As we come up to Bonfire Night the challenge of firework phobias in dogs is once again for many people a very prominent concern. Dogs seem now to be more sensitive than ever before. I know how distressing it can be watching a beloved pet struggle with fear and anxiety, so there must be a way to deal with it. There must be a way to help them cope and teach them not to worry. How do you encourage a robust response?
If you look on the internet the main advice appears to be plenty of exercise, plenty of food, then create a bolt hole or den, shutting out and drowning out the intrusive noise and lights. All fairly sensible, uniform and often repeated recommendations. There is very little suggestion of helping the dog at a deeper level, trying to tackle their over-sensitivity. For dogs that are not scared there is sometimes a vague suggestion to play, if they want to, creating positive associations with fireworks. But I believe most dog training professionals are stuck with the root problem and don’t know how to tackle this deeper issue, the underlying fragility.
If you look at another common response to fireworks you’ll find dogs that want to chase and attack the fireworks, barking in excitement. The owners’ complaint here is how to stop the crazy outburst, how to calm them down, obviously owners who have never struggled with a quivering wreck. A robust response to fireworks would surely be closer to this, a dog that wants to act out is less likely to suffer an internalised collapse. I would rather an active and excited reaction, one that can be tamed and soothed, than an escape driven phobia where the escape is impossible.
Lee Charles Kelley writes about curing thunder and firework phobias by using barking as a way to release the fear stuck in the dog’s body, giving it a way to fight back and feel stronger, more resilient. This and getting a dog to bite a toy and carry it around is the way to change the dog’s emotional reaction. It encourages a robust response to life’s scary intrusions. By working on the dog’s sensitivity it reduces the over-reaction to fireworks and shows the dog it can feel in control.