We would like to thank Bryan and Lauren from The Knotty Dog for their time and expertise in contributing to this blog.
We all know at least one dog that is petrified of fireworks, thunder and other loud noises. I am frequently asked how to help animals that have noise aversion. I have an elderly Pit Bull of my own who was rescued from a really bad situation in an inner city that was exposed to everything from fireworks to gunfire at very close range. My poor Dasso is so petrified that he trembles violently enough to shake the floor. The 4th of July is particularly concerning because he is afraid of his own beautiful back yard, sometimes retreating to the basement where he has moved the washer and dryer in order to squeeze himself in between.
If I have learned anything working with animals, the most important thing is that every animal is different. What works for one pet does not work for the next and vice versa. I have compiled a list of tips and tricks I have used with rescue dogs, foster dogs and of course my Dasso to hopefully help you and your pet through this 4th of July. For this blog we have partnered with Bryan and Lauren from The Knotty Dog for some tips and tricks on how to make this holiday more enjoyable for all.
Exercise – A tired dog (or pet) is a good pet. If you know there will be a thunderstorm or a fireworks display make your best effort to tire out your pet. A long walk or hike coupled with an intense play session the days before and day of the event will go a long way to expend energy. If a dog has not had enough exercise and is pent up prior to a stressful event, this will only make it worse. I have found that this is really the absolute best way to help alleviate stress as long as you can plan ahead. Even if your dog does not have noise aversion this is still a great way to prevent future issues! Many dogs do not develop fear or anxiety until later in life.
Ignore the Noise – This is a common answer that we hear from most trainers and behaviorists. This is based on the theory that if you make a big deal of something, or become stressed over something (noise, moving, changing routine etc.) your pet will pick up on your stress and it will become a negative experience or worsen an already anxious pet. This is very true. If this is the first time your pet is showing fear or anxiety the best thing to do is ignore the noise and instead take out your pets favorite treat or toy and associate the noise or issue with a positive experience.
Flower Essences & Herbal Tinctures – Many of us have heard of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, or Five Flower Essence, which are known to work well for both human and pet stress and anxiety in a variety of situations. Many of these types of products are recommended for use for at least 2 weeks before an improvement is seen. Many have also reported products like this working right away. I personally have not had success with these, however I have also seen many of our customers have a lot of success with them. Others that have great success include Earth Animal Clam Down, Earth Animal Emotional Balance, Licks Zen, Liquid Health K9 & Kitty Calmer and Azmira R&R. When trying these products it is important to be patient and provide at least 2-3 weeks before determining if it helps your pet or not.
Calming Treats – This is a wide category that has some high-quality treats that have decent success, to some treats that have some low quality ingredients with limited success. Most good treats include an amino acid called tryptophan which can help promote sleepiness or calm. As with the flower essence products, these really need to be given about 2 weeks prior to a stressful event for them to really work, although some have seen results sooner.
Providing a Secure Space – When you are dealing with an unexpected storm or fireworks display from your neighbors, providing your pet with a warm secure space that is as comfortable as possible can help alleviate some stress. This option doesn’t take away the problem or anxiety, however it can help some pets feel safer.
Thunder Shirts – Thunder Shirts (or any snug item of clothing) can work wonders for dogs with anxiety. The effect of moderate to deep widespread pressure has been studied in both humans and animals and shown to help relieve anxiety. Thundershirts or similar products have been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate, and has been shown to calm behaviors like pacing, panting, yawning, tongue flicking, drooling, elimination, barking, stress wining, howling, licking, door orientation and calmness.
High Value Treats – Treats like bully sticks or cow knuckles are high reward and can last a long while. Chewing releases endorphins, much like exercise or activity does for us humans, and when the treat lasts as long as these chews do, it can be a valuable coping mechanism for dogs both big and small. Bully sticks are a very safe and engaging chew for your dog and can help relieve stress while enduring the noise outside. When in high stress situations your dog may begin to associate something like fireworks with his favorite toy or treat and therefore alleviate the stress and anxiety.
Time & Patience - Fireworks are not the only thing that can cause our dogs stress but they are often one of the most noticeable stressors. Teaching our dogs impulse control, appropriate responses to stress, and meditation (through duration commands) is a year round investment. When a solid foundation in training is laid day in and day out, you will often find that previously avoidant dogs will find more peace through human guidance than hiding under a table. Dogs whose anxiety would present itself in destructive behaviors will lean on the training you put into place. For some dogs, keeping them in a “working mindset” during stress can help redirect their focus off of the commotion and on to familiar commands and routines that bring them comfort and calm. Finding the right trainer for your family can help resolve these issues and more within a few sessions. You can experience smooth sailing through the summer months that are filled with fireworks and thunderstorms, but also curb the often subtle anxious behaviors that present themselves daily.
Brain Drain- As humans, many of us can go to the gym and never truly be tired, unlike the exhaustion we feel after 8 hours at the office. Likewise, a tired dog is a relaxed dog. For some dogs physical exercise doesn’t cut it, and so, incorporating some of the intense, mentally engaging exercises like a structured walk (this is utilizing a heel command for 80 to 90% of your walk/hike where your dog never inches past the seam of your pants, can help release some of the mental energy before the fireworks even get started. Keeping a leash on your dog indoors can help you quickly redirect them when the unexpected neighborhood fire crackers begin, and you can transition your dog into a “working mode” within a moment’s notice. Remember, it is important to be mindful of setting a calming tone rather than charging them up for an event that they are already anxious over.
Medications – For some pets, prescription medication becomes necessary when they become destructive or self-destructive. This can include behaviors like chewing kennels, crates, walls, doors and in severe cases chewing themselves. These should never be used long term without the direct supervision of both a veterinarian and a behaviorist as they can have severe side effects when used long term. It is important to remember that these medications help to manage the symptoms rather than treat the actual cause of the problem and therefore should be used as a tool rather than a solution. Helping the animal to become confident enough to overcome the fear or anxiety should always be the end goal.
Diet – We sound like a broken record saying diet matters. If you give a child a 1lb chocolate bar, they are going to have bad behavior. If you are feeding your dog a diet that is low in moisture, high in carbohydrates, high in starches etc. the same rule applies. We have seen animals improve from a behavioral standpoint just by increasing the quality of the food. Again, this is not a catch-all, however it can play a significant part in helping your pet.