Here we are again, prepping our coolers for the holiday weekend, and dreading having to watch our pups suffer through a night (or week) of anxiety and fear as they hear fireworks being shot off.
But why? Why are we simply sitting back and dreading our dogs impeding suffering? As of today, we have 11 days until the 4th of July. In 11 days you can help rewire your dogs brain to see fireworks as something positive, and to stop seeing them as a dog eating monster that bangs on the roof all night.
So how do we do this? Let me give a quick review over classical conditioning. I'm sure you remember Pavlov and his salivating dogs, he was the scientist that unintentionally discovered that if he repeatedly rang a bell prior to feeding his dogs, they would start to salivate as soon as he rang the bell. They no longer had to actually see, or smell the food to have a physical response to it.
Classical conditioning is really quite simple, and we already train our dogs using it.. even though we may not realize it! It's likely that when you pick your keys up, your dogs heart rate rises and they get uncontrollably excited.. because they are anticipating going somewhere. This is the case even though the keys have no direct connection to them going on a walk with you. Another example would be if your dog starts salivating for their dinner and runs to their food bowl as soon as you change out of your work clothes, because that is typically what you do immediately before feeding.
So how can we apply this to help our dogs with fireworks? We simply need to create some sore of positive association with the excessive noise. The noise in itself does not hurt the dog, it's only their fear of the unknown that causes their grief. Starting as soon as possible, you need to begin making them associate that noise with something special and SPECTACULAR. For some dogs this may be pulling out the cheese and giving them a hundred small pieces while the fireworks go off, for others it may be more effective to pull out a special toy that they don't normally have access to.
For puppies that don't have any current negative (or positive) associations with fireworks (or guns, or any other similar loud noise) you may be able to do this with actual fireworks going on outside. However, it is still smart to work up to that. I like to turn on a fireworks video loop while they eat their meals, or even feed them their kibble on a porch while I throw poppers a short distance away. For older dogs that are already fearful and anxious, you will need to start with something that only makes them slightly uncomfortable. For some dogs this may be you feeding them (or playing with their favorite toy) while a helper stands 25 yards away and throws the poppers. For other dogs you might have to start with playing a video of fireworks very quietly on the tv or computer. The key is to find that line where your dog isn't 100% comfortable, but hasn't begun to shut down emotionally either. Once you find where that line is for your dog, you can gradually start pushing the line further and further back until your dog hears a loud noise, and they immediately perk up and get excited because they are certain something positive is going to happen BECAUSE of the loud noise.
It doesn't happen on it's own, nor does it happen overnight, but it is very much possible to keep our dogs with being terrified every year on the 4th and New Years Eve.
Remember to be yourself and your dog safe during any of these exercises and happy training!
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!