Was your dog more upset by fireworks than normal this year?
Fear of fireworks and other loud noises is a common problem in pets. It is perfectly natural to be cautious of loud bangs, and to startle with sudden noises. But some of our pets struggle to relax once they’ve heard them and develop progressively worsening noise aversions (fear of noises).
Although any pet who is distressed by loud noises should receive professional help, I particularly wanted to focus on those dogs who have always been fine in previous years but suddenly could not cope with the fireworks this year.
Generally speaking, once an animal has become habituated (used to) something and learnt that it isn’t associated with anything scary or painful then they don’t forget that. So why the sudden change? One possibility is that they were never ‘ok’ in the first place. Is this the first year that you were not out at a display on fireworks night? Or are you spending more time with your pet through lockdown and you’ve become more aware of their behaviour and emotions? If this is the case it may be that this has actually been a slowly progressing issue getting worse every year.
But what if you always spend fireworks night with your dog, and you are certain they weren’t bothered by them before and they definitely are now? Or what if they had 5 years of not being bothered but then over the last 2 years the problem has got worse? The next thing you need to try and rule out is a traumatic event. Did something happen that made your dog scared? For example, going out for a wee in the garden when a firework went off the other side of the fence sending your dog running back into the house? Or an incident with another loud noise such as bird scarers?
No, nothing bad has ever happened… If your dog is over 6 years old and has a new noise aversion there is a significant chance that they have a painful condition such as arthritis which is causing this change in behaviour. If you are in pain and something makes you jump it hurts. You become tense and on edge waiting for the next bang. You become scared not only of the bangs but of the pain that comes with them. Research has shown a strong positive correlation between musculoskeletal pain and noise aversions in adult dogs. These dogs often tend to generalise fears quickly. For example, they become scared of all bangs. Or they become scared of going out in the dark in case there is a bang. If we think about it that is pretty sensible. If you know something is going to hurt you, you want to try and predict it and avoid it as much as possible.
If your dog is an adult and has developed a sudden onset noise aversion it is vital that they have a thorough physical exam with your veterinary surgeon. You will struggle to make progress with training programmes if your dog is experiencing ongoing pain. Once you are confident your dog is more comfortable then it is time to start a desensitisation and counterconditioning programme to help make them feel less scared before fireworks season comes round again.