, practice fun training exercises using high value rewards
- if your dog can play, play fun and active fetch, sniffing and tug games
- have lots of stuffable toys ready with the yummiest stuff – encourage lots of chewing and lapping behaviour, which can be calming
Start practicing now! Introduce sniffing and chewing activities now, at times when it’s quiet and your dog is calm. Establish these activities as safety signals.
#100daysofenrichment has everything you need in this department!
Intersperse fun and active games, with a calming break for some chewing, and then bring the energy up again by engaging them in a game again.
Using noisy toys like squeakies might also help to drown out fireworks nose too.
Calmatives are generally over the counter remedies, that may or may not have a beneficial effect. I have some concerns about recommending these.
The first concern being that reliable evidence for their efficacy is lacking, and reported or anecdotal effects may be due to placebo and bias effects.
Because there is heightened awareness among professionals and pet owners, lots of these products have flooded the market, and are made very attractive to concerned dog lovers.
Using these products may cause a person to believe that they are doing all that’s required, and possibly believing that their pet is benefiting, when that might not be the case.
There are countless others, for which I have not seen effective and beneficial results, despite seeing their use with a range of dogs.
If you are going to implement any of these, start using them now. Don’t wait until the fireworks have started or your dog’s fear has intensified; otherwise they become predictors of distress.
They, like other context cues, might be helpful if used consistently when all is calm and quiet so that they can help to set your dog up to feel calmer.
This should not be considered a last resort, or something that must be resorted to at all, really. Consider it a first line of treatment.
Sound sensitivities cause dogs real distress and suffering, and impacts their welfare. If fireworks caused physical pain, I’m sure people and professionals would not hesitate to medicate, treat for pain and inflammation, ensuring the dog’s comfort.
Sound sensitivities cause serious emotional and behavioural damage, which has a neurological basis. We can treat the brain, and help the dog.
First port of call: talk to your vet.
Share this article from Dr Overall on drug therapy for sound sensitivities.
Be clear about your dog’s behaviour:
- What sounds cause the fearful response? Where is your dog when this happens?
- What does your dog do? How does your dog respond?
- How long does it take for your dog to recover, and go back to normal?
Further treatment may be indicated in different situations:
Dog A: alerts and barks at fireworks, and maybe shows some displacement behaviours (increases in activity etc.) is probably going to be OK by implementing the measures described here
Dog B: hides, and startles but can still interact, play and eat may also be OK just by implementing the advice in this blog
Dog C: pants, paces, trembles, and may take a while to recover from this distress, is likely to need more support
Dogs B & C (and maybe Dog A) may benefit from a situational medication like Sileo, which has been developed for dogs with sound sensitivities. It offers lots of benefits in that it can be administered at home, even once the dog is experiencing distress.
Sileo helps to reduce anxiety and distress, without sedation.
Dog D: panics and looks to escape is likely to need more support
Dog E: has a disproportionately strong response to sounds is going to need more support, especially where this response has generalised to other sounds
Dog F: is on edge, even at quiet times, and startles and shows distress to a growing array of sounds will need more support
While Sileo may be an appropriate option for all these dogs, and given that we don’t have very long before Halloween, there are other medical interventions that may also help over the longer term and on a more generalised basis.
Dogs C, D, E & F may benefit from anxiolytic medication such as Benzodiazepines, which help to reduce anxiety and panic, but may also be sedative.
These may include alprazolam and diazapam. The former is likely a better option, as it is less sedative. (Horowitz, D., & Neilson, J. (2007). Canine and Feline Behaviour.) (Plumb 2008)
These can be given as situational medications so are ideal for Halloween night when there are likely to be fireworks consistently sounding. In terms of situational medications, you might also discuss trazodone or clonidine with your vet for more on suitability for your individual dog.
Dogs D, E & F may benefit from general maintenance medication too, so as to help reduce anxiety in their day to day lives, and help limit the generalisation of their sound sensitivities. For example, clomipramine, amitriptyline. (Crowell-Davis et al, 2003) (Papich, M. G. (2007). Saunders handbook of veterinary drugs (pp. 236-238). St Louis: Saunders Elsevier.)
These anxiolytic medications will provide background relief, and then situational medication can be given when we expect the extra distress of fireworks, where indicated or appropriate.
(We don’t have sufficient time to start this medical program at this stage, as it’s likely to take several weeks to establish.)
Please discuss this with your vet, I can’t stress that enough. This is general advice only, based on medication protocols sometimes applied to dogs with sound sensitivities. Medications don’t work the same for every dog, so your vet will know the best approach and support for you and your pet as you try to find the most helpful protocol.
Some anxiolytic medications can cause paradoxical effects so talk to your vet today. This will give you some time to try the medication out, before you really need it, so that you can evaluate your pet’s response – this is especially important with certain types of medication, e.g. Benzodiazepines.
A note about ACP
ACP or Ace or Acepromazine is still commonly prescribed for sound sensitivities. This is not an appropriate medication for use for dogs with sound sensitivities.
This pre-med doesn’t have anxiolytic effects, but rather sedative effects. Indeed, it may even heighten the dog’s sensitivity to sound…so not a good choice at all.
Dr Karen Overall, again, discusses its use in this clip.
Don’t worry if your dog has been given ACP before – this medication does have its place in lots of contexts but may not be the best approach given in isolation in relation to sound sensitivities.
Medication alone is not enough
While some medical interventions and the routines described here may get your through scare-season, for there to be real and effective behaviour change, and the associated benefits to your pet’s health, you must be working through a behaviour modification program too. This can reduce the need for medication, especially over the longer term, and start to give the dog coping skills for dealing with distress, improving welfare.
This fireworks season, get planning and preparing now because our dogs don’t have to suffer just because that’s the way it’s always been. Get proactive and start today!
Of course, please get in touch should you need any further advice.