Besties and Bonfires

With the firework season seemingly growing longer, there are vital steps Westie owners can take now to ease the stress of the coming days and months ahead.

“Act calmly and normally because providing too much fuss can reinforce the idea that there is something to be afraid of.”

“Do not lock your dog in a crate, when they have had no crate training, and are not used to crates.”

It is nearly that time of year again and it will soon be Bonfire Night. I am already hearing owners talking about it and stressing. It is important for owners to stay calm, otherwise, your Westie is going to pick up on the anxious energy. I want to try to set our dogs up for success during the firework season, so we need to start putting the work in now to try to desensitise them to the sounds and prepare our house as a safe place for our dogs.

Did you know you can buy CDs with fireworks sounds? To try to desensitise your Westie to firework noises, start playing these sounds daily. Start with an extremely low volume, if your dog reacts then ignore your dog’s reaction until they are settled. Then your dog can be given a treat once they have settled. Then try again with a much lower volume of the stimulus, it is useful to have a training line on your dog to ensure that their focus is on you, and they are not running around. It is important that you don’t rush these exercises and overdo the training. After every few sounds, give your dog a high-value treat (or a shower of treats) when they are calm, remember to keep the volume low. Play with your dog or initiate some pleasurable activity. Make this at the end of your session because it is important you always end on a high note with a good response, even if that means turning the volume right down.

When to start the next session

This depends very much on the individual dog. It can be as brief as an hour or as long as the next day. But the dog must be calm and settled before another session begins. I recommend practising the settle exercise with your dog as it is really important to teach your dog calming exercises.

Your new session

The new session is started with the same level of noise, but this is soon increased slightly, bearing in mind that it is important not to go beyond the point when your dog may notice the sound and react. If this happens you will need to go back several steps and start with a low noise at a much lower volume. If you are not making any progress and your dog seems to be having more problems, consult your veterinary surgeon for some advice. Sometimes sound sensitivity may be associated with medical and more general psychological problems. You do not want to just carry on putting more stress and anxiety on your dog.

Bonfire Night

Bonfire night can be incredibly stressful for owners and their dogs. If your dog is still terrified of fireworks, then you will need to help them cope when the fireworks have started. Keeping your dog safe and protecting their stress levels is important to their health and wellbeing.

Keeping calm

During the day, you want to keep your dog as calm as possible. If they are highly aroused around the time leading up to the event, this may add to their stress on the night. This is because the cortisol (stress hormone) that is released when the body is put under stress, whether it’s chasing a ball for a long time or being reactive to other dogs, remains in a dog’s system on average for three days. A higher level of cortisol means that it will take less for them to have a reaction. Calming activities such as kongs, snuffle mats and calming games can help to keep your dog’s arousal level low during this time. This means that when the time comes, they are less likely to go over their threshold and react to loud noises and lights. Do not have a high energy walk! Brain games, calming games, training, and calm walks in the daytime, (still on a lead) before fireworks start are more beneficial.

Keep your dog (and cats) indoors and ensure that they have identification such as a registered microchip and an address disc on their collar just in case they escape through fear. Check that all the fencing in your garden is safe and secure so that your dog cannot escape. If you are taking your dog outside for the toilet in your garden have them on a lead for safety.

Provide a safe place in the house for your dog. If your dog has their own coping mechanism during stressful times, such as going in a crate or finding a safe place to hide, make sure that they are comfortable and leave them to cope. Whatever they are doing at that moment is helping their stress levels, try not to take them out of their safe place. We all know that hugging our pets makes us feel better but nine times out of ten this will not be helpful to them at this moment, especially if you have removed them out of their safe place to give them a reassuring hug. Although if your dog wants to be close to you then let them be close to you.

Act calmly and normally because providing too much fuss can reinforce the idea that there is something to be afraid of. Draw the curtains or blinds, and if necessary, drape over additional fabric to muffle noise and flashes. Have your TV or radio on loud to drown out the sound of fireworks outside. Do not leave your dog alone if they are fearful of fireworks because this will increase your dog’s anxiety. Do not think by taking your dog out during the fireworks to face their fears will help them! Please do not do this, your dog should not be taken for a walk during firework night. Do not lock your dog in a crate, when they have had no crate training, and are not used to crates.

Products & Enrichment

These include Thunder shirts or anxiety rap, which intend to reduce anxiety via applying pressure to the dog’s body. Organic k9 lavender spray, CD classical music, lick mats, stuffed kongs, and snuffle scent matts to release endorphins. Remember to get advice from your vet if your dog is really struggling.

Justine Shone is a dog behaviourist and is the Founder of VIP Dog Training. For more information visit: JP Holistic Nutrition 

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