by Leighton Oosthuisen (Training Director - Partners Dog Training School) Partners Dog Training School
Every year we hear that. Yet every year thousands of dogs experience serious emotional stress, or are lost, when exposed to fireworks.
Americans love a good fireworks display. The excitement it brings to everyone is awesome. Daily worries and fears seem to melt away, and families come together to enjoy the celebrations that fireworks herald. The problem is many dogs don't share this love for fireworks.
Fortunately, there are quite a number of dogs that seem to be unaffected. Breeding courage into dogs seems to help, certain breeds of dogs are more resistant to stress, and some high drive personality dogs actually enjoy the noise and excitement.
My Belgian Malinois, Karnak, is totally unaffected, and either plays with his toys, or just sleeps through it. (By the way, that's him holding the firework). Our Golden Retriever is another story. He salivates, paces endlessly and visibly shakes. He is a work in progress, and a genetic wreck. But we love him! This happens during thunderstorms as well. Our monsoons can be quite spectacular, and he is not amused.
I always say, you cannot choose the challenges in life; you just have to "deal with it".
Anxiety in dogs is a complex subject. It can be genetic, meaning poor breeding. It can be inappropriate puppy raising. It can be learned behavior, where dogs have learned to distrust humans, or other animals. Or it can be environmental.
Environmental is where fireworks (or thunder) come into play. Generally it's a combination of noise, light, smell and air pressure. Dogs react to the unknown (or unexplainable) sounds or smells by fleeing, or freezing. This results in a loop; dogs feels anxious, hears sound, becomes more anxious, hears sound again, etc.
Dogs have very sensitive hearing, and can hear frequency ranges far in excess of a human. Some dogs can even detect changes in barometric pressure, such as knowing when a low pressure system is approaching. So they can "sense" a loud explosion, when the low frequencies of the noise penetrate walls of homes.
The best way to understand how to deal with the problem is to understand hearing ranges.
Dogs that stress out during fireworks are at extreme risk. They may break out of a home, run away or injure themselves while frantically running around. Shelters experience a big increase of lost dogs during the July 4th weekend, by some accounts their worst day of the year. Just a few minutes ago I saw a friends' post on Facebook talking about a dog that jumped a six foot fence to escape the fireworks.
To understand the situation, let's look at hearing for a moment. The human ear can detect frequency between roughly 20 Hz - 20 kHz (20,000 Hz). By the way a human ear is also capable of detecting atmospheric pressure. A dog can hear between 67 Hz and 45 kHz (45,000 Hz). Hearing in humans is very dependent on age and exposure to hearing damage. Dogs are capable of hearing from long distance, as well as from at low and high frequencies.
There is a condition called "presbycusis" where kids can hear sounds an adult cannot hear. Commonly referred to as "mosquito tones" or ultrasonic sound, a child can hear sounds in the 20 kHz range, while an adult stops at 8 to 12 kHz, depending on how well they protect their hearing. You can download mosquito tones here
For years, I have taught this method to understand sound. But while writing this blog, I decided to test this and enlisted my 5 year old daughter, Alessandra.
I recorded her reaction to the different frequencies, starting at 8kHz. Both of us could hear that. I then stepped up to 10 kHz, Again, we could both hear it. She was able to hear sounds up to 22 kHz (22,000 Hz) whereas my hearing peaked out at 12 kHz. Age and my years of competitive target shooting no doubt.
I attempted to test my dog, but there was too much ambient noise to effectively test his hearing. He WAS able to tell when I played the high pitch sound at around 20 kHz. One day I will make a more scientific study of this.
By now you are wondering what this has to do with fireworks and noise.
The answer is that in order to understand how to manage the sound our dogs hear, we need to understand what and how they hear.
Keep in mind, a dogs ability to detect sound is very reliant on volume, measured in decibels, and the existence of ambient sounds, which masks the high frequency sounds. For example a dog can hear a high frequency "silent" dog whistle, but if there is lots of other noise, then this masks the whistle.
Breaking up the frequencies, by using sound dampening materials, causes the frequency to break down.
A good way to test this, is to place a balloon against your ear. The balloon creates a barrier, and this "interference" breaks down the sound, effectively muting it. The same effect is used in walls, where the use of air and different wall components effectively "breaks" down both the volume AND the frequencies.
Most people don't know the Partners Dog Training School kennels and training center building is constructed with component systems.
The walls consist of a layered (sandwiched) system, comprising of two layers, each two inches of foam, nine inches of concrete, waterproofing, drywall and fibreconcrete. This twelve inch thick component system results in a sound resistant wall, which also dramatically reduces outside noise from penetrating the walls. It has the added effect of creating an R-50 insulation, which virtually eliminates thermal heat transfer into the kennels. This is invaluable in summer, where the outside temperature hits the exterior walls at over 120 degrees, while the inside of the wall remains a comfortable 70 degrees.
And our neighbors really like the fact they cannot hear the dogs barking!
Now that we understand sound, insulation and frequency, let's address thunder and fireworks.
Thunder and fireworks go hand in hand, as far as our dogs are concerned. Clearly they are not the same, with thunder being high altitude, and reaching long distances, while fireworks are more localized.
Thunder is not only incredibly loud, it is also very low frequency and comes with lots of percussion. It penetrates walls and roofs, and travels long distance. There is not much we can do to stop it - it kind of comes with the weather.
Fireworks are just as bad, when it comes to sound and percussion. However, we can influence what we do to minimize the affect on our dogs.
Place your dogs in an area in the house that is isolated from everything. Bathrooms are good, as are internal bedrooms. A dressing room, should you have one, is the best, as the clothing on the walls effectively dampens any exterior sounds.
Play music in the room where the dogs are. This results in a masking effect, and creates additional ambient sound. Play a selection with a wide range of frequency, highs and lows, and lots of drums. House music, rock music or country is a good choice during periods of loud thunder or fireworks. This is not the time for relaxing to Enya or yoga vibes. Ensure the music doesn't stop when you are away, as the silence can be deafening.
Remember our discussion on frequency? Place sound absorbent materials, such as carpeting, towels, blankets etc. in the room where the dogs are staying. This will in effect break up the sound transfer, and reduce the pressure reaching the dogs. By the way, this also helps with a noisy puppy; or a crying baby.
Personally I am not a fan of drugs such as Prozak or Ace. However, if your dog has an extreme case of PTSD, or is severely affected by load noises, then this may be your only solution. They do work, and most have minimal side affects. Check with your vet first though. There are also special "thundershirts" that dogs can wear, which minimize their reactivity. I have found these work best on dogs that have been acclimated to them over a period of weeks.
Feed your dogs shortly before the action is about to start. Most dogs take a nap after dinner, so may be more relaxed. However, if your dog has a tendancy to throw up when fearful, then I would not feed them prior. Rather I would wait until you return home, or until after the fireworks are over.
Yes, I am a trainer, so clearly I may be accused of bias. But the truth is training is very effective. The trick is to know how and when to train, and to know your limitations. Start by introducing your dog to noise on a limited basis, over a period of weeks. Don't wait until July 3rd to start. Depending on your dog, and if you are reading this, chances are your dog has this issue, you may have to start small, and build up in baby steps. Don't flood your dog. Build on successful results, and avoid overwhelming your dog, which could cause them to crash. Remember, positive is always more effective than pressure.
Calming kind of goes with training. Basically you use your training foundation to maintain calm in your dog. Using a gentle assertive voice you show your dog there is nothing to fear. By "assertive" I do NOT mean dominant compulsion. I mean remaining calm and respectful, but using your "parent" voice. Use words such as "settle", "relax" or "easy". Avoid corrections, such as "NO!" These increase stress. Remain kind and fair to your dog, while showing them noise is just that; noise!
Having a second dog can be useful. Or for that matter another animal. However, it only works if the companion is calm and relaxed. Placing two animals that are both reactive or stressful will result in a cumulative or even exponential effect.
Anyone that knows me knows I love crates. If used correctly, they are awesome. But like any tool, you need to prepare and train. Crating plays on the denning principle in animals. Most dogs love their crates. Mine cannot wait to go into their crates, as it provides a safe and quiet place for them. If your dog is not comfortable in a crate, consult a professional trainer before leaving them in a crate over July 4th.
Another option if you are out for the night is to board your dog at a kennel. Check that they have protocols in place to ensure your dog cannot break out of a kennel, or better still, that their facility is soundproof. Keep in mind that some kennels are full over July 4th, or have minimum stays.
As a trainer, I love things that keep my dogs occupied. A bone, or a Kong filled with cheese or peanut butter will keep them occupied for hours. My dogs will chew on almost anything I give them. Avoid things that they could choke on, and if you have more than one dog, ensure you keep them separated to avoid conflict over a bone or toy. Did I mention crate training?
Finally, one of the most successful tools is exercise. Run, swim or play with your dog for a hour prior to the evening. You probably need the exercise too; I know I do, but your dog will LOVE the additional attention. And after all, isn't that what life is about.
A tired dog is a sleepy dog.
From my family to yours, have a great Independence Day weekend.