Getting ready for New Year’s Eve

Do you have a noise sensitive dog? A dog who’s scared of fireworks? Then it’s high time to start preparing for the noisiest day of the year. Here are a few strategies that may help.

Desensitize

If your dog is simply not accustomed to sudden, weird and/or loud noises, start desensitizing him now. Desensitization is a process that starts introducing an animal to a sound (or other stimulus) at a very low volume. Ideally, the volume should be so low that your dog is completely comfortable with the weird sound. The next time you play the sound, you set the volume just a little louder. And the next time, a little louder again. The trick is to always stay way below threshold, at a volume your dog doesn’t care about at all.

My Greyhound Fanta used to be highly noise sensitive when he moved in with me. He’s not a noise phobic dog – he had simply never encountered lots of the everyday noises in his life on the Irish race tracks. So whenever there was a sudden, unexpected sound, he’d jump right into flight mode, ready to take off and just run away. In the beginning, apart from always having treats ready to countercondition him as soon as there was a new strange sound, I also desensitized him, for example to the sound of the hoover. (The hoover I used to have back then, may it rest in peace, could be set to low power/low volume and went up to a high power/high volume setting. It really didn’t do much hoovering at the lowest setting, but it was perfect for counterconditioning!) In the meantime, Fanta has had so many positive experiences with strange noises that by now, when there is a sudden loud noise, he’ll often trot into the direction of the sound in order to check out the source rather than run away.

We are doing the same kind of counterconditioning process with fireworks: about a month before New Year’s, Fanta and I have started listening to a recording of fireworks. Three times a day, every day. We started at a volume that was barely audible and have been increasing the volume with each session. By now, we’re listening to it at a volume that’s probably louder than the real fireworks are going to be, and I’ve got nice speakers to blast them through my living room, too. I keep expecting the neighbors to call the police as we’re hanging out and cuddling to the sound of firecrackers.

So if your dog is not used to the sounds of fireworks yet, there still is time for you to work on this problem: start your own desensitization process. Start very low and increase the volume with every session – of course, only if your dog doesn’t seem to mind the background noise at all. If he ever looks worried, you’ve increased the volume too fast – go back a step!

You can use this youtube clip I made from the firework tracks off the CLIX noises and sounds CD, you can download the Soundproof puppy app, or you can simply type “fireworks” into youtube.

And here’s a number of other ideas:

Go somewhere calm

If you know your neighborhood is very fond of firecrackers, why not leave the city and spend the loudest day of the year somewhere quiet with your dog? Last year, Phoebe, Fanta, Elliot and I spent a very quiet and undisturbed New Year’s Eve watching Modern Family in Styria, in the middle of nowhere, eating chocolate, drinking tea and chewing on Kongs.

Safe and comfortable

Don’t leave your dog home alone if he is scared of loud noises. If you want to have a party, why not invite your friends (and their dogs) over to your place instead of going out? This way, you can make sure to check on your dogs and assure them that everything is fine. Also, if you turn up your stereo, your music might drown out the sounds of the firecrackers, making them a little less prominent and hence a little less scary for your dog.

Give your dog access to his favorite safe spot (dog bed, your bed, crate …), and give him something to chew like a Kong stuffed with his favorite treats. Chewing can be as soothing for your dog as a pacifier is for a human baby.

Medicate

Natural remedies (Zylkene, Adaptil, Rescue Remedies, Bachflowers etc.) or tools like the Thundershirt are generally not strong enough to help with true noise phobia or panic attacks. If your dog does not respond to desensitization, or if it’s too late to desensitize him to the sounds of New Year’s Eve, don’t solely rely on these remedies.

If your dog is truly noise phobic or panics when he hears fireworks, ask your vet for medication. If your puppy or new dog has never experienced New Year’s Eve before, it is also a good idea to see your vet and get a prescription, just in case. If you don’t need it – great! But if your dog has one panic attack after the other, you will be glad you have something to ease his pain!

The kind of drugs you want put your dog’s mind at ease rather than simply paralyzing his body (that’s something you certainly don’t want to do!). You want drugs that reduce anxiety. The same kind of medication humans take for panic attacks is available for pets. My vet recommends Gewacalm, which belongs to the benzodiazepine group of drugs and is, among other things, used for the short-term treatment anxiety and panic disorders in humans.

However, if you give your dog this kind of medication, be sure to keep an eye on him. It can have an adverse effect on some dogs, i.e. making them even more nervous – and you certainly don’t want him to be alone if that happens.

In rare cases, suffering firework-induced panic attacks result in noise phobia or other anxiety disorders. Don’t take New Year’s Eve lightly – make sure your pets are well taken care of!


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