Dear Think Tank
Firework night is fast approaching and I'm dreading it. My older dog is very noise phobic. He paces, drools, shakes, tries to hide or escape. It's heartbreaking. But this year I also have a new puppy, a Border Collie, and I really don't want her developing the same fears. Any suggestions as to what to do to get the Border Collie prepared. And is there anything I can do to help my Lurcher?
Jane Roberts, by Email
This is common problem and it is estimated that up to 1.6 million dogs suffer from noise phobias in the UK but during the fireworks season their noise phobias become more obvious. There are several steps that I would recommend; firstly don’t panic or cuddle or fuss your dog as this can make the problem worse as it only reassures the dog that there IS something wrong, so stay calm and try not to change your usual behaviour. Generally a dog will be comforted by being able to retreat to a safe place, so it can be a good idea to prepare somewhere suitable in advance. I would highly recommend using a herbal medicine called Scullcap and Valerian tablets as these are entirely safe and are very effective to calm dogs without sedating them. They should be given throughout the firework season, starting at least a week in advance, and increased to a high dose on the nights you know will be worse such as November 5th. Along with the herbal medicine you may also want to try a desensitization CD. You will need to start this well in advance but it can get your dogs desensitized to loud noises and fireworks and can be effective when used in combination with Scullcap and Valerian tablets. These measures will enable your dog to still be aware of the bangs and loud noises but not become concerned about them, and so enable them to cope much better.
I think the key here is try to desensitize your dogs and use a herbal medicine to help them stay calm, but it is most important for you not to give out the wrong signals to your dog that may increase its fear.
Roly Boughton, Dorwest Herbs
I have seen firework phobia from both sides of the table, so to speak. As a vet, I see a surge in requests for medication from mid-October, not helped by firework displays taking place on the weekends immediately before and after 5th November, as well as on Guy Fawkes night itself (let alone on random nights around this time). Also, eight years ago my parents-in-law adopted a JRT from rescue at the age of three years who came with a firework phobia, which has incidentally escalated into a phobia for all manner of sounds including thunder, rain drumming on the conservatory roof, strong winds, gun fire on the nearby army range etc etc.
I would agree with all that Roly Boughton has said. There are other strategies available as well, such as the use of Dog Appeasing Pheromone (or DAP) as diffuserand/or collar, so I hope there will be a combination which will help. No two dogs are alike with regard to a firework phobia so there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. As with so many behavioural problems, it is not clear cut. I am glad you are aware of the risk of your puppy picking up on your dog’s phobia. It does need careful management.
Many years ago, the infamous yellow tablet of ACP was the mainstay of treatment but, being a sedative, it is rarely suggested now because it prevents the dog from being able to hide up or show other behavioural responses. Thankfully, there are now better prescription drugs available from veterinary surgeons to help.
I am always a little saddened when approached for advice on firework phobia just a few weeks before Guy Fawkes night. Management of a phobia needs time. Also, fireworks are used at so many other different times of the year: New Year, Chinese New Year, celebrations such as weddings and major birthdays, ‘Last night of the Proms’ concerts, military tattoos – the list goes on. There is always a fireworks display at our local sailing regatta in August.
In addition, as I mentioned with the JRT belonging to my parents-in-law, a fireworks phobia can become a more generalised noise phobia.
Alsion Logan, Vet