5 Simple Ways To Prepare Your Puppy For Bonfire Night
If, like me, you have had a puppy this year, this bonfire night will likely be your puppy’s first. Therefore, it is the opportune time to implement some training now, in order to prevent any phobias of fireworks developing in future. The RSPCA reported that in 2019, 60% of dogs in the UK become distressed when exposed to fireworks and it is not hard to understand why.
Fireworks are incredibly loud and they are very unpredictable, allowing them to induce serious fear in dogs and other animals. Unlike humans, dogs can’t rationalise that fireworks will not harm them and so they can feel that their very survival is at risk. This has resulted in dogs experiencing severe stress, seizures, heart attacks and even death in previous years. Thus, preparing your puppy for this holiday is of the utmost importance, so how can you accomplish that? This blog is going to consider 5 simple ways to prepare your puppy for bonfire night.
Habituation and Desensitisation
First of all, you can introduce fireworks as part of your puppy’s habituation. Socialisation is often the main focus of many puppy guardians but habituating your puppy to common sounds is also an essential part of your puppy’s development and training. This can include the hoover, hair dryer, traffic, sirens, baby crying, washing machine, thunder and many more day-to-day sounds.
If your puppy already struggles with loud sounds, the following training would be referred to as desensitisation, which involves exposing your puppy to the thing that elicits fear but to a level they can cope with. So to desensitise Mando to the sound of fireworks, I have been playing videos of fireworks on my phone from YouTube. I started playing the videos at a low volume with Mando in the room and increasing the volume gradually. If I was to play the fireworks at a high volume from the beginning, this would be flooding Mando and could create the anxiety I am trying to prevent.
Therefore, you need to patient and only turn up the volume in small increments, when you are satisfied that your dog is relaxed at that level of exposure. Observe your puppy’s response and ensure that the current volume isn’t causing any stress. If it is causing your puppy distress, you are moving too fast and need to start at a much lower volume.
You can then use counter conditioning to change your puppy’s emotional response to the sound of fireworks. To do this, pair the sound with something pleasant, like food. Filling puzzle feeders and giving your puppy special treats, whilst playing firework sounds in the background will gradually train your puppy to be relaxed, thus changing their emotional response.
I will note that Mando is a very resilient puppy and has been from the moment I brought him home. I have been able to turn up the volume rather quickly, however, this will not be the case with every puppy. If your puppy naturally has a nervous disposition and/or is already sensitive to sounds, you will need to train at your puppy’s pace and refrain from rushing the process. Over the next week, my plan is to move the sounds to my sound bar (speakers) to gradually increase exposure, to ensure he is ready for the holiday.
Create a Safe Space
Since this is likely your puppy's first Bonfire night, you don’t know how they are going to respond, therefore it’s a good idea to make them feel as safe as possible and you can do this by creating a little den. If your puppy is crate trained, covering their crate with a blanket can make them feel safer. Some dogs feel safer behind the sofa, so maybe you could put some cozy blankets behind there or they may have a certain room that they feel safe in. (Mando loves sleeping by our feet in the lounge.) The key is to allow your puppy access to wherever they feel safe and to not force them out, until they feel comfortable to do so.
In order to make the home feel safer, it is recommended to do everything you can to mask the noise. So make sure you close all exterior doors and windows and close blinds and curtains. Turning up the volume on the television or radio can also help to disguise the noise. It is also essential to check that your garden is secure and that your puppy can’t escape. If your puppy is in the garden and a firework suddenly goes off, they may panic and attempt to escape. With this in mind, its beneficial to encourage your puppy to go to the toilet before fireworks are likely to start, if at all possible.
Schedule Walks and Provide Enrichment
Even if your puppy seems confident with fireworks, it is unwise to schedule dog walks after dark. So many dogs become lost, injured and even killed because they have become spooked by fireworks on their walk. So please ensure you walk your puppy during the day, until the holiday is over. I plan on walking Mando in the late afternoon. While I want him to be physically tired out, I also want him to be mentally tired too, so I am going to schedule enough time to let him have a good sniff and take some treats with me, so he can do some outdoor foraging.
Following your walk, you can also provide your puppy with enrichment activities in the evening. Snuffle mats, puzzle feeders, puzzle mats, licky mats and filled Kongs, can be great ways to keep your puppy mentally engaged. Enrichment, involving scent, naturally reduces a dog’s heart rate, so it is perfect for keeping your puppy calm during any fireworks.
Communicate with neighbour's
I would personally recommend politely speaking to your neighbours and those in your community to determine when and where fireworks may take place and then you can plan accordingly. There’s nothing worse than your neighbour's setting off fireworks without any warning and they are unlikely to do that if they know you have concerns for your cute puppy. Silent fireworks are thankfully becoming more popular these days, so they are always worth a mention. Many supermarkets have banned the sale of fireworks and some are only selling silent ones, which is progress! At the very least, it helps to know when fireworks are likely to be set off in your street, so you can be ready to implement all your plans, so chat to neighbour's and/or use social media to encourage consideration of local resident's pets.
Comfort Your Puppy
Please forget the theory that comforting your frightened puppy will reinforce fearful behaviour! When have we ever felt more afraid after being comforted by a loved one? Never! If your puppy seeks you out and wants to be held, then hold them and talk to them reassuringly. Give them the comfort they need. If you refuse to give them any comfort, this is what will make their anxiety worse! Please never punish your puppy for being afraid of fireworks. Yes they may pace and bark or they may cry and whimper. Whatever the behavioural response, it is our duty of care to comfort them and acknowledge that this is a manifestation of fear and not something they can control.
They will need your understanding and empathy. While we are able to reason and rationalise that we are in no danger, your puppy has no such ability, so you have to show them that you will protect them no matter what!
Every puppy is a unique individual and so we rejoice over the things they accomplish and help them with the things they struggle with. After this first Bonfire night, you may happily discover your puppy is confident around fireworks or you may fall into the larger percentage and find your puppy is terrified of them. Either way, take comfort in the fact that you did your best to prepare them for their first Bonfire night and remember, you now have another 12 months to get them ready for the next one.
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