Should fearful dogs be comforted on fireworks night?


There is lots of good advice around about how to cope with dogs that are frightened of fireworks. However, one common element seems to be “ignore your dog if he is showing signs of fear during fireworks night, or you will REINFORCE HIS FEAR”. Words to this effect appear all over the place. But this statement doesn’t make sense from a scientific perspective, and potentially creates problems from a dog welfare one. In this blog, I explain why.

Attention does not reinforce the fear response

Lots of dogs become frightened of fireworks – our research has suggested that almost half of owners report behavioural signs indicative of anxiety or fear to loud noises, and 82% of these react to fireworks1,2. Fireworks are very loud, very bright and completely unpredictable for dogs – so it is unsurprising that so many develop a fear response. In trying to find a behavioural strategy to cope with the fear induced by the noises, dogs will try a range of different behaviours3. These might include hiding behind the sofa, running about, or climbing in a cupboard. Many dogs react by going to their owner and seeking reassurance. They do this because the social contact with their owner reduces their stress and helps them to cope with the scary noises. Social contact therefore helps mitigate their fear response to the noises – not reinforce it.

Owner giving their anxous dog a cuddle

Attention reinforces a coping strategy

Although giving attention will reduce a dog’s anxiety in the short-term, it is not necessarily a good thing in the long-term. Cuddling a fearful dog reduces their stress, but in doing so teaches him or her that coming to their owner is a good strategy to cope with loud noises. In other words, giving attention doesn’t reinforce the fear, but does reinforce the coping strategy of seeking attention. This is fine as long as the owner is at home and accessible – but will make things much worse for the dog if the owner is out when loud noises subsequently occur. This means that by reinforcing attention seeking as a way of coping with loud noises, owners are setting up their dog to be even more distressed if noises happen when their dog is alone.

So to cuddle or not cuddle on fireworks night?

Well, with fireworks night imminent in the UK – it is very important to not ignore a frightened dog that is already reliant on owner attention. It is the wrong time to try to change a coping strategy when there are fireworks crashing and whizzing outside – this will just cause the dog to be distressed. Owners need to give dogs which seek reassurance as much attention as normal FOR NOW, get through the fireworks season, and THEN think about changing their dog’s coping response.

Dogs which choose to move away and hide, on the other hand, should be left alone – their strategy to cope with noises is different and they may become more anxious, or even aggressive, if approached when trying to hide.

Other aspects of owner behaviour

Dogs are very sensitive to their owners, so acting differently from normal can increase anxiety. This means that dog behaviour can be influenced by owners reacting to fireworks. It is best for owners to try to do normal things at normal times. Jumping up and down checking for fireworks can direct dogs’ attention to what is going on outside. Where owners are overly concerned about their dog, this can also impact on their dogs’ anxiety.

Changes needed in the longer term

In the long-term, it is important to change a dogs’ coping behaviour away from seeking attention. Teaching dogs to hide in an enclosed ‘den’ area when they are worried ensures that they have coping strategy that doesn’t depend on the owner being present. Dogs also need to learn that firework noises are not scary, with a programme of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. More information about what to do for dogs with noise fears is available on my web-site4.

As ever, prevention of noise fears by habituating young puppies to household and potentially aversive sounds like fireworks is important to reduce this problem in the future5.

References

  1. Blackwell, E.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. and Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
  2. Fear responses to noises (noise phobias) in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/noise-fears-in-dogs.html
  3. Signs and development of noise fears in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/17-signs-and-development-of-noise-fears-in-dogs.html
  4. What do I do if my dog is frightened of loud noises?: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/18-what-do-i-do-if-my-dog-is-frightened-of-loud-noises.html
  5. Habituation of puppies to household and potentially aversive noises (an except from the supporting materials for the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding’s Breeder Standard): http://vetbehaviour.info/images/PDFs/Dog-Advisory-Council-Prevention-of-Noise-Fears.pdf

8 comments

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  2. vanhansen2013

    I have a great cd I got from a vet once. It has firework sounds and I start it up on a low volume a few days or weeks before and slowly turn the volume up intil I see they do not care any more. So when the day comes I leave this cd on for a longer time than when just getting to know it. This has really seamed to calm my parrots too

    • Dr Rachel Casey

      Thanks for your interest in the blog. It sounds like you were doing a desensitisation programme – this is exactly what we recommend for longer term therapy of dogs with noise fears, often along with other elements of behaviour modification. The key is to turn up the volume so slowly that the dog does not show signs of fear – and the same principle applies for parrots 🙂

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  4. dogsandfashion

    That’s really interesting, thank you. I had always read that attention will enforce the fear as well so I’m glad to hear that’s not the case.

      • Garry Stephenson

        Hearing sensitivity from loud bangs shots have various implications. It can be an acquired behavior meaning that if the dog was unfortunate enough to feel pain at the same time as a loud bang occurred then he will associate the bang with pain and may always be afraid. Some dogs such as Border Collies have an inbred naturally high hearing sensitivity which is not acquired from a frightening incident. I rarely if ever comfort fearful dogs since it encourages the poor coping strategy. I once owned a Border Collie who was really bombproof where shots and fireworks were concerned. We lived in the country and he rarely encountered fireworks. A new family moved into the village and we setting off fireworks and my dog thought it was great fun to chase the rockets as they flew across the sky…….he did the same with birds as they flew by. One night a rocket came down in the garden and then proceeded to launch it’s bangs and shooters which shocked the dog and I had to work hard to get him over this incident.
        Currently we have a Maltese-Shih Tzu x that is a fairly balanced dog but some family member decided to pick the dog up to comfort themselves during thunderstorms. It wasn’t long before the dog on hearing thunder would run to that person and begin shaking and whining. When that person is not home during thunderstorms the dog acts quite normally. She will even go outside with my other dogs during the loud bangs and cracks and is not afraid.
        In Canada we have what is called a Thunder Shirt of fearful dogs to wear…..google it. It’s an interesting concept which often works.

        G J Stephenson.
        Guide Dog Instructor./Breeding Manager.

      • Dr Rachel Casey

        Thanks very much for your comment and interest in the blog Garry, and apologies for the slow response – busy couple of weeks. I agree completely that there are differences between dogs which influence their risk of developing noise fears, and how these fears develop over time. These differences in ‘personality characteristics’ seem to occur within breeds as well as between them. Great example of a dog learning to seek company to cope with loud noises – and it sounds like you’ve done a great job in proofing your dogs against firework fears!