Things that go bang in the night

It might seem a bit early to be talking about fireworks – but it’s never too early to start getting your dog used to fireworks. Resident tails.com behaviourist, Carolyn Menteith is here to give you some top tips on desensitising your dog.

Well, it’s that time of year again… Time to get ready for firework season. 

No, I haven’t gone mad or have misread my calendar, the summertime really is the best possible time to prepare your dog for the crashes and bangs that inevitably accompany the darker evenings and long winter nights.

How to get your dog used to fireworks

The reason why this is the perfect time is because whenever we want to prepare our dogs for something that they could potentially find scary, there are certain guiding rules:

  • Firstly, do it slowly. 
  • Secondly, build it up gradually. 
  • And thirdly, don’t expose them to the scary thing until you have done the other two!

At this time of year, there is no rush, you can take your time – and there are no fireworks going off to ruin all your preparations by a sudden, intense exposure that will instantly undo all of your hard work and convince your dog that fireworks really are scary! This is why behaviourists get frustrated when every year in November, people start asking “how do I prepare my dog for next week’s fireworks?”

There are two parts to getting your dog used to firework sounds – desensitisation and counter conditioning – and to be most effective, you should do both.

Getting your dog used to fireworks

Desensitisation

Find recordings of fireworks you can download and play. A quick internet search will give you plenty of options. 

Start in a room where your dog spends most of their time and is relaxed and happy. Have the door open so your dog can leave if they want to. Begin by playing the firework sounds with the volume at zero – and slowly increase the volume until you can only just about hear it (remember your dog has better hearing than you). 

Don’t do anything different from usual, just let the sounds play for 5-10 minutes while you get on with your usual activities. Do this twice a day for two weeks. If you see any reaction at all from your dog at this stage, bar maybe a twitch of an ear, it is too loud.

After two weeks, you can begin to increase the volume slightly – all the time watching for any reactions from your dog. Keep it at the new level for two weeks before increasing again. Do this at different times of the day too – as real fireworks can happen at any time.

Over a period of weeks – or even a couple of months – you will reach the stage where your dog will not react even when you play the firework sounds at a loud volume. Don’t be tempted to rush this though (even if you think your dog will be fine) – and never increase the volume until your dog is showing no reactions at all to the previous level. That is the joy of doing this in the summer when there is no time pressure.

Once you get to this stage, do it with the sounds in different rooms too so your dog gets used to the firework sounds coming from different places. 

Counter conditioning

Now your dog is used to the sounds, you can move on to teaching your dog that these noises mean something fabulous is about to happen. 

Dinner time is the perfect opportunity to do this – as for most dogs it is one of the highlights of their day.

Prepare your dog’s dinner but before you put it down, start to play the firework noises at a level you already know they are comfortable with. Wait for a 30 seconds, and then put their food down and let the fireworks play all the time they are eating. As soon as they have finished, turn off the fireworks. Try and do this every day for the first week and then several times a week for the next couple of months.

Find a treat your dog loves more than anything else and put them in pot or a treat bag. While you are relaxing, use a remote control to play the firework sounds at the maximum level you know your dog is happy with. As soon as you hear the sounds, act really happy and excited and give your dog one of the treats – then stop the sound.

Repeat this several times during the evening until your dog is looking for the treat as soon as they hear the sound. Do this every day for the first few weeks and then once or twice a week after that – although as the firework season approaches, you can do it more often.

By doing this now, you and your dog will be totally ready for the firework season!

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