Fireworks and Fearful Fido14 September 2023
Back by popular demand, BorrowMyDoggy presented another FREE CPD event!
To help support veterinary teams; vets and vet nurses were invited to our online session from Rosie Bescoby BSc (Hons), PG Dip CABC, CCAB, Clinical Animal Behaviourist as she discussed Fireworks and Fearful Fido.
Find out more about Rosie Bescoby.
As we approach firework season we start to think about advising clients to create a den, plug in a pheromone diffuser and play music to help their dogs. But how many dogs does this advice help? Is there anything else we should be doing? In this webinar Rosie goes through additional tips for clients as both preventative advice and to help those with noise phobic dogs, and those with dogs approaching their first fireworks season.
Jill McMaster (Business Development Manager/Vet, BorrowMyDoggy)
So. Hello, everybody. Good evening. Welcome to our session tonight. Thank you very much for coming along. I'm sure a lot of you had pretty busy days.
So I'll just start off a couple of introductions, just explaining what we're here for tonight. So I know I know a lot of you, but if I don't tell you. Nice to meet you. My name's Jill. I am the vet and business development manager at BorrowMyDoggy.
So those of you that don't know what BorrowMyDoggy is, we are an online platform that brings together dog owners and those who don't have their own dogs. So dog owners on the platform are often people that are essentially looking for a little bit extra help. So they come on our platform. That can be for dog walks, overnight stays, holidays, things like that. We also have a lot of people that come on the platform, if their dog is, for example, and it was even mentioned one of the sessions before, they're struggling to be with their dog all the time and you're talking about support and help with them. Somebody from BorrowMyDoggy spending time with their dog in conjunction with behavioural help is sometimes what people use it for. And we've also got a lot of people as well who just want extra exercise for their dog to help get the dog fitter, keep their dog happy, and also as well helping with any kind of weight issues and people that aren't able to be as active as they want to be with with their dog.
And we've got a lot of our borrowers on the platform as well. These are the people that look after the owners dogs. So the ethos of BorrowMyDoggy is it's never a situation where a dog is bought by a stranger. So all our borrowers and owners are checked out and go through our safety checks. There's also insurance in place as well. And then they really get to know each other. Both parties really, really build up that relationship. So the dog builds that connection with somebody longer term and the humans build up that friendship between themselves as well, build that kind of community. So our borrowers are usually people that can have their own dog. Multiple reasons, obviously, for that. We've got a lot of people that travel a lot or they're working long hours or students, for example, or people that recently lost a dog. We do have a lot of people in the situation as well that they're not quite ready for their own dog, but they really would like, you know, to spend time with job and they really see the benefits of happy, dog time and for a lots of people as well they're trying what it's like to have a dog first. I absolutely love this element of BorrowMyDoggy as in many years of practice I often saw people that maybe had a dog that weren't quite ready yet. So they get that experience of happy dog time and are asking are we actually ready for that next step? Are we ready to have our own dog? So it's a great part of BorrowMyDoggy.
So obviously we're here tonight to talk about fireworks and we have Rosie Bescoby here with us. Anyone that's been to one of our webinar before or watched on the recordings will know that Rosie's come along and chatted to us a couple of times, which is fantastic.
So to give Rosie a little bit of an introduction. Rosie is a fully qualified clinical animal behaviourist with a degree in Zoology and Psychology from Bristol and a Postgraduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling from Southampton University. She's an ASAB certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist, a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a member of the Professional Association of Canine Trainers, and registered as both a Clinical Animal Behaviourist and as an Animal Training Instructor with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. So definitely the right person to be talking to us tonight!
The plan for the session, which is Rosie is going to go through her presentation. And at the end there will be time you to put in questions. Rosie will answer as many she can tonight. And if you have anything to ask afterwards, she's also happy to answer them for us, too. So without further ado, I'll pass over to Rosie.
Rosie Bescoby (Clinical Animal Behaviourist)
Thank you, Jill. And thanks, everyone, for coming tonight. It feels a bit strange, doesn't it, with the heatwave we've just had to starting to talk about fireworks, but I think I don't know about all of you but today, it's certainly been far more autumnal. And I think it's something that we'll probably all start now integrating into practice consultations, owner advice, etc. And as we start to think about nights drawing in, the clocks changing and fireworks period coming up.
So Jill did a lovely job of introducing me, so I won't repeat any of that. Let's get straight into the information. So to start with, I just want to briefly go over the differences between fear and anxiety, because often it gets lumped as one, one emotional state and there is quite a distinctive difference. So fear would be defined as an individual's reaction to a specific stimulus. So when they are presented with something, they show a fear response. Associative learning can lead to fear of locations or generalisation, which will come on to in a moment. But that would still be the fear response because they've associated being in certain places with the presentation of that stimulus. And fear is a completely normal protective emotion because it protects us from harm. So if you think about walking down the street, we are quite naturally fearful of stepping into the road in front of cars without looking. So that's a sensible fear response for us to have anxiety.
The definition of anxiety is anticipation of a negative event. So it's when there isn't actually anything present that's causing a fear response and you can have individuals that suffer from situational anxiety. So in certain situations, once they anticipate something negative may happen, or you can have individuals that experience generalized anxiety, which is a lot more looking towards a kind of personality, temperament trait where you generally just feel and it's also associated with pessimism. So you generally just feel like something bad or unpleasant may happen at any time. And if I use an analogy here of spiders, so this is a good way of distinguishing fear from anxiety. So if we have a fear of spiders, I might have a box and I present it to you and I say, "there's a spider in this box" and the emotion you would feel in response to that would be a fear response. It's not pleasant. You know, there's a spider in that box and you don't want to be faced with it. If I said to you, but somewhere in this room there might be a spider or I just saw a spider. I don't know where it's gone and I don't know when it might appear. The emotion you might feel then is anxiety. So you're anticipating something negative might happen, that spider might appear at any time. It might run up your back. It might appear over in the corner, away from you. And arguably, I think anxiety therefore is actually a much harder emotion for us to deal with. And I think, just bear this in mind when it comes to firework fears, because whilst we are talking about a dog's reaction to a specific stimulus, i.e. the noise, sometimes the flashes, but generally the noise of fireworks, there's also a huge element for a lot of dogs of situational anxiety. So once the night's start drawing in and you know, they they recognize the sort of change in the seasons for a lot of dogs. It's just a generally difficult period coming up. And then we have the distinction between a fear and a phobia. So a phobia would be defined as basically irrational. It's something that isn't protective anymore. It's actually the opposite of protective. It's detrimental to us to have a phobia because it limits our lives and it limits experiences. So if we go back to the walking down the street, being naturally fearful of stepping in front of a car without looking a phobia would mean that you can't walk down the street, even on the pavement, or you can't even travel in a car, for example. And how does that develop? How does a fear develop into a phobia? So dogs might start by being fearful of something specific. So, for example, a firework, but and gradually they become more fearful of the places. So they have factors they associate with being frightened, but also of the cues that predict the fear inducing event.
So for fireworks it might be wooshes. Here we go, I'm going to struggle to say all this. With wooshes, calls and squeals, the smell of bonfire, people dressing up, even scarves and gloves, as I said, the nights drawing in. And then the dogs will start to become more sensitive to these noises as the fear generalises. So they start to associate the sound of a Christmas cracker being pulled or the sound of a car door slamming and starts off with noises that sound fairly similar are balloon popping, fairly similar to firework bangs. But gradually over time it becomes more and more generalised.
So we've got some ideas here. I've had dogs that are scared of the microwave ping, the kettle, woosh, whistling. By this point this is what we call a generalised anxiety problem where they are constantly on edge because they are so fearful of everyday noises that they don't know when these noises are going to appear throughout the day and they start to become very generally anxious. So dogs hear much higher frequency sounds than a human for a start. So lots of us feel it feels quite irrational the way dogs sometimes respond to fireworks, but we need to remember that they hear a much higher frequency than we do. So what we hear in fireworks, we can't even relate to what a dog might hear. They're also worse at locating and orientate to sounds, so I think that might add to an element of confusion or lack of control or you know, just lack of ability to figure out where and what that sound is, which which probably doesn't help.
So let's go back to what causes a dog to be frightened of something. So there are all three potential causes and they all potentially overlap.
So it can be individual or a whole mixture of these three.
So the first is one significant negative event. So let's say a dog's being walked in the park and someone lets off a massive rocket right next to the dog and you know, they lose control of their bowels and they're absolutely terrified that can be enough for that dog to have a lifelong fear of fireworks and it might be that the dog was never exposed to the sound of fireworks in a controlled manner, finding a positive exposure during their sensitive period of development and thereafter. So it might be that they were reared by the breeder and by the owner in a very rural location where they didn't get exposed to any sort of loud noises at all. It was very quiet environment, maybe. No noisy children, no noisy traffic, etc. So generally noise is that the puppy was never exposed to and certainly for exposure needs to also be positive, not just about exposing the puppy. That's a whole other webinar. What I mean is anything that causes the dog to be alert or aware. I'm not comfortable or not sure about something, but they don't show a fear response. But year on year, every time they are exposed to fireworks and they feel they're not quite sure about this, what is this? It adds up and leads to a fear response. And year on year with fireworks is just one example.
Their sensitisation can also occur in a much more short term. So let's say the dog has a really bad day. Various things happen to it. It might have a vet visit where something horrible happens to it. It might already be in chronic pain, it might have been stood on by its owner and caused it to squeal and really fallen apart and it might have had all sorts of unpleasant things happen to it. And then that evening there's a fireworks display and it just can't cope anymore. It's like the straw that 'breaks the camel's back' sensitisation and always remember that chronic pain is an element of sensitisation towards any behavioural problem.
So moving on from that, I just want to go over the link, the very strong link between medical and behavioural issues, but particularly when it comes to noise sensitivity and fears and phobias. So one study by Blackwell and colleagues showed that up to nearly 50% of dogs showed a fear of loud noises, and that was based purely on owners perception, which probably means that the fear was quite obvious. Which leads me to think that not a lot of owners are that astute in reading the more subtle signs of fear or avoidance, and therefore that percentage might actually in real life be quite a lot more. So that's a huge percentage of the dog population fearful of loud noises. And we know there's so many studies now that there is a huge overlap between medical issues and behavioral issues. So whether that's musculoskeletal pain, gastrointestinal issues, dermatological issues, canine cognitive dysfunction, sensory deprivation, etc. And another study showed that between 28 and 82% of behavioural referral cases had suffered from underlying pain. And obviously all of these are generally related to any behavioural issue. But more specifically, when it comes to noises, we know that chronic pain or chronic medical issues, not necessarily even pain, but, you know, the skin issues and dodgy tummies and all of that, that will sensitise an animal. So they're not as tolerant for coping with additional stresses. So whether that's additional behavioral stressors in their lives, they are less tolerant and less able to cope and they're more likely to fall apart if they're exposed to anything.
And secondly, when it comes specifically to chronic pain and noises, when a dog is experiencing chronic pain, if they hear a noise that causes a startle reflex or even enough to make them alert to something, the muscular response to that can trigger a more acute pain response. And the dog will then start to associate noises with acute pain. And that association, as we know, pain, is very much linked to fear and anxiety, anticipating pain happening, the whole thing becomes mixed together and you end up with a dog that's really much more fearful of noises because when they alerted once to the sound of fireworks, it triggered a pain response internally. And that then leads to a fear response of the noises and anxiety anticipating a painful response. So if you have any animal brought into practice that is sensitive to noises, a full health check is essential and also bear in mind that for these dogs that come into practice, that aren't comfortable coming into practice, which again I would say is a huge percentage of dogs, they are very good at hiding pain. They might not be as good as the prey animals, but they're still very good. And when their adrenaline is pumping through them or they're quite tense because they don't really want to be examined by someone that they don't know very well, and that has done horrible things to them in the past before, It is very difficult to determine pain. So sometimes pain relief trials for several weeks is the only way of getting to the bottom of that or getting lots of video footage from the home. Obviously, we've been there through COVID of awful videos, but if you've got someone that can get you some decent video footage and you can see the dog moving in a much more relaxed environment, if you've got the time to go outside and observe the dog moving around the carpark again, it's not just a case of in a consult room and prodding and poking where it might not may not pick up on something.
A little note while we're here on sensory deprivation. And so with dogs, sometimes when the hearing starts to go, it can be a really positive thing for dogs that are sensitive to noises because they don't hear as much. However, that can have a two-fold effect. One is that they don't hear the kind of more warning signs of the fireworks starting, so they don't hear the whizzes in the bushes, but they suddenly alert and someone starts a response to the massive bangs. They're not even aware that they are going on. So you might have a dog that's never been worried by fireworks, but all of a sudden in their old age, because they have started to go deaf, they suddenly startle to a massive bang above them because they weren't aware that was a fireworks display going on. And that can then lead to a fear response.
Obviously, with eyesight going as well, dogs will sometimes rely a little bit more on their hearing and they may become more sensitive even to noises that way. And you may also have, bearing in mind the huge percentage of dogs over the age of eight that are showing or will start to show signs of cognitive dysfunction that will also lead to confusion, lack of ability to understand and orientate to the noises.
So let's talk quickly about prevention. So what advice can we give owners with their puppies or, you know, dogs that this will be their first year of exposure to try and prevent them from developing a fear of noises? So just because a dog hasn't shown any problems in the past, we really still need to ensure that all exposure is positive. This isn't just about exposure, and this is true for all socialization. Exposure during that puppy critical period, 12 weeks sensitive period of development. And we also need to make sure that we rehearse exposure, positive exposure throughout the year. And so it's not about throwing them in at the deep end. I would never recommend taking a dog to a firework event, having them in the garden and leaving dogs outside, roaming around them. I just would not risk it. I have seen far too many cases in my time of people who say, you know, last year or the year before, the dog was wandering around the fireworks and a year or two down the line, it's terrified of them. You have to be so confident in translating dog body language. And again, nine times out of ten, everyone will feel that they're confident in translating that dog's body language. But there is a huge risk that you are sensitizing your dog without realizing it.
I would also say don't ever leave a dog, even if they seem fine with fireworks. Don't ever leave them alone over fireworks period evenings. This is where BorrowMyDoggy comes in. People can come in to help you. So if people have to work or want to go out, see if you can get someone from BorrowMyDoggy to come and spend some time with your dog just in case a firework display, or if your next door neighbour decides to let a load off because again, that will lead to a fear of fireworks if the dog is left alone and also an issue with separation. There's a huge link between noise sensitivity and separation issues in dogs. So let's prevent it rather than have to deal with it. If it happens, it's much harder to sort out once you've got that mix of issues going on. Ideally, the owner would be the one keeping the dog company because when a dog starts to show a fear response, they are going to want their secure attachment near them. But again, that may not be possible.
Ideally, you'd want the dog in their own home rather than the dog going somewhere else. The only exception to that would be if the neighbor has told the owner, we're going to have a fireworks display tonight and you need to get that dog away to another environment. That would also be extremely sensible thing to do.
So we need to make sure that the puppy or the dog during that first year of exposure is kept at home potentially with background music, we will come onto all that in a moment. Give them loads of positive things to do, loads of food, dispensing toys or play with the owner or playing. Did you hear that noise? Here's a treat being flicked across the room. Go and chase it again. We're going to come onto all of this in a moment because it does link into the actual treatment of dogs who are sensitive to noises. But we do need to make sure that puppies find it positive and not just exposing them to it.
How can owners make things worse? So sometimes, as I said before, owners can feel that the dog's fear is seems quite irrational and we start to get annoyed with the dog and that will only add to it. Making the dog feel like this is actually a really horrid situation because my owner is now also being unpleasant towards me. We also have a tendency when a dog chooses to hide to force or persuade them out or, you know, get treats out to treat, trail them out, or use verbal encouragement to get them out of the hiding place and also trying to expose them. So that they realise it's not that scary. Unfortunately, all that will do is cause conflict where the dog thinks, Oh, I really want to respond to my owner because that's what dogs do, or I really want to follow that food trail, but I don't want to come out of my safe place that's conflict or it will entrench the fear if we actively force them to approach the fireworks, they won't realise it's not scary. They will just be being flooded, which basically means they're learning that there's no way of avoiding or escaping the scary thing. They've lost complete control and therefore they've learned to just kind of be helpless and take it. So it doesn't mean that they are fine with fireworks.
In order to prevent further negative learning, the dog has to be kept under threshold, and by that pretty much means the dog has to remain relaxed and will come onto that now.
So the physiology of fear is very simply, we have two parts of our nervous system, a parasympathetic which is associated and which is activated when we are feeling relaxed, and a sympathetic which is activated basically as the fight or flight response. And a mammal you can only have one activated or the other. There is no overlap. So things that happen when the fight or flight response is kicked in, the pupils dilate, the heart rate and the respiration rate increases. We don't process it. All of everything moves to the muscles. So we don't digest food very well. It can lead to bowels opening, everything. As I said, all the energy moves to the muscles, ready for survival mode, basically. And people will often say that no dog can learn when they are in fight or flight mode. And that is absolutely not true. And we should stop saying it because an individual is very much learning when they are in a sympathetic nervous system activation. All they are learning though, is about survival. So they are trying to figure out what is safe, what is not safe, and what they need to do to survive. So they're not going to be learning anything like, you know, we can't teach them to sit or to lie down or to go to the bed. We can't teach them those kind of operant conditioning cues when they are in that state. So that's what people mean when they say a dog can't learn when they're in that state, but they are very much still learning, learning by one trial, one trial exposure. Once they're in this state. So that's what's going on internally.
And we're just going to talk about some of the body language that a dog will show when they start to feel fearful or anxious. So you need to determine, are they feeling fearful because they're exposed to something or are they feeling anxious because they might be anticipating something unpleasant happening? So the panic that can happen when a dog feels stressed because their respiration rate and their heart rate goes up and they will have their ears pulled back, their eyes that be white, facial tension that causes the eyes to bulge and the pants will be very much a very much tongue hanging out or backs of their lips pulled right back. So you can see the back teeth. The one dog here that is showing a nice, relaxed hot pant, which is the top right. The other three are all showing other signs of stress. Alongside that stress pant, the stressed face that comes with the pant, the eyes bulging, the whites of their eyes, the pupils being dilated again. That will come with facial frown, tension, whiskers being puckered, ears pulled back, etc. hiding. So attempts to avoid and find somewhere that they potentially feel safe, generally small, tight, dark spaces and other signs of distress might be pacing, which will come onto in a moment. Digging, moving between hiding places, becoming clingy to the owner and seeking reassurance. It's fine to give it, by the way, as long as it seems to help. But what we don't want to do is owners to go to the dog that's trying to hide or using a different strategy, an attempt to reassure it and see that because that can lead to a dog telling the owner to get lost and using aggression because they do not want to be fast squealing and salivating can be one sign refusing to eat any food because again, they're in survival mode. They are not that all of their energy is gone to their muscles. They are not interested in digestion.
So we talk about fight or flight as a survival mode, and actually the mode we want our dog to ideally be in is rest and digest, which is your parasympathetic nervous system activation and treatment of dogs that have got a fear of fireworks involved. I've put here three basic steps, but it's not basic. It's always hard work. It's hard work. It's a long process and it involves a multidisciplinary team approach. So the veterinary practice, the owner and the behaviourist and the first one is something that all of us can be advising owners and implementing, which is control and management. The second step is altering the emotional response, and the third is teaching an alternative behaviour. So we're going to look through those one at a time.
So your control and management, the aim is to prevent the problem from getting worse. And if you've got a dog who's already sound sensitive, I guarantee year on year the problem will get worse without medicinal help and behavioural help. Ideally, the control and management should be that we reduce or avoid completely exposure to the scary stimulus. So any exposure to fireworks and as we all know now, in this day and age, that is virtually impossible because they happen at totally unpredictable times of day, totally unpredictable nights, totally unpredictable places. And every year there's a petition to try and make fireworks events, big events, only on certain nights of the year, partly for this reason so it would be a lot more controllable for us, owners and people who struggle with them. However, that doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon. But we want to do our best to reduce or avoid exposure. We want to make sure owners are not punishing the dog and not trying to force dogs out of hiding places. And we do need to rely on prescription medication for these dogs.
I do sometimes hear of owners who request prescription medication every year for their dog that is scared of fireworks. And vets can sometimes become reluctant to continue prescribing it because the owner hasn't been compliant with behavioural referral or advice, in terms of behaviour modification, program that they've been given. And whilst I completely understand that in terms of long term medication and we'll come to that in a second, for short term fast acting medication for a dog that is fearful of something, my opinion is it shouldn't matter how compliant the owner is, the dog needs it and in the same way that hopefully everyone listening tonight will now be much more open to prescribing medication for dogs and cats that really struggle coming to the vet practice because it makes the stress less for the animal.
It makes your job easier and you probably recommend social sessions and bringing the dog in when they haven't got a vet visit to just, you know, desensitise the dog to the vet practice and associate it with good stuff. How many of your owners are really, really compliant in doing that? But you still hopefully prescribe or get the vets prescribed medication to help them when they do need to come in for a vet visit? And if you don't do that as a practice, then it's something I would really strongly advocate. So for the sake of the dog, consider prescription medication for fireworks period and for vets visits, if they struggle with that because you're never going to get on top of it regardless, however much behaviour modification they do, you will. The owner will never be able to get on top of it without prescription medication for those events drowning out noise. So this is a strategy that we probably do need to use for all dogs over the firework period as well. But again, it's very impossible, very impossible. It's impossible to do it completely. So soundproofing requires masks. So walls can't protect from low frequency sounds.
If we're going to use any sort of background noise, it needs to be loud at random times throughout the year. So the dog does not predict that fireworks are about to start. So I know a lot of people hear about a fireworks display this weekend coming and so they start to play the radio really loud or drum'n'bass really loud the night of the fireworks. And actually what can happen is the dog starts to associate that sort of loud radio or music with fireworks and the music being turned on starts to actually induce the induced anxiety, the anticipating something negative happening. So make sure owners play it throughout the year. At random times, really loud noises will come onto what sort of really loud noises in a set.
We could look at counter conditioning dogs to wear ear defenders. So associating ear defenders with good stuff happening but that isn't predictable and isn't practical for the unpredictable infrequent noises. And I've just this week read an article about how they're not actually very good at again soundproofing and blocking the noises anyway. So if it's not done properly, it's just something that sensitises the dog and adds to more stress, having something unpleasant put on them as well.
The idea behind masking is that we're adding a sound to the environment to reduce the audibility or the salience of other sounds. So we want to use something that competes with the sounds by taking the intensity from the unpleasant sound as well as distracting the dog. So white noise is best for drowning out the wooshes. Brown noise is best for drowning out rumbly sounds. So brown noise probably more for your thunderstorms. But again, we need to rehearse playing brown noise or white noise at random times throughout the year. And then in terms of the actual firework bangs, we want to think about rock music with a heavy beat drumming. So I have lots of clients that get into really African drumming music on Alexa. Again, playing all of this at random throughout the year on really loud volume. Using fans for your white noise. Home appliances can be useful just trainers on a cold tumble dryer cycle thundering around the kitchen, that kind of thing. But we should never play a firework CD to try and mask or drown out external firework noises.
Again, for some dogs, it's actually the flashes that can worry them. Again, not many. It's generally the noises that bother them. But the flashes will cause anxiety that they know that fireworks, you know, the noises are about to happen. So we do want to ideally block out the light. So heavy curtains and extra blankets and towels hung up at windows. That is to block the flashes, not to try and mask the noises because it's not going to. Some dogs do better once they can see the source of the noise, but they should never be taken outside to do that. So if you feel that dog can't work out, can't orientate, can't work out what the noises are, try shoving them from the window and if it is going to help, that will do the job. They don't need to be taken outside.
So dogs who hide and I think this is a big part of our advice that we tend to give over firework period. So dogs who hide or try to hide should be provided with a safe, appealing, hiding place. And this needs to be somewhere that is available 24 seven and the dog has free access both in and out, so they should never be shut in a crate, for example. It's only a safe space if they know they can exit it at any time and the key thing here that I think is often lacking in the advice we give is that this should be a place where the dog already chooses to go by.
I go to so many cases and homes of people with dogs that are firework phobic. And the owners got a lovely crate set up in the kitchen and it looks comfy and it's covered and you know, it ticks all the boxes. And when I ask them, where does your dog go when they are exposed to noises and they're frightened and they show me the airing cupboard upstairs. So there is nothing about the location of that crate that is appealing to that dog. And there is a comfort afflicting train of thought here. One is that where the dog chooses to go when they're exposed to fireworks, which is simply a bolt hole and therefore is associated with a negative emotional state. So that location will have a negative association and therefore it shouldn't be the place that we encourage the dog to settle in. However, and that train of thought suggests we should start from scratch with someone new and really try and encourage the dog to use it and really encourage, you know, associate it with all good stuff and with rest and digest. And however, in my experience, practically, it's just very rarely works. So whilst the dog will happily use the new area and associate it with rest and digest and chooses to take themselves in and it clearly is, you know, a really nice and positive area for the dog to relax. As soon as they're exposed to noises, they're straight back to their bolthole. And I think a bolthole by definition is still it's somewhere that the dog is choosing to feel safe when they're exposed to something that they feel like they might not even survive. And therefore, the more we can make it safe, make it super comfortable. So pack it with comfy bedding, make it dark and leave it available so the air in cupboard might need to be propped open, available 24/7. We might pop a little water bowl in there and we can also associate that in the day, do the whole rest and digest in positive association activities in that area and in my experience, that has led to a full and more successful strategy where the dog will choose to hide still in exposure to the fireworks. But they're not stressed when they're hiding, they come out and recover much quicker. They've got a nice little area that they can take themselves to any time, not just when there's fireworks going on. And over time the dog becomes less fearful because they know they've got full control to take themselves away, but also to bring themselves out when they feel ready.
So if we're going to create a den, if there isn't really anywhere the dog, you know, chooses or they do choose somewhere, but you want to turn that into a den, we want to make sure we use lots of heavy duvets and blankets both inside so it's comfy and on top to block the lights. We make it dark and cozy. Usually dogs will prefer small spaces, but that's individual. We need to make sure there's water available and we need to, over a period of time, create a strong, positive association. So again, it's something that we often advise owners as a short term. You know, we're coming up to fireworks periods, they create a den. And again, reality is really that needs to start much earlier on in the year so that the dog has built a massive bank of positive, strong positive associations with that area. Dogs who pace are often seeking refuge and they often pace between several unappealing ones. So creating a den using one of those areas that they're pacing that they might settle in for a period of time before they pace to the next one, creating a really nice hiding area and building that positive association with it can reduce the pacing quite significantly. Do not let them outside, even if they appear to want to get out. And as I said, creating a safe place should help with the pacing behaviour.
As I've already said, it is okay to give the dog comfort and reassurance if they request it, but if they're not requesting it, leave them alone. However, that's fine for this year, but it's still information to us that the dog needs to learn alternative coping strategies that don't require the owner. Because there might be times when the owner's not home and a firework or a loud noise goes off outside. And because the dog has become reliant on owner comfort and reassurance, they don't have any other coping strategies and that can cause them to fall apart. So we do want to actually encourage them to hide.
That's another thing. I think owners see their dog hiding and feel, you know, worried and upset that their dog is so stressed. But actually hiding is a really good strategy. We like hiding. We want to encourage hiding. We want to encourage the dog to take themselves off by themselves and go and quietly hide somewhere. But as I said, we just want to build on them being able to rest and digest in that area or or just at least recovering quicker when they when they have to take themselves off. This is also a time that we might need to break the rules and allow the dog upstairs at night over this period if they normally sleep alone. Because again, as we know, fireworks off all through the night. Sometimes if you've got a dog that does feel more secure in the presence of yourselves or the owners, then that's something that you can break the rules for a period of time. They might need help being weaned off you again, but that's the same as doing with a young puppy and weaning them away once firework period is over, getting them building that independence again.
So just getting back a bit to your prescription medication, I want to talk a little bit more about long term as well. I'm not a vet, so I can't talk in detail about this. I'm not mentioning any specific medication, I'm afraid. But just to give you a broad overview of it, as I've already said, short term or fast acting medication is essential to prevent negative cumulative effects of exposure day after day during period or year after year. Some short term medication has amnesic properties so it reduces the dogs ability to remember that they got so stressed in response to fireworks. But it also reduces their ability to learn good. So even though it might have seemed like a really successful firework period and we've taught them that actually noises aren't that scary and they lead to good stuff happening, if they've been given that specific medication, then they're unlikely to remember that as a positive training exercise medication. The idea of short term fast acting is to reduce the anxiety to the build up to fireworks happening and the panic response when it happens. So it's the predictable negative events because we would ideally want to give it an hour before the event starts. Some of them are still effective to give as soon as you know, if they're not predictable, it suddenly starts to give as soon as you're aware of them.
Long term medication is something that is given every day and it has a certain uptake period, usually a month or two, where the body is adjusting to different levels of chemicals and neurotransmitters in the body. And these should be considered for dogs who are sound sensitive to frequent, unpredictable and unavoidable everyday noises. Effectively, if a dog is being exposed daily to noises that trigger a fear response, that's a welfare issue and the dog is never going to learn to not be scared. So the idea of medication, long term medication is to increase confidence, explore, treat behavior and decrease sensitivity.
So it gives us an opportunity to implement some counter conditioning, which we'll come onto in a moment. It's essential, again, really for chronic anxiety, generalized anxiety cases where there's real phobia or real panic, which is quite dangerous to some dogs. And the idea is it allows desensitisation and counter conditioning to take effect and some dogs need both. So they need long term medication over the course of 6-12 months or lifelong. But every year they will also need short term fast acting medication to help them through that period and behavioural treatment.
So we talk about desensitisation and counter conditioning. So first of all, desensitisation, what is it? So dogs will gradually stop reacting carefully if we expose them to the scary thing in very dilute form so that they remain relaxed the whole way through and gradually increase the exposure or difficulty as long as the dog remains relaxed. So it's not a tick sheet that we say, well, you know, this sound CD was on volume three yesterday, so will turn up to volume four today and volume five the next day in Volume six in three days time. It doesn't work like that. It has to be dependent on the individual dog in front of you. So we start at a level that the dog barely notices and remains relaxed. And by that I tend to suggest we look at their eyes and ears. So they're already settled and the sound track or the sound starts and the dog might flick its ear, but then goes back to resting state. Or they might open their eyes, but then goes back to resting state and that's it. If the dog sits up, stands up, tries to orientate to the noise, alerts, walks out of the room, all you're doing is sensitizing the dog and it's a negative learning experience. So the dog must remain relaxed. And then we increase the difficulty a tiny amount every few days, or even weeks or months as long as the dog always must stay in that relaxed state.
So I've got a little video here. This is my old dog from a few years back. She's now deaf and blind, so can't hear any fireworks. But I am playing a firework CD. You can see she's settled and I just want you to see what she does whilst the fireworks are going on in the background. And this is what we call desensitisation. This is the state you want them to be in. And I just want you to watch what she does, how she responds and that's it really. So you can see she was aware they were going on. It was almost she was almost going off to sleep by herself and it almost sent her to sleep. And so that's what we're looking for. And I would keep that track playing while she was resting with her head rested like that and just keep observing her, looking for signs of ear twitching or eyes opening or just nodding off and staying asleep. And I just hope it as background noise throughout the whole time you're exposing them. You've got to be watching them properly. You can't be like cooking or watching telly. You've got to just be watching the dog to make sure that you've got this at the right level and it isn't inadvertently sensitising them rather than desensitising them.
So once we've worked through increasing the volume so that it's a really loud, full volume three surround sound and the speakers are positioned in the windows. So it's really as loud as it could be, and the dog is happily snoozing through it. And many dogs, by the way, this is a huge negative to using sound recordings because many dogs don't care. They know it. It's coming out of the speaker, however realistic you try and make it. You know, if you can watch a war film on full blast and your dog snoozes through it, there's a good chance that a sound firework recording, which you can find on the Dogs Trust website for free, by the way, Sounds Scary if you didn't already know that there is kind of variable success with that.
So if you've got a dog that either sound recordings are no problem to them at all, or you've worked through the desensitisation process with the sound recordings, do you then want to move on or start on some counter conditioning? And this means that we want to associate the scary noises with good stuff happening. And we all know that dogs react positively to certain noises. So it might be the rattle of the biscuit tin, it might be the packet opening of something, it might be opening the fridge. But those are neutral noises that the dog has associated with something positive happening. And counter conditioning is really important because if we just desensitise the dog so that it remains resting when there's loud noises going on, it's very easy for that to re trigger the fear when they're exposed to something less controlled. Whereas when we counter condition and we associate the loud noises with good stuff happening, when the dog is ready for loud noises, it can actually switch. The emotional response from neutral to actually finding the noise is positive. So we go from finding the negative to neutral with desensitisation and neutral to positive encounter conditioning.
So generally we think about using food and I'm going to come on to toys and play in a moment. But this video cuts off. You can't really see what I've just thrown her, but it's a ball. So this is what we use for counter conditioning and this needs to be with sudden noises. So desensitisation tracks should be a constant stream of firework noises. And this is where Sound Scary is really good because it provides a constant stream for the desensitisation and then the random bangs and pops for the counter conditioning. We saw her alert to that and instantly she gets thrown her ball. So she starts to associate a gunshot or a firework sound with something good happening.
Just a little bit of research about desensitisation and counter conditioning. So I'm sure you've all heard of Pavlov. He put dogs in harnesses, inserted saliva tubes. He rang a bell and delivered food multiple times. And he observed that just ringing the bell caused salivation to happen because the dog anticipated the delivery of food and therefore the dogs that associated the sound of the bell with something nice happening.
Another Russian scientist then took that one step further. And I think he did this on rats, actually, not dogs. I hope not, not that I'm not sure that's any better. But he desensitised these animals to electric shocks, starting off with barely noticeable electric shocks and associating it with food or something positive and gradually increase the level of the electric shocks to the point that they were causing skin lesions. And these animals still salivated. Anticipating food and showing a positive association between these electric shocks and something positive happening so strongly that it was irrelevant how bad the shocks were because he desensitised them, but that slowly and carefully to them. So that just shows how powerful desensitization and counter conditioning can be. So if if he can desensitize and counter conditioned to electric shocks, I'm sure owners can do it to the sound of fireworks.
Okay. Now going back to the idea of me with my dog, there during fireworks period, if you've got a dog who is alerting to fireworks so they might bark at them, they might not be choosing to hide in any way, shape or form. They might not be choosing to get reassurance or comfort in any way, shape or form. Their arousal levels are high, their adrenaline and their cortisol is pumping around their body and trying to encourage them to rest and digest is never going to happen. So my strategy here is to match the arousal level with games and toys rather than attempting to try and get, settle or hide, if that's not even remotely their default coping. So we would just save the balls and the toys and play, play, play and stay super excited. And you have a whole evening of play.
So some dogs who are potentially not as fearful or the fear hasn't kicked in, you might be able to distract them by doing search games, trick training, asking them for cues that they already know, and just keeping their mind active and off the noise and associating with good stuff. And those should be things. But the dog is already very well rehearsed and it's not the time to be teaching new cues or new skills or new tricks. It's stuff that's already got a strong history of reinforcement.
So these are my tips for dogs who just, you know, hiding is not part of their strategy. It's futile trying to make them do that, in my opinion. Oh, I didn't realise I have this slide. So we talked about dogs to sound scary when if we're going to use recordings, we do. And we're at the counter conditioning part. We need to be careful about getting the food out in preparation for starting a training session because what we will find is the dog sees you get the food out and they start to anticipate the noises starting. And actually we need to make sure that's the other way around. So the noises start and then the presentation of the food happens. Otherwise we're at risk of poisoning the food. And I see this a lot with dogs, with owners who have to do at home medication like ear or eye drops. They go to the fridge to get the tasty food out and the dog goes, I know what's coming. The drops are coming next and I'm not having anything to do with this. And they disappear off. So we need to make sure in both scenarios, whether it's a firework session or a medication session, that the owner gets the potions and lotions and recordings and stuff out first and then the food is delivered afterwards with recordings.
I generally say two exposures a day, but not every day. So you have a few days, a break during the week. And we also need to be careful with the counter conditioning CD that it's not bang, treat, bang treat and treat because otherwise what's happening is we're creating a cycle where the treat starts to predict the next bang. So we literally need to do one then big gap of hours in between, so the dog hears the bang and you want them to have a response because they know either a treat is going to get thrown across the room or the ball is going to get thrown for them or the tug toy is going to get produced. So you want them to hear that bang and go, Yes, I love hearing those bangs. I would say this recordings are never going to be 100% effective, but they do make great inroads into, you know, reducing the sensitivity and creating this nice positive association between certain noises and good stuff happening.
What about soothing music? So we do the classic FM every year, do the classical music thing, and we, you know, loads of CDs on the market advertised as, you know, put these on over firework period. The long and short of it in terms of recent research is there isn't anything that supports it. However, we do know that there are plenty of studies that show that music can have both a sedative effect or a stimulative effect in mammals, all different types of mammals. Again, for me it's probably more about, say, if Classic FM is often on at home and the dog associated with relaxation, it may help rest and digest state when fireworks are on. There's variable evidence to suggest certain types of music help relax dogs. So there is one study that shows reggae music, a bit of Bob Marley can help. But again, in my opinion, during fireworks, the best thing you can do is mask with the white noise, the brown noise or the loud banging drum and beat drum beat drum and bass or the African drumming.
What about pressure, bandages and coats? Again, the Thundershirt shirt here on the left does have some studies supporting it. The tea touch bandages. This is a hard one. You can have a full one that goes further round the dog's back. And again, I think we just need to be a little bit careful about inhibition. So all the dogs actually relax. I'm going, oh, thank goodness. I feel so relaxed now. This is all. Or is it inhibiting them? So they start. They just feel that they can't move as freely and they can't express that they can't do their normal natural coping strategy and behaviour. You need to make sure again, we introduce these to dogs, not just when fireworks are coming. Otherwise they'll associate you putting these on with fireworks happening, but also that they're moving and behaving completely normally when they are put on on a normal day, then, you know, it's something that's fine to try during fireworks, but everything.
So I'm free to answer questions. And if you don't want to ask questions here, feel free to email me via Jill.
Thank you very much, Rosie. That was great and very practical and useful as always. I do like how you speak because you give us real ways of dealing with things and not just theories. That's very, very useful. So there's a little Q&A box at the bottom. We've just got a bit of time for a couple of questions. If you want to put any questions then go for it. We've got one there already, so just go for this first.
1. She's asking, do you recommend nutraceutical meds, for example, Nutricalm.
Yes, I do. For dogs that are sensitive or just starting to seem a bit sensitized, it can certainly help. And I do recommend pheromones to encourage the area where the den area that can certainly help. But again, that should be used kind of in the months leading up to it. So staying in the den with all the good stuff, not just for period, it's not going to fix a firework fear and neither is a nutraceutical going to going to resolve a fear. But it's something for dogs that are, you know, just starting to seem a little bit on edge about them. It can be useful. But what I wouldn't want owners to do is use those. And the dog that doesn't, you know, is not the right support for that dog. And therefore it then becomes a fear response because that hasn't had the right support in terms of, you know, they will take the edge off is how I would word it. Yeah, I hope that the question
That's fantastic. And any other questions from anybody? If anything pops up we can answer now and as Rosie says, if anyone has any questions, just email me and I'll send to Rosie. I'll send you everything from that email as well, all your certificates and the recording as well. So we'll give people a wee second in case something comes to them. Feel free to message via any of my social media with one.
2. And so what pharmacological drug would you recommend to use alongside treating? We currently suggest trazodone.
I can't answer any questions specifically about medicine. Unfortunately, Jill will have to find a veterinarian behaviourist. Sorry like no for sure for both short and long term. It's not one size fits all. There's kind of three or four more licensed meds, more now than ever before, which is great. That might need no, don't say sorry, that need to be considered and you might need to trial them with dogs before they're exposed to fireworks to check for paradoxical excitement for some, or just too much sedation for others, for example. So yeah, I wouldn't have a one drug that handed out to everybody that requests it. I would be asking them some questions and how that dogs current coping strategies. So for example, the meds that might prescribed would vary depending on if you've got a dog that's already choosing to hide compared to if you've got a dog with panicking and trying to smash the door down to get out of the house.
3. And I'm going to guess it's the same answer as well I have Sileo what do you think?
So yeah, it's one of the licensed short term meds for dogs, for fireworks. But as you said, there are a couple now for short term use. It's one of those good options. It doesn't have amnesic properties, which can be good or bad depending on the case and whether you need the amnesic properties or not. And also, it's not practical for a lot of dogs to be able to go in their mouths so that means it can't be used for a lot of dogs. I think that said I'll finish up there.
As Rosie says message her on socials or you can send me an email and I can forward on any questions. But thank you very much for joining us again tonight. That was really, really useful and helpful. And hopefully we'll get lots of dogs a lot more comfortable with fireworks because we know when it comes to us every year it goes on for months and months and these poor dogs and owners have a horrible time. And until we get to change things, the bigger picture, we're going to have to manage them as well as we can. And thank you very much, everyone, for coming and spending your time with us tonight and take care.
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