Fright night will have certainly made an impact on many dogs. Even dogs who might not seem that bothered will have experienced some level of sensory stimulation contributing to raised arousal.
This means that the dog’s body will have been flooded with chemicals as a result of that stress. Stress isn’t always bad and if the dog has behavioural solutions to cope with the stressor, the body can cope and move on – that’s the function of stress, to prepare the body with behaviour to deal with the stressor. However, the problem with fireworks, is that the dog can’t escape the scary noises and can’t predict when they are going to happen.
Lack of control and lack of predictability lead to stress, and for many dogs, that means HIGH stress. The resulting stress chemicals can take a while to clear, leading to definite effects in the body. And this is even more damaging should this happen on a chronic basis.
With fireworks having started pretty early this year, some dogs may be experiencing a level of chronic stress over the last couple of months. And of course, fireworks don’t stop today; they may continue, until presumably they run out or until the next fireworks related celebrations like Guy Fawkes and New Year’s Eve.
A special note about pain
Pain is a stressor, and pain and stress share many characteristics. While experiencing high stress, the dog’s expression of pain may be inhibited. But that doesn’t mean the body is escaping damage.
Tension, held through the body, during stressful events may lead to or exacerbate soft tissue injury particularly.
And because pain responses are inhibited, the dog might not protect itself from damage, increasing and worsening it.
Stress may even inhibit inflammation, which can have effects on immune responses, making dogs more susceptible to disease.
It is likely for these reasons that fireworks fears and pain are linked. Pain may lead to heightened stress, and stress may lead to heightened pain.
We emphasise discussing your dog’s fireworks fear with their vet so that pain can be assessed and treated, and that appropriate anxiolytic medication can be prescribed to help prevent and reduce your pet’s stress response.
The dog’s brain on stress
Exposure to chronic stress may affect the brain in a number of ways, and it’s generally not good.
The Limbic System, which looks after emotional responses, becomes even more sensitive than usual. If there is a potential threat, a stressor, the Limbic System takes over and inhibits the more thinking, less reactionary parts of the brain, like the Pre-Frontal Cortex.
This means the dog may be quicker to respond with a bigger reaction and may be more sensitive to a broader range of stressors.
Basically, the stressed brain becomes better at responding to stress and being stressed.
By the time Halloween night actually arrives, your dog’s brain is primed and ready to react to every bang, even far away or faint.
The antidote to bad stress is good stress
After a big stressful event, the last thing the dog needs is more stress. But not all stress is bad.
Good stress helps to combat bad stress, is goal oriented and drives behavioural performance.
The temptation is to run the dog, attempt to physically exhaust them, but this just adds to stress, raising their baseline making it harder for them to recover.
Think of stress as a challenge. Any time the body and brain is challenged, they body and brain must rise to the challenge. When they can, it’s probably good stress and when they can’t, it’s bad.
Appropriate enrichment is a top stress buster
It’s not just important to have a plan for fireworks on Halloween night, but also for the days after for recovery.
A recipe for stress busting includes:
- chewing and lapping
What your dog needs when might depend on their behaviour. The dog’s behaviour is information telling us what they can manage, and what they can’t cope with.
Provide them simple doable challenges that allow them to win, little and often. Lots of small successes boost confidence (hey, what I do makes a difference and I can do it!) and helps them feel they are in control of what happens to them (my behaviour matters and what I do gets me things I like).
Simple puzzles that you can make at home provide great opportunities for winning.
The goal here is not to challenge the dog and make it tricky, as has become the way in canine ‘enrichment’ now, but instead facilitate quick wins, and lots of ’em.
Pick a couple from the list above and set up the beginner levels and repeat a couple of times each.
2. Chewing & Lapping
Dogs often find mouth-oriented behaviours to be helpful in them controlling excitement. Activating the gut through chewing, may lead to the release of serotonin and dopamine. The functioning of those neurochemicals may become inhibited during stress, so the brain needs all the help it can get!
Make chewing available to your dog throughout the day:
Sniffing is just the ultimate exercise for dogs. It uses lots of brain power, not leaving room for much else, and provides a body and brain workout without tipping over into exertion which brings us back into bad stress territory.
Taking your dog out for a walk on a recovery day isn’t necessary. Walks, especially traditional or suburban walks, are just not all they are cracked up to be. But, if you have a place you can take your dog where they can sniff and sniff and sniff without having to deal with other exciting things like lots of people, activity, dogs, wildlife and so on, it might be a good idea.
Sniffing to their heart’s/nose’s content can be replicated at home too.
True, proper play is a most effective stress-buster. But, humans are not always the best players with their dogs.
True play is a dance of communication; each player stopping to allow their companion reply, and then responding appropriately.
What we often think is play, may not have the benefits of true play. Things like repetitive fetch games and intense, high-arousal play with other dogs often fall into that category, contributing to bad stress over time.
Day 8: Body Awareness – Cavaletti (simple, slow body awareness games help to slow your dog down, concentrate on their movement rather than worrying about other things and helps them to mind their tense body, recovering from stress)
Dogs who feel safe can play, truly play. But when stressed, play is usually too high-octane and overwhelming, consisting of playful behaviour but probably not true play.
Keep it low key today and play in rollercoasters!
Stress inhibits serotonin activity in the brain and this impacts impulse control, sleep and resting, self-calming and settling, and learning.
The body and brain need time to recover from the onslaught. That’s what today is for.
But, your dog might find it hard to achieve valuable rest today. Take it at their pace and let their behaviour guide your approach.
Make rest possible, proper laid out deep sleeping, with deep breaths. Watch your dog’s chest movement, listen to their breathing and deep breathe with them.
Your Day is a Rollercoaster
Calming down isn’t easy, especially when you have been as wound up as your dog may have been over the last few days, weeks or months. That means we can’t expect them just to calm because we have asked them.
Starting out straight away with resting might not work out. Instead, bring your dog up, then down, then up, then down and so on…like a rollercoaster.
Use good stress outlets to activate (up) and pacify (down).
Build up gradually; for example:
sniffing games > to puzzles > to play >
And bring them down gradually, for example:
from play > to sniffing > to chewing > to resting.
And then up again, and then down again, and so on.
Have cycles of rollercoasters today, up and down and up and down. Balance the up and the down by keeping an eye on your dog’s behaviour. Remember, their behaviour is information.
This plan can be applied to recovery from all sorts of stressful events such as vet or groomer visits, family gatherings, separations, high octane activities, dog shows and exciting events. Recognising that dogs need help to recover and that we can do things to help them is an important first step.