Independence Day, July 4th, is upon us. For two weeks or more the tents from which fireworks are sold have been up and doing a brisk business. A few “pops” have been heard in the neighborhood.
Many dogs have fears about thunder, gunshots and other sharp or rumbling sounds such as fireworks. In the southeastern US, where we live, afternoon thundershowers are an almost daily occurrence from June through September. Fireworks are popular all over the country and vendors are likely to appear for New Year, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.
Though many municipalities and communities have outlawed their use violations remain rampant.
Your dog may go haywire when he hears thunder or fireworks. He shakes, he urinates, he defecates, he may crash through a plate glass window or chew through a Sheetrock wall. For reasons that are not clear, dogs frequently get stuck between a toilet and a wall, possibly in an effort to hide from the offending noise.
The fear pets feel is enough to break a pet-lover’s heart. The physical damage they do to themselves and your home is both a heartbreak and an expense.
What to do for the dog who is frightened by noises? There are both short-term and long-term options.
In the short term (given that July 4th is but a few days away), be sure to have a supply of tranquilizers on hand. Ask your pet’s doctor what tranquilizer he recommends and he will dispense it for you. Keep in mind that tranquilizers are prescription medications and can be dispensed only when a valid and current doctor-client-pet relationship is in place. In other words, if your pet has not seen his veterinarian recently he may first be required to come in for an examination.
Using tranquilizers for fear of fireworks and thunder can be a little tricky. In general, tranquilizers must be in the pet’s system prior to the episode that brings on the anxiety. After anxiety has begun, if a phenomenon called windup occurs it begins a positive-feedback cycle that may overwhelm the tranquilizer’s effect, rendering it less effective or even useless.
To avoid windup, try to anticipate when the excitement may begin. Fireworks are more likely to be shot after dark, thunderstorms usually hit in mid-to-late afternoon. If you know one (or, heaven forbid, both) of these conditions is about to exist, try to get the tranquilizer into your pet15-45 minutes before stimulation occurs.
So, drugs are good for short-term control. What works for the long term?
Counter-conditioning is a process of making one’s self less responsive to a stimulus. Think of it like hyposensitization for allergies, a process in which one is fed or injected with the very thing he is allergic to, but in extremely small amounts.
To induce counter-conditioning to loud noises we start with soft versions of the same noise and associate them with something positive, like a treat, food, petting, or encouraging words.
As an example, one could, at extremely low volume, play a recording of a thunderstorm on a stereo while giving tiny pieces of Butler Lean Treats. Do this for a week if your pet tolerates it well. The following week turn the volume up slightly. If, at any point, there is evidence of anxiety, go back to the lower volume setting for a couple of weeks before trying to raise the sound level again.
You must be incredibly patient with this process.
A similar technique could be used for fireworks, although you would probably have to make your own recording. Start with taping a cap pistol, which makes a fairly soft pop, and work up to recording clapping of your hands and popping plastic bags before graduating to recording actual fireworks.
Of course, all such recordings should be made where no pets will be disturbed by the noises.
As you speak to your pet during counter-conditioning be aware of the tone of your voice. A soft, comforting voice actually says to your dog that you are worried, making him think, “If she’s worried, I should be too!” Resist the temptation to say to your pet as your stereo thunders softly in the distance, “Ohhhhhhhhh, it’s OK, Fluffy. Everything is going to be alllllllllriiiiiigggghhhht.”
On the other hand, a high-pitched, squeaky voice connotes a happy countenance, implying that everything is alright. Saying, “What a good boy!” in a your best Alvin The Chipmunk voice will really make him know the world is going to be here tomorrow.
Thunderstorm recordings are easily found on sound machines for sleeping or CDs with thunderstorm recordings.
Counter-conditioning recordings for other problem noises including vacuum cleaners, children’s voices, airplanes and vehicles may be found by searching the Web.
While a few cats may be adversely affected by loud noises in thirty years of practice I’ve never been asked for tranquilizers or counter-conditioning techniques for kitties during holidays or summer thunderstorms.
Ask your pet’s doctor if you need further help or advice with counter-conditioning.