Preparing your dog for the Fourth of July will give you independence from fear and worry
© Stacy Braslau-Schneck, CPDT
Many dogs are afraid of fireworks and other loud noises. Please do not bring your dog to fireworks displays – they will not appreciate the colors, and the noise will likely scare them or at least stress them out.
If you go to see fireworks and leave your canine friend at home, make sure he is very secure. Dogs have been known to break through screens, fences, even glass windows when terrified and trying to escape the sound of fireworks. The days after the Fourth of July weekend are the busiest ones of the year for most shelters – many dogs get “lost” after running in fear from fireworks.
Plan now. Make sure your dog has tags on. Check to see that the tags are legible (sometimes the engraving gets worn off) and that your phone number is current (has your area code changed recently?). If you take your dog out of town for the weekend, get a “vacation tag”. I got one for Flip that says, “I’m staying with….” and lists his host’s name and phone number. Also, make sure you have current photo of your dog, and note any distinguishing marks (is that spot on his left hind foot or his right?). If you need to provide a description of your lost dog for the humane society or for posters, it’s helpful to have it accurate and current.
If you’re going to be home when you know fireworks are expected, create a “safe place” with lots of insulation. This could be your dog’s crate if she’s already really comfortable with that (you’ll want to leave the door open), or maybe a place where you can cuddle or at least hang out close by together. Have it be an interior room, a room with fewer windows that might rattle with the booms, or even a basement if you have one.
When fireworks start, put on music or TV to mask the noise (one student recommends watching a “war movie”, since most dogs have learned to ignore the sounds from your TV and the fireworks will fit right in with the crash of the movie’s bombs – but make sure your dog does ignore these sounds first; another student plays mellow classical music and “reads” to her dogs instead!). Play music that your dog is used to – but maybe crank it up a little more. Act calm or even jolly, yawn, smile, and engage your dog in some fun activity if he or she seems alarmed. Go ahead and reassure your dog by saying, “It’s Okay!”, and show him or her that you are not bothered. Feed FABULOUS treats, and do some fun training if your dog seems up for it.
Long before you expect fireworks, you can prepare with desensitization and counterconditioning. You can get a recording of fireworks (see YouTube for example), and start playing it back at a VERY low volume while you engage your dogs in their favorite games or activities, and/or give them treats. If they seem completely unaffected by the sound, raise the volume a tiny bit. At no time do you want the sound loud enough to actually scare her – her acting “concerned” is OK as long as she seems to recover pretty quickly. Start by playing the sounds at a volume where Fido shows NO signs of anxiety. Play the CD while she is eating a meal, getting a relaxing massage, and also while you are practicing basic command she knows such as sit, down, and stay. Do this for several days, gradually raise the volume but turn it back down if you see any signs of anxiety.
Here’s how you can help your dog deal with the stress that night:
You may wish to consider a product called “Adaptil” (formerly “Canine Comfort Zone with DAP”), which releases a chemical which is supposed to be a dog comforting hormone. It often helps to calm stressed or exited dogs down (I have been using it with my own dog since the birth of our child disrupted our routine). See petcomfortzone.com for more information. For some “anxious dogs” it seems to really help take the edge off of their anxiety or intensity. You would want to use it for a week or two before fireworks are expected. You can read about how some trainers are reporting success with it here. In the SF Bay Area, it is available at Pet Food Express.
You might also want to give your dog some melatonin. Check with your vet, but the approximate doses are 1.5 mg for a dog under 25 lbs, 3 mg for a dog 25-100 lbs, and 6 mg for a dog over 100 lbs. Read below about Helix Fairweather’s experience with melatonin and fireworks.
If your dog’s sound anxiety issues are severe, you should talk to your vet well in advance of expected fireworks about getting a prescription for an anxiety-reliever medication. However, some veterinary behaviorists recommend that you avoid acepromazine (“Ace”), as it may make your dog worse. For more information, see this article here. Some vets recommend Sileo for noise anxiety/sound sensitivity – for more information see sileodogus.com.
Remember that cooked bones are dangerous and can splinter! If you let your dog enjoy part of a summer barbecue, make sure he or she gets boneless meat or raw bones only!
Other dangers include corn cobs and wooden shish-kabob skewers, which can be choking hazards; and onions, alcohol, and chocolate, which can be toxic for dogs. (Please bring any excess chocolate to your favorite dog trainer for safe disposal!)
Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!
IF MAGGIE CAN,
ANY DOG CAN
(Fireworks, Melatonin, Surprise!)
by Helix Fairweather
posted by permission
Every year the Rainier Agility Team in Washington state holds a fabulous 3-day agility trial over the Fourth of July weekend. Almost everyone camps on the grounds. It’s a shared ASCA trial accompanied by herding events, conformation (for Aussies) and obedience trials. I have always wanted to go to these trials but could never dare risk it – I have a Beardie (Maggie) who is terrified of loud noises, particularly thunderstorms and fireworks and fireworks are legal in the state of Washington. Maggie is also panicked by a lot of normal life and her typical reaction is to run off in fear. Fireworks, camping, agility trial, out of town – all of it a recipe for potential disaster. So I’ve always chosen to stay home that weekend.
Linda Aronson, a gracious Beardie owner who is also a veterinarian and behaviorist, suggested using melatonin for Maggie’s noise sensitivity and kindly sent me a paper she had written for a veterinary medical journal about a case study she did re: a fearful, spayed female mixed breed and how melatonin helped her. (July 1, 1999, Journal of the AVMA) Knowing how terrified Maggie is about loud noises, I was suspicious – I just can’t bear to think of her slipping out through fright and getting squashed on the highway. An agility friend offered for Maggie, Brady and I to stay in her motel room on the night of the 4th so Maggie would be indoors; we’d turn the TV and the fan on and close out the world – at least I had a Plan B! During the deliberations about entering this trial, a Beardie friend had an opportunity, quite unexpectedly, to field test the melatonin with her noise sensitive Beardie and she reported very successful results. Fully prepared to turn right around and head for home if Maggie were in trouble, I entered the trial.
I live on a rural lane where there are no kids, no teens, no neighborhood fireworks. The previous year, 1998, on July 3, I went to a movie in the afternoon and, without thinking about it being close to the 4th, I left Maggie uncrated. I came home to find the carpet ripped up in front of the back door, the molding on the door chewed, the wall paneling scarred with deep tooth marks. Yes, the damage is something, but what gripped my heart was reading the intensity of her fear in the depth of those tooth marks. I called my landlady and sure enough, there had been some fireworks down the road. So I had plenty to worry about for this agility trial!
The trial is held in a wonderful woodsy setting, a small county fairgrounds. The park closes as dusk, no one is in the park hanging out, only those connected with the event who are staying there. The park is well patrolled and no fireworks are allowed. However, in Washington state, there are all kinds of things that are legal that are not legal in other states. I couldn’t begin to tell you what they are as I despise fireworks myself. So no fireworks in the park, but there were plenty in the surrounding fields and neighborhoods. We were there for 3 nights, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (the 4th). And here’s the story of what took place:
Friday – Night #1
A few poppers started going off in the distance, not much, occasional stuff. I gave Maggie a melatonin and put her in her hard crate in the tent. I quickly realized that Maggie, through her lifetime of fearful responses to even non- threatening situations, knows how to deal with things like this, curl up in a ball, facing the back of the crate and shut out the world. The noises escalated, with bigger booms, Maggie remained quiet and calm in her crate, yet facing the back, which was just fine with me. If she does only this, we’re in great shape! Given Maggie’s history, I am an incredible fanatic about observing every nuance of her behavior and, in this highly experimental situation, I was very vigilant.
But she was calm enough, given the circumstances, so I laid on my bed to read my science fiction novel. So far so good. What I failed to notice was Brady’s (my other Beardie’s) behavior!!! Brady’s pretty normal, takes things in stride, doesn’t get too upset. With all the thunderstorms when we lived in New Mexico, once in a while, she’d come to me with a ‘Mom, can you make it stop?’ kind of look but not real high anxiety – so I never expected Brady would have a problem, nor was I watching for any. When I finally tuned in, she’d been unable to settle, pacing, pawing at my shoulder, getting more and more agitated. Boy! Did I feel like a big dummy! So I gave her a melatonin. This did not seem to kick in, or the fireworks had been going too strongly by that time, as her agitation got worse and worse. (Checking later with Linda Aronson, she confirmed that Brady’s fear was probably too well established by that time for the melatonin to help). I only had one hard crate with me so I put Brady in the cab of the pickup (evening and quite cold actually so that was fine). I snuck up on her after a few minutes and she was settled and fairly relaxed.
What an odd evening for me! I’m used to not having the companionship of Maggie from time to time but I’m definitely NOT used to having NO DOGS! I had no idea I could miss Brady that much. It was sure empty in my tent. After about an hour I tried to get Brady out of the truck, NO WAY! she would not budge. She also would not take treats!!! (This is a first for this girl.) So there she stayed. Later I brought her food to her and she ate in the truck but would not come out. I could have forced her out or lifted her out but I really didn’t want to add to her stress. She was fairly calm in the truck and I left her there (no post-dinner potty or poop!). During the middle of the night, I got up and brought her into the tent and she came willingly from the truck.
Saturday – Night #2
Brady and Maggie both had melatonin early on as there were even more fireworks than the previous night I finally got the picture that I have TWO stressed Beardies to deal with. Our Grand Experiment loses a little bit in continuity here due to an unforeseen event. A club member tore her calf muscle and had to be taken to Urgent Care. I took on the task of feeding and caring for three dogs I barely knew who were already quite worried about their mum, three dogs I had no clue as to their fireworks behavior – two Corgis and a Border Collie. So the Beardies have their melatonin, Maggie in her crate, Brady back to the truck (still cool weather). After feeding and walking the other dogs, I returned to the tent, tethered my dogs on lines within the tent with the door open (a brave move on my part) and settled down to read. And lo and behold! I had two settled, relaxed Beardies just lounging on the floor!! Fireworks were popping from all directions, firecrackers, cherry bombs, some M80’s I’m sure. This was surely a miracle to behold! And I was very, very pleased. [NOTE TO SELF AND OTHER TRIALERS: Have someone else feed and walk your dogs occasionally. Just in case you do get injured – that way they are prepared that it might happen and it’s just one of those things.]
Sunday – Night #3 (The Fourth of July)
The fireworks activity was really rocking and rolling by now. There was a constant barrage of heavy artillery from all directions. It really sounded like a war zone. There was never a moment of quiet. Previous nights there had been lulls between things. Not so on the Fourth! And the girls? They spent the evening snoozing on the floor of the tent – BOTH OF THEM!! Not one jump, twitch, flinch, pace, drool, paw-clawing, not shut down faced into a corner. They just hung out like their normal old selves. I really wish I had the way to convey what a miracle this was! (It brings tears every time I think about how beautiful that was – seeing them fully relaxed in the presence of that awful barrage of fireworks.)
Being of the experimental nature, I thought I’d try a few more things. Maggie’s traveling mode is to not eat for the first day (some times two) when we are out of town. I will usually put her bowl in her crate with her and I’ll hear her eating in the middle of the night by the second or third night. She ate the first night! but she had to wait until the middle of the night. On this, the third night, I fed her early during this huge barrage of slammers (I think there were professional fireworks in there too). I placed her bowl on the floor of the tent, released her to eat and she ATE IT!!! Maggie ate her food while the whole world outside was full of incredibly loud boomers. That scene is forever etched on my brain. No one could have ever convinced me I would ever see that happen!
Well, I just had to take this one step farther. So, with both girls on leash, we walked the whole fairgrounds. Two totally relaxed, heads-up, checking-things-out Beardie girls taking a walk in the middle of this intense barrage of popping, booming, cracking, whistling, etc. I’m sure everyone thought I was a nutcase – I stopped everyone I ran into to show off my girls – look at these dogs!! They would normally be basket cases but melatonin has done wonders. Look at this! These dogs couldn’t handle this normally but look what melatonin does!! I was just bursting I was so thrilled to see this transformation. I think the biggest reason I had such incredibly good results is that I had the good fortune to have the ‘horror’ repeated three days in a row and that the girls had a great opportunity to habituate. Who would have ever thought that this would be such a wonderful success!! Even now as I write this, I’m so touched by how they did. Sure they had help, but with that help, they did a *great* job of learning how to cope. I’d like to offer our experiment and it’s results to help any other dogs with fear-based problems.
From Dr. Aronson:
For adult Beardies the dose is one 3mg tablet. Give it when the dog first appears agitated, or if you have to go out and there is a forecast of thunderstorms or fireworks might be expected. It also works for wind storms. The dog in the article Helix referred to was afraid of songbirds (so badly the owners had thought about putting her down as her quality of life was awful) and thunderstorms. Dogs do not seem sleepy, just relaxed, they hear the noises and they don’t bother them. You can repeat up to three times a day as needed. I have used melatonin with immune compromised (autoimmune) dogs and there have been no problems. The packaging states that you shouldn’t use with MAO-inhibitors, again I’ve not had a problem with drug interactions. To date the only side-effect has been an obedience dog who lay down between exercises in class, but he may just have been more relaxed than his usual hypercharged self – he was a cocker. So far I think all the Beardies we have used melatonin with have responded although they may not be 100% worry-free they are a lot better. There have been few failures with other breeds too and melatonin seems to work better than it does in people. I don’t think puppies should need melatonin.
If you have a dog of less than 25 lbs I’d use 1/2 the dose (1.5mg). For dogs over 100 lbs, the 3mg dose is usually sufficient, but we have used 6mg safely in some of these who seemed to need a little more. Use the tablets not the capsules, dog’s shorter gastro-intestinal tracts may not dissolve them quickly enough. Check the dose of each tablet on the bottle. There’s been a move to lower human doses. However, this dose is very safe – the LD 50 (dose that kills 50% of a group of rats) was >700 mg/kg!! Melatonin is available over the counter in health food stores and drug stores in the US, but it is not available in Canada, continental Europe nor the UK.
Since I first shared the story of Maggie’s fireworks miracle, I have been deluged with people asking me if melatonin will work with light sensitivity, crowded conditions and over-stimulus, car and motorcycle frenzy. I’m not a vet – I have no idea. Given the lack of harmful side effects as stated by Dr. Aronson, I’d say try it and see! I’m very interested in what you have tried and what results you’ve had (my interest is curiosity). Dr. Aronson has a more scientific interest in your results. You may write her at PetShrink1@aol.com.
One other personal story, from John Visconti: BoulderDog.com
Last Updated June 8, 2021 by Stacy Braslau-Schneck.
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