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Fireworks & Thunder - Why Dogs React & How We Can Help

As you walk out of your home office, you see your beloved dog pacing the living room, tail tucked under, ears back. This is the tell tail sign, you know the rain is coming and thunder is coming closely behind it.

As the first crash of thunder hits your dog’s body starts to tremble. They try to find a spot in the house they deem safe, hiding in the bathtub or crawling under the bed.

This situation is an extreme but very familiar situation for many dog owners, and it happens every time there is thunder and especially during holidays in which fireworks are used to celebrate. Fireworks and thunderstorms can heighten dogs’ anxiety levels. But while the sight of a sparkler sends some dogs tail-tucked and running, others remain unfazed by booms and bangs.

Before we dive into this it is beneficial to have an understanding of what shapes our dogs behaviours and responses. To read more on how dogs behaviour is shaped and how genetics, learned behaviour and social learning can impact their ability to deal with stressful situations, you can read this Noble Canine article: Bad Behaviour or Just Dog Behaviour.

Sound & Fear

Dogs are best known for their sense of smell, however, sounds is also a huge impact to a dogs world. Dogs hear more than twice as many frequencies as we do, and hear sounds roughly four times further away. Reacting to every sound would demand too much energy, and so dog brains must determine which sounds are significant and which can be tuned out. This ability is especially important for working dogs, for example gun dogs work depends on their ability to remain calm despite the loud gun shots surrounding them and focus on that one shot which they must identify to retrieve the bird.

On the other hand, evolution has shaped most animals, that avoiding a perceived threat is worth it for overall survival, even if, as in the case of thunder or fireworks, the threat doesn’t end up being real. From an evolutionary perspective, it is beneficial to err on the side of caution. Running away and hiding, even when it’s not necessary is a far more effective survival tactic than trying to fight every perceived threat.

For some dogs, early life conditioning, or learned behaviour during the critical learning stages, can make a huge difference to sensitivity to sound and other perceived threats. If, for example, a neighbour is performing renovation while a puppy was left home alone, that puppy might associate banging and construction noises with abandonment, without even knowing it had happened. That association could trigger a fear response in the dog every time a bang is heard.

Genetic Stress Capabilities

Some owners may be reading this and thinking that their dog has never had any bad experiences, so why do they still cower during a storm. One explanation for this can be found in the dogs temperament. Unlike personality and mood, which are more fluid emotional states, temperament is more hardwired and is affected by genetics, as well as early development. Shaped by epigenetic, or the way an animal’s genes are influenced by external factors, this can play a significant role in the dogs’ inherent predisposition to stress, anxiety and fear. The example of ex-street dogs siting in the Noble Life article mentioned above highlights this.

Mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy can pass on a propensity for anxiety to their young via the stress hormone cortisol. When signalled by a stress-inducing event, the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) becomes active and produces cortisol, which then travels throughout the body keeping an individual on “high alert.” High cortisol levels in the mother’s bloodstream have subsequent negative effects on the developing baby, or in this case, puppy. This again, is an evolutionary survival tactic. If a mother is pregnant in a stressful and dangerous environment, it stands to reason that the most effective trait for the babies, or puppies survival would be a propensity for anxiety and thus a drive to remove themselves from a potentially dangerous situation.

If you are interested in learning more about the stress response of dogs exposed to perceived threats, there are many studies worth reading. Two of which I have linked below:

Helping Your Dog

The best way in dealing with thunder/ firework fear is preventing fear from developing in the first place. As such if we know there are going to be fireworks in a certain area at certain times or if we know there is a high chance of thunder storms, we can do our best to avoid the areas and lessen the impact.

Stefanie Riemer, who studies dogs and their emotions with the University of Bern’s Companion Animal Behaviour Group in Switzerland, analysed the management and treatment methods used by 1,225 dog owners who responded to a survey and correlated those methods with an increasing or decreasing fear score. Riemer asked the owners of dogs with a known fear of fireworks to select from a number of interventions and treatments and report on how the dogs responded during a New Year’s fireworks displays. The methods included noise CDs/ YouTube videos to drown out the sound, pheromone and calming scent diffusers, herbal products, homeopathic products, essential oils, prescription medications, relaxation training, counterconditioning (using pre-emptive positive association to the triggers to shape the dogs not to be afraid) and the use of “thunder vests” wearable pressure vests that can have a calming effect.

The study found that at-home counterconditioning was one of the most effective ways to alleviate the dog’s stress. When the fireworks started, owners used calming exercises and played with the dog, gave treats and expressed positive emotions. Dogs who received this counterconditioning were 70 percent less scared during fireworks, on average, than dogs who did not. Riemer states: “Counterconditioning would be probably the most important advice to any owner especially with a new puppy or a new dog,” she says. “Even if they do not yet show any fear of noises, keep it that way.”

Now, to add to this, I know many owners may have a false understanding surrounding this. There is a misunderstanding that by reacting positively to a fearful situation, you’re reinforcing fear, which is impossible as fear is an emotion not a behaviour.

However, because it might be too close to the event, and the fact that not all dogs will be receptive to it, we can look at then Lincoln Sound Sensitivity Scale (LSSS). This is useful for owners to assess where on the spectrum their dog’s anxiety falls. Once we are able to accurately determine an individual dog’s fear level, we can then work with a behavioural specialist and a medical veterinarian to choose the most effective method for treatment, which may include environment measures such as noise proofing, calming tools, supplementation, medication and additional coping mechanisms.

It is only fairly recently that people are beginning to accept that dogs, like humans, have emotions. And that we cannot expect our dogs to respond to fear whether from external factors such as thunder or fireworks or from within the home with scolding or even physical fear, with no longer term effect. And that part of caring for dogs means supporting their emotional health. The more we learn about the complexities of dog psychology and emotional states, the better equipped to be the best human being and dog owners we can be.

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