Vet Elliott talks about fireworks - in March!

As we are now [hopefully!] coming into spring, it seems like a weird time for us to be mentioning firework fears and phobias in our pets, especially as we have just got over Diwali in October, then Guy Fawkes Night, which ran into Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year, then Chinese New Years etc. Fireworks are also used for weddings and birthdays year round so all these celebratory events make those of us trying to cope with anxious pets become anxious of fireworks ourselves!

We therefore need to put into place steps and behavioural techniques to implement whenever a firework event springs up, but more importantly, to try to help our pet become less fearful of the noise itself in the first place. Research has shown that reducing the pet’s anxiety to noises will help them far better than trying to distract them on the night.

In order to do this, we use quiet firework noises on a sound system so that your pet is hardly going to notice them and then gradually over time and use repeated sessions to get them used to these sounds, increasing the noise levels so that they become accustomed to them. This technique is known as desensitisation.

You can use your own firework noises if you happen to have any, or by searching through the internet or YouTube - but the far simplest option is by using the Sounds Scary programme that is available online. Sounds Scary was developed by internationally renowned vets, experts in animal behaviour, that use the programme to help their noise-phobic patients. This programme has enabled dog owners to help their own pets at home using the same techniques.  

The programme comes with a downloadable booklet that goes through every step of desensitisation in an easy to read fashion and helpfully contains information on the next step of managing fear of fireworks - counter-conditioning.

Counter-conditioning allows the desensitised pet to associate the noises that they used to be afraid of with something nice such as food or toys. Briefly, this is done by preparing your pet’s meal, or starting to get them interested in playing a game, starting the 'sounds scary' sounds on a low level and then feeding or playing with them. As soon as the animal stops playing or finishing their meal, the sounds are then switched off. Eventually over time, you can reach the level where your pet associates the sound with feeding, similar to the old researcher Pavlov, and his dogs.

Using counter conditioning will make the animal much happier and playful in the future when hearing the previously fearful noises. 

The final, excellent, thing about the Sounds Scary programme is that it is totally free to download through the Dogs Trust website and there is no sign up required, which is novel in this day and age!

It is suggested that these training sessions should begin at least 2 months prior to the noise season and that providing short regular training sessions that take place up to eight times a week is far more effective and beneficial than performing longer, more infrequent sessions.

So, what have you and your anxious pet got to lose? Give it a try before the next set of fireworks go off!