Alfie is a gentle, good-natured dog, but he’s sensitive, and he’s nervous in certain situations. During Storm Ophelia last week, he became agitated: the sound of the wind battering on the windows and doors upset him. Grace and her family have learned how to help him, keeping him indoors in windy weather, and making a den for him so that he is well insulated from the sounds that upset him.
Poor Alfie is now facing a new challenge: getting through Halloween. If he hears any bangs, he gets upset, and around Halloween, there will be plenty of bangs, whooshes and squeals as fireworks displays happen in his neighbourhood. Whenever he hears a firework, he rushes around the house with his tail between his legs, creeping around the place as if looking for somewhere to hide. He’s obviously very unhappy, and he becomes very needy, wanting extra attention from Grace and the rest of her family.
Grace has always done her best to help him settle, putting the television on loudly to cover up the sound of fireworks, and carrying on with life as normal around him. She’d heard that it’s wrong to molly-coddle him too much: if dogs get too much extra affection when they look anxious, they can start to deliberately look even more anxious because they know that they’ll get even more attention. As the owner of a nervous dog, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between offering reassurance without encouraging fearful behaviour.
Last year, Grace came to me before Halloween to ask if anything else could be done to help him. Despite her best efforts, he had never enjoyed the Halloween season, and she wondered if there were any extra steps that she could take. Grace is studying animal care and management at Bray Institute of Further Education, so she was particularly interested in learning how best she could help her dog.
I explained that there are some standard extra steps that could be taken, and it was worth doing all of these for Alfie.
First, every dog should have a safe, secure den to hide in, such as a utility room or a cupboard under the stairs. A comfy dog bed should be put in there, with plenty of bedding, and some of his favourite humans’ old unwashed t-shirts and jerseys, which will give a sense that they are close by when Alfie is feeling stressed. The den should have light-proofed windows and be well sound-proofed. A loud radio should be left on all the time, playing classical music to drown out sounds of fireworks. Alfie’s favourite toys should be put in there, as well as a regular supply of treats like dog chews.
Second, a special type of vapouriser, known as an Adaptil Diffuser, should be plugged in beside Alfie’s bed in the den. Instead of a pleasant smell, this emits a vapour containing ‘Dog Appeasing Pheromone’ . This has a soothing, comforting effect on dogs, and helps to reduce anxiety in all situations. As an alternative, there’s also a diffuser called “Pet Remedy”, which is a blend of essential oils that can help calm the nerves of anxious or stressed pets.
Next,, one new approach that was worth trying was a type of dog coat, known as a Thundershirt. This is a specially designed jacket which is tightly strapped around a dog: the application of gentle pressure all over seems to help many dogs feel calmer and more relaxed.
Finally, I prescribed anti-anxiety medication to help Alfie get over the challenging weeks leading up to Halloween. Twice daily medication would help him to feel more relaxed and less agitated about frightening noises.
To help Alfie in the long term, there are specially designed downloadable with soundtracks of fireworks, gunshots and thunder storms. This soundtrack has to be played with the volume turned down low at first, gradually increasing as Alfie gets used to the sounds. Alfie should be given praise, attention and rewards for remaining calm and relaxed as these noises go on around him. After many weeks of gradually increasing the volume, the fireworks noises will be eventually be played very loudly, so that when Alfie eventually hears the real thing, he will be used to the sounds, and he’ll be less distressed.This has to be done many months in advance of the fireworks season. It was too late last year, but Grace has started the process over the past six months, so everyone is helping that Alfie will be less jumpy when he hears real fireworks this year.
After taking the extra steps taken last year, Alfie was far more relaxed than in previous years. Having begun the sound therapy, Grace is now putting in place the same measures as last year, starting a few weeks before the fireworks get going. She’s hoping that this year is going to be Alfie’s best ever, most calm and relaxed, stress-free Halloween.
Fireworks sound tracks can be downloaded for free from the Dogs Trust at https://soundcloud.com/dogstrust/sets/sound-therapy-sounds-scary
It’s important that these sounds are used carefully, along with guidance from a downloadable booklet from www.dogstrust.ie/whats-happening/blog/preparing-your-dog-for-halloween