5 things you can learn from the coronavirus epidemic

…that will make you a better dog owner

1. Resource guarding is natural

Now that it feels like the shops might run out of produce, our shopping behaviour has changed.  We are stocking up on items and eyeing each other with suspicion, especially when someone else nears the section we’re interested in. Note that currently there is no shortage of anything, it just feels like there might be.

How many times did you despair when your dog lunged for food and told them that they really, really don’t have to do it, there will always be plenty? In most cases they have never even gone hungry, to them it just feel like they might.

2. People not respecting the appropriate distance make us nervous

The streets have emptied but some people are still using public transport and we all go to shops etc. Keeping the appointed 2m distance from each other can be quite difficult in a confined space. You might not mind that much but if you pay attention you will see people shifting uneasily, trying to stay 2m away from everyone else.

I imagine that dogs, with their strong sense of personal space, feel like that person a lot of the time. You can help them be more at ease:

    • walk them on a longer leash, allowing them to adjust their position as they see fit
    • cross the street when you see another dog approaching
    • be aware that crowded places are inherently stressful for most dogs and avoid them if possible

3. Being outdoors is exciting

Who doesn’t find it annoying when their dog ignores them in the beginning of the walk? Yet, now that we too must spend time indoors and we can’t go somewhere just because we feel like it, being outdoors is probably a little more exciting for us too.

Let’s keep that in mind next time when we take the dog out and at first they are just sniffing and bouncing around excitedly.

4. Your loved ones will annoy you, if you get stuck inside for long periods of time

Do you know that quirky thing your family member or flatmate does? Chances are, when you’re huddled together in the flat 24/7, that quirk has started to rub you the wrong way.

If you live in a multi-dog household, this is your dog’s life all-the-time. That’s why it’s important to make sure that each dog has their very own resting place, where they are never disturbed. Offering 1-1 time with you, be it training or walking,  is probably something they’d enjoy a lot!

5. Having a choice matters

As soon as the governments started ordering people to stay put, internet was overflown with advice to closely monitor our stress and anxiety levels and take extra care of our psychological well-being. Confinement is not good for most of us.

Neither is it for our dogs. And while most dogs are bound to our daily schedule, we can increase their quality of life by offering them choices wherever we can. Here are some ideas:

    • cooperative grooming and veterinary care
    • let them dictate the speed of the walk
    • check if they’re interested in training together before you begin
    • when you pet them, take away your hand and see if they re-initiate contact

Children and dogs 3: learn canine body language together

The fact that children can’t read body language properly is really problematic. Aurea Verebes, a German trainer specializing in dog-child relationships and bite prevention showed three pictures to 103 children and asked them for their assessment. Practically none of the children got it right. If the child thinks that the dog is smiling, while they are actually threatening, that’s a “bite out of nowhere” situation waiting to happen!

Children where shown pictures of dogs that were threagening, afraid or trying to create distance. Almost all children misinterpreted the dogs' behavior.

Luckily neither you, nor your child have to be experts in order to read canine body language. There are some general indications to follow that even small children can understand. These are general recommendations, only you know your child’s cognitive capacities and can determine what makes sense to teach them at the moment.

General tips

  • Look at as many body parts as possible – only you know your dog and can assess how important a signal is. For example windhounds naturally carry their tails lower than other dogs, therefore lowered tail alone is not necessarily a sign of distress in their case.
  • Consider the specific context. If the dog is panting after a run it’s probably to cool himself down, but if you’re at home and they haven’t been playing, then it’s likely something else.
  • Is the dog’s body turning towards you or away from you?
  • If you stop touching the dog, do they request more? (for example by nudging)
  • Is the dog’s body stiff or relaxed? For example: are they wagging only their tail or is their whole behind moving with it?

Basic body postures

Below you can see pictures showing neutral, defensive-threatening and offensive-threatening body language. The threats might be accompanied by barking, growling or snarling. In real life, body language is often more of a cocktail of signals, representing the inner conflict1. Intervene before the situation escalates, that is before your dog’s body language becomes threatening in any way.

The neutral body posture: the dog is neither trying to make themselves big nor small, their centre of mass in the middle.
The neutral body posture: the dog is neither trying to make themselves big nor small, their centre of mass in the middle. Try observing your dog throughout the day and see in which situations they behave like this! Source: www.sprichhund.de

 

Defensive-threatening body language: the teeth show, the centre of mass moves downwards and backwards, the tail, head and ears move down - they are trying to seem smaller than they are. The more downwards-backwards movement you see, the more likely it is that the dog would rather escape than attack.
Defensive-threatening body language: the teeth show, the centre of mass moves downwards and backwards, the tail, head and ears move down – they are trying to seem smaller than they are. The more downwards-backwards movement you see, the more likely it is that the dog would rather escape than attack. Source: www.sprichhund.de
Offensive-threatening body language: here all the movement is upwards and forwards, the dog is trying to make themselves big. Remember that dogs prefer to avoid conflict - in many situations communicating that they are ready to move forwards if needed is enough to have the other dog back off.
Offensive-threatening body language: here all the movement is upwards and forwards, the dog is trying to make themselves big. Remember that dogs prefer to avoid conflict – in many situations communicating that they are ready to move forwards if needed is enough to have the other dog back off. Source: www.sprichhund.de

 

Children and dogs 2: teach your child the do’s and don’ts

As I wrote in my previous post, the way children behave is pretty much the opposite of what dogs like: children are loud, unpredictable and often know no boundaries. Their motoric skills are still developing so they might play rough with the dog. Or grab their toys or food. It is our responsibility as their guardians make children and dogs alike feel safe and comfortable at home. And who can teach your child better than you?

Lead by example

The do’s and don’ts presented below are directed at children, but in general they apply to you as well. Research has shown that children learn through imitation (read more: a short summary and a research paper). So if they should not get anywhere close to the dog during feeding time, you must also steer clear during that time! If you want your child to follow the rules you set, make sure you keep them yourself. 

Of course there will be exceptions. My advice would be to explain the reasons for the exception if your child is old enough to understand; if they aren’t, then just stick to the rules when you’re with them1.

DO: let the dog come to you, pet them gently on the chest and sides, drop treats on the floor instead of feeding from your hand and teach these rules to your friends too. DON'T: disturb them in their bed, come near their food or toys, jump or shout around them, hug them

Offer alternative interactions

This is another useful tip I picked up from Aurea Verebes’ seminar. There will be times when the child really wants to interact with the dog, but direct, physical interaction is impossible for some reason (the dog is not ready, tired, sick…). In these cases you can offer alternative interactions:

  • making toys for the dog (for example from toilet paper rolls)
  • filling food toys
  • preparing searches (if your dog can do scent work)
  • hiding food around the flat for the dog to find

Another advantage of that is that all those nice things (toys, food) will carry your child’s scent, which means that your dog will associate pleasant things with them2.

Tips and tricks

Barrier clicking – in this technique you create a physical line (for example with a colourful piece of string) to help your dog and your child with boundaries. It can be placed around the dog’s resting place or your child’s play area, as a visual cue that they should be left alone. Then train them not to cross it3.

A resource list – sit down with your child and create a list with two columns – toys belonging to the dog and to them. You can agree on a reward for respecting that! Hang the list in a visible place where you can easily refer to it.

A “help me” signal – many children are not capable of leaving the dog alone4. However, you can still agree on a “help me” signal – the child will use a special word to ask for your help when they know they should stop, but cannot.

Dog and child exploring their surroundings together
Image by pasja1000

A note on “training” children

Improving the situation at home requires a lot of management (see my post  about the dog side of things) and some dog training, but you will most definitely have to set boundaries for your child as well. 

The general principles of positive reinforcement training work for all animals, including people. If your child does something wrong around the dog5, try to understand why they behave in that way, what motivates them and what would be the right incentive to change that. In general, with younger kids you can reward them in small increments, for example with sweets or extra play time. Once they get older, success itself is going to be increasingly reinforcing.6

 

Children and dogs: a perfect match?

The internet seems to have an endless supply of “cute” dog videos, especially involving children. While the audience usually reacts with hearts and likes, most dog professionals watch them with a sense of dread. And then there are the “shocking” videos, where the dog bites “out of nowhere”. Dogs never bite out of the blue – and this is what this post is about.

Here are some USA statistics about dog bites:

80% of dog bites happen at home
77% of victims are either a family member or a friend
69% of bites to children occurred at home when there was no adult present1.
51% of all dog bites are to children aged 12 and younger

Luckily for us, based on the review of current studies, you can effectively prevent dog bites if you educate peaople about responsible dog guardianship. Let’s dive in!

So why do they bite?

Let’s think about dogs for a second: they value personal space, communicate with very subtle signals and most of them thrive on predictability. If you add children to the equation you get quite the opposite:

  • Children can’t read canine body language, especially the more subtle signs.
  • They are likely to look for clues on the dog’s face, often approaching them frontally.
  • Children have yet to learn about respecting others’ boundaries.
  • They behave unpredictably and make a lot of noise (which is an additional stressor for most dogs).
  • Children often have toys that the dogs might be interested in or try to take the dog’s toys.
  • It takes time for children to develop motor skills and they can be quite rough when they handle dogs.
Image of dog and child: a tongue flick, ears pulled back, body mass directed downwards and to the back - this dog is not happy!
A tongue flick, ears pulled back, body mass directed downwards and to the back – this dog is not happy! Source: Image by Michal Jarmoluk.

How can you help your dog?

In order to have a peaceful household, you must consider all the family members living there. I talk about the dogs here, and you can read about children in the next one. The most important thing to keep in mind is that a household with a child is naturally more stressful than without one – not just to the dog, to the parents as well! As usual I will advise you to help your dog cope with stress.

Fulfill their needs

To begin with, make sure that your dog’s welfare needs are fulfilled2.

Dogs have biological (they’re healthy, rest enough, have access to fresh water at all times...), emotional (companionship, safety, trust, fun…) and behavioral needs (exploration, sniffing, social interactions...)Protect them

You can’t always keep an eye on everything or constantly train and you shouldn’t have to. And when you’re done with the chores, I’m sure you’d like to sit down and relax from time to time. Management is your best friend:

  • use baby gates or other physical barriers where needed
  • never leave your dog and children unsupervised
  • provide a place where the dog can rest undisturbed
  • make sure they get enough sleep (if you have a child you will know exactly what I mean, it’s the same for dogs)
  • offer activities that your dog enjoys for their own sake (relaxed walks, interactions with their dog buddies, nosework, games… whatever your dog likes)
  • learn to recognize early signs of discomfort so that you can intervene before the situation escalates

Train them

You can train “barrier clicking” with your dog. In this technique you create a physical line (for example with a colourful piece of string) to help your dog and your child with boundaries. It can be placed around the dog’s resting place or your child’s play area, as a visual cue that they should be left alone. Then train them not to cross it3.

You can also teach your dog to relax – establish a signal meaning “nothing is happening, you can relax” (learn more from Grisha Stewart or from Dr. Ute Blatschke-Berhtod, or drop me a line if you’d like me to write about it).

And remember, just because your dog is patient and tolerates all kinds of things the child does with them is not a reason to let it happen. Your dog has the right to feel comfortable at home, as do you and all your family.

Dog walking… a dream job?

The image of a dog walker in our heads (or mine at least) is that of the woman walking 10 tiny, fluffy dogs at once on the street of New York1 or of a veterinary student making some money on the side. As it happens, one of my good friends started out this way (as a vet student, not pet sitter for posh people in NYC). But the business – Donau Dogs – that she runs now with her partner is something quite different. I visited them in October to find out more.

The bulk of their business consists of walking a group of dogs in the mornings – they take up to 10 dogs (5 per person) + their own two companions.

Managing a group this large requires strong focus and superb ability to read canine body language – the situation can spin out of control quickly with so many dogs, because, well, they are dogs.

Choosing the right place to walk is paramount – the fewer other dogs you meet, the less you have to “police” the group.

Contrary to popular belief they don’t have to take the dogs for a 10km tour, sometimes they barely walk 1km. But think about it in dog terms. The trip is bursting with stimuli: someone picks them up, they travel by car, get out, walk, sniff, play, search for food, see what the others are up to… That’s really tiring!

A new dog can join the group after an adaptation period when the owner comes along. The length of the adaptation period depends on how quickly the dog becomes comfortable with the group.

Most, but not all of them, will eventually enjoy off-leash privileges. Determining which dogs can be let off leash is an important skill. Some dogs just like hunting too much or are too excitable to be off leash in this situation. You just can’t pay the same amount of attention when you have 5+ dogs running around…

Food, best distributed generously, is one of the most important tools for a dog walker. Remember, these are not their dogs: that means that they have less reason to listen if something else catches their attention.

If none of the dogs have resource guarding issues, they won’t fight over food as long as there is enough treats for everybody.

Apart from rewarding the dogs, the food can also be scattered for treat searches – sniffing is engaging, relaxing and can serve as a good distraction. Obviously, dietary restrictions need to be taken into consideration.

Special needs have to be respected. For example, if they have a puppy with them and the puppy wants to lie down and observe, then it gets to lie down and observe.

Being a dog walker is much more than just playing with the doggies. Actually, my friends spend as much – if not more – time driving around, as walking the dogs. They have to pick them up, bring them back home and so on. As you might suspect, they also spend quite some time vacuum cleaning their apartment…

There is also a fair amount of administration and logistics involved to keep their human clients happy. But at the end of the day, what matters most to them is keeping their canine clients happy and that is quite simple. They get to do dog stuff: sniff, eat, frolic and occasionally roll in smelly things. 

 

Of dogs and public transport

Cuteness can be a curse, especially if you’re a dog. I’m sure that all of us have been asked by strangers for permission to pet our dogs – particularly on public transport. It’s hard to say no because, let’s be honest, it is nice that other people find them cute. Moreover, I personally feel like they should be rewarded for asking (instead of just reaching out for them, as if dogs were objects…). And yet, I say no. To everyone. Even to the grandmas. Even to the children.

Because dogs can’t escape the outstretched hand in that situation.

Because dogs – just like people – have the right to choose who touches them and when.

Because even if they’re used to it, public transport is still challenging for dogs – full of sudden movements, smells and unknown objects – and I don’t want to make it harder.

What can you say to people?

Thank you for asking, we appreciate it, but…

  • my dog doesn’t like being petted by strangers1
  • this is a stressful situation for my dog, so I’d rather you didn’t2
  • my dog can’t communicate their preference clearly in this situation, so I’d rather you didn’t
a dog in a muzzle sitting between the legs of its guardian on a bus
Don’t forget your well-fitted muzzle! 🙂

How can you make travelling on public transport easier on your dog?

If they are not used to public transport:

  • get them used to it by starting with mostly empty vehicles
  • create good associations: initially take them on public transport only to get somewhere fun for them

Find a good spot for them:

  • avoid peak times if possible
  • help them find safe spaces (for example corners)
  • position yourself so that you protect them and especially their tails from being stepped on

Once you found a good spot:

  • watch out for other dogs and children
  • if they like it, pet them calmly
  • if they take treats, treat them
  • support them as much as they need, their tolerance for public transport might vary depending on how they’re feeling on a particular day
  • don’t let strangers pet them 😉

 

We need to talk about praise

I’m starting a series of shorter blog posts focused on “dog training 101” – so far I’ve planned posts about praise, rewards, equipment, and body language. If there’s anything you’d like to read about, be sure to let me know!

Let’s start with good, old-fashioned praise. It’s a really simple tool that’s always at hand, and can make a big difference in your relationship with your dog. Praising your dog means saying things like “good boy/girl”, “well done”, “yes” etc. Dogs obviously have no idea what these words mean, so the most important thing is the tone of voice you’re using (soft, pleasant or high-pitched if you’re cheering them on).

a black dog and a human in the Danube

Common misconceptions

Sadly, most of the dog owners can be divided into two groups: those who never praise their dogs and those who seem to think that praise alone is enough. Both groups are somewhat wrong – let’s take a closer look.

  1. Many people don’t praise their dogs, seemingly expecting them to just know the rules of the human world by themselves. Unfortunately, domestication did not make dogs experts on arbitrary human expectations such as stopping before a road, walking nicely on the leash or not eating food off the ground. They are uniquely interested in what we’re doing but they still need to be taught everything we want from them.
  2. Other people seem to think that praise is high-value currency in the dog world because dogs love us so much and crave our approval. Actually (as you probably noticed), once you go outside pretty much anything is more interesting than us, and that’s completely normal. But in most cases praise alone is not going to cut it.

What’s the point of praise?

Praise can be rewarding
Some dogs truly crave our approval and for them praise can be rewarding. It may also work in well-known environments (at home, in the car) where it’s easy for them to pay attention.

Praise is always informative
Even if it’s not intrinsically rewarding, it still contains the information to the dog that we liked something they did, which makes it a valuable training tool.

Praise is always readily available
We’re all just human and we forget treats from time to time. With praise you can let your dog know that you appreciate their effort and you can do it immediately, way before you have the time to find that piece of sausage.

Praise can improve your relationship with your dog
Last, but not least praising is fun. If you make a conscious effort to praise more, you’ll learn to see all these awesome behaviours (and stop taking them for granted). Then the “misdemeanours” will just be a few instances among many great successes.

In return, you might find your dog checking in with you more often, which – let’s be honest – is pretty rewarding to us.

Help, my dog loses control around other dogs! 

I know that walking a dog that pulls on the leash, jumps around and barks can be exhausting and frustrating. But trust me, they are not doing it to spite you. Contrary to what we like to believe, many dogs struggle with interactions with their peers, especially if they are on the leash1. In this post, we will explore the main reasons behind this problem and look at possible solutions.

At the same time, every situation is different, and this can be a tricky issue to train so it is always best to contact a competent, non-violent dog trainer who can help you personally.

Causes

In general, dogs “overreacting” to other dogs are mostly motivated either by fear or by excitement. In both cases the problem is the inappropriate level of arousal: the dog is not in control of their actions which also means they can’t listen to us then.

Just like people, dogs need to learn social skills and the experiences they make when they’re young can determine their behaviour later on2. Other contributing factors are their personality, stress levels, age and health. While you can’t change your dog’s personality or age, you can make sure that they’re healthy and not stressed out.

multiple dogs on the danube shore
Well-socialized dogs respect each other’s personal space.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

What does your dog really want?

One of the most important things to remember is that each behaviour serves a purpose and it is crucial for us to recognize what that purpose is.

  • A dog that loves playing with other dogs probably pulls on the leash (or barks or jumps) because they learned that their human will eventually give up and let them approach.
  • A dog that is fearful has probably learned that pulling, barking and jumping makes the other dogs go away.

Basically, they are trying to either decrease or increase the distance to the other dogs. They behave the way they do because it was a successful strategy and we “simply” need to teach them a different one.

Recognizing your dog’s motivation is key for further training because it will determine the reinforcement you use. In these situations typically food or play can be used to help the process along but your dog can only be efficiently rewarded with something that they want in a given situation (that is: getting closer to or further from the other dog) 3.

4 dogs, one of them on the leash
If dogs in a group know each other and have good manners, some can be on the leash (or often must if they’re with a dog walker) – they will respect the canine social etiquette and give each other space.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

The vicious circle of arousal – do not punish!

As I have mentioned above, the main issue is that your dog is too aroused to control their own actions. Regardless of their motivation, further increasing the arousal level will only make the situation worse. Shouting, jerking the leash, smacking your dog (or any other aversive action) will not make your dog calm down. What they can achieve is:

  • increase your dog’s stress level
  • make them fear you
  • destroy their trust in you
  • make them less likely to want to be close to you – which is the opposite of what you want in this situation

Aversive trainers often claim (quick!) success with their methods. But what they do is behaviour suppression, not behaviour modification. Many of these dogs either get more and more stressed out until they snap and “bite out of nowhere” (sounds familiar?) or they fall into the state of learned helplessness. 4 I can’t imagine you want any of that for yours.

multiple dogs sniffing next to each other
Having places where your dog always gets to search for treats during the walk can help your dog regulate their arousal: they add predictability and sniffing itself has a calming effect.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

Ok, so what can I do?

BEFORE THE WALK:

  • learn to read canine body language, so that you can assess your dog’s emotional state, as well as the other dogs that you meet
  • train only in situations that you can control – your dog can only train when they’re not too excited
  • invest in a harness – constant pulling on the leash while wearing a collar can lead to tracheal damage; the dogs pulling and wheezing are not suffering from asthma, they just have trouble breathing.
  • eliminate as many stressors as possible from their life – have a look at your dog’s routine: do they get enough of down time? are there other things that freak them out? is their day predictable enough to feel safe? (learn more about relaxed and yet engaging walks)

DURING THE WALK:

  • remain calm – it’s easier for your dog to keep their cool if you keep yours
  • always have treats on you – if your dog is into food  you can distract them before they notice the other dog- drop the treats early enough and they might just focus on them instead of freaking out5
  • support your dog – if they are fearful help them maintain a safe distance from other dogs
  • make sure all interactions are chill and positive – if you have the “lovingly-excited” dog you don’t want to prohibit all interactions with dogs, which would be punishing. Instead, find a friend or two with calm, well-socialized dogs and hang out with them, or join a social walk organized by a competent trainer.
  • always tell your dog when they’re doing well. here is a list of behaviours you can reward:
    • slowing down
    • approaching other dogs in a bow
    • looking away
    • turning away
    • looking at you
    • sitting down
    • lying down
    • sniffing

When off-leash, dogs can communicate clearly: Leus (on the left) approaches the other dog in a curve, a little tensely. The dog sprints at her, she jumps so that they stand in opposite directions and turns her head away. Tension dissolved, the other dog gets re-called and both dogs shake themselves off.

But what if a dog off-leash approaches us?

The default is: dogs should meet only off leash. If you see someone approaching with a dog on a leash, you should leash your dog too and keep a safe distance. If you keep your dog leashed, the other dog owners should do the same for you. If they are unwilling to do so, you can resort to these two tricks:

  • You can stop the approaching dog by throwing a lot of yummy treats – make sure that they can see it, make a fuss if needed. More often than not, the dog will pause to retrieve free food and you can quickly retreat.
  • You can motivate the owner to respect your request and leash their dog/move away by telling them… that your dog has fleas or other parasites. Seriously.

When off-leash, dogs can communicate clearly: Leus (on the left) approaches the other dog in a curve, a little tensely. The dog sprints at her, she jumps so that they stand in opposite directions and turns her head away. Tension dissolved, the other dog gets re-called and both dogs shake themselves off.

Myths

Last but not least, let us look at four common myths that might be slowing your progress:

Your dog pulls because they’re dominant and trying to control the situation NOT TRUE
Quite the opposite, it’s a sign that they’re overwhelmed.

A harness will make your dog pull more (because they won’t be “corrected” [=punished] for doing so) – NOT TRUE
You really can’t do anything wrong by looking out for your dog’s health; also, the tightening collar restricts access to oxygen, which in turn increases arousal (stress) instead of decreasing it.

All dogs love playing with each otherNOT TRUE
Watching dogs play is a delight but studies of free roaming dogs have shown that adults dog rarely engage in play. Like people, dogs are individuals and vary in their sociability.

You should never pick up a small dogNOT TRUE
You should learn to evaluate when your dog needs help and when they don’t. Let them handle as many situations as they can but if it’s too much, by all means do pick them up, this way they’ll know you’re on their side.

 

Can petting make fearful behavior worse?

Many dogs seek attention, follow us around, bark, howl etc. when they’re afraid. Owners are often afraid that if they pet/comfort their dogs, the situation will get worse because they’ll be “rewarding” these behaviors. Let’s look at this from the scientific perspective.

No, petting can not make fearful behaviors worse.

Firstly, when your dog is afraid all those “bad” behaviors are symptoms of their emotional state. Fear is an emotion that tells us that we are in imminent danger and I think it is safe to assume that it is universally unpleasant[efn note]The brain parts responsible for basic feelings like fear are virtually identical in humans and other mammals. 1. As Patricia McConnell2 once wrote: “no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked”.

Secondly, what you’re thinking about here is the principle of operant conditioning – that you can make a behavior more likely to occur by rewarding it.

  • The thing is, we established that these fearful behaviors are symptoms of stress. That means that the assumption that the dog behaves that way in order to get petted/get attention is false and so you cannot reinforce these behaviors with petting because petting is not what the dog is after. The dog wants to feel safe.
  • Moreover, operant conditioning is used for training voluntary behaviors and what your dog is doing during the thunderstorm is involuntary.

Another thing: refusing to comfort them may result in them looking for some other, much less desirable outlets for their anxiety such as chewing stuff…

And no, your dog will not “just get over it”.

What we mean by “getting over something” is called habituation in scientific jargon. It is the process of getting used to something until it becomes nothing more than background noise. But this can only work if the stimulus is not intense enough 3 to make us very uncomfortable.

If the stimulus is very intense – as is the case with fireworks – exposure to it will achieve the opposite 4 and the dog will end up either properly terrified (for example: urinating, destroying stuff) or will shut down completely.

The only way of making these behaviors better is to reduce the level of fear/stress that your dog is experiencing. You can read about it in my post about fireworks’ and storm phobias.

 

Firework and storm phobias

Many dogs suffer from firework and storm phobias. Both storms and fireworks are pretty unpredictable, which makes training tricky. Dogs will sometimes do crazy things out of fear: from hiding in the bathroom, through peeing themselves, to running away – and 40-50% of those who did run away never make it back! So our first priority is reducing the amount of fear they experience.

Bear in mind that each dog is different, not all of them can be cured and not all of us have what it takes to go through a rigorous counter-conditioning program. It is vital that we are honest about what we can achieve at the given time and just strive for the best possible scenario.

A dog hiding in the wardrobe.
Many dogs prefer closed, windowless spaces for hiding, for example bathrooms and wardrobes. ©Lis Berger

1. Assess your dog

You need to recognize how stressed your dog is in the given situation1. It will determine how much work there is for you. This is a list of common signs of stress starting with the milder, more ubiquitous symptoms.

    • panting
    • pacing
    • yawning
    • drooling
    • licking (especially paws)
    • vocalizing (whining/barking)
    • attention seeking
    • shedding
    • hiding
    • shaking
    • urinating (this one can go both ways – the dog can urinate out of fear or they may be so stressed that they’re incapable of elimination)
A dog eating cottage cheese.
If your dog is not too stressed, you can give them a toy filled with their favorite food. Chewing and licking at the food can help them calm down. ©Piri Stechauer

2. Ahead of time: decrease the overall stress level

Stress is not a one-off event, it accumulates over time. That means that even if you can’t quickly cure your dog of firework phobia, they will have an easier recovery if they’re overall doing well.

If you know that fireworks will happen or that a storm is approaching you can:

Avoid doing anything that makes your dog scared or uncomfortable (car rides, restaurant visits, the vet…) but also limit high-adrenaline activities such as playing ball. It might also be wise to skip your agility class for a while. Instead go for calm walks in places where you don’t have to control your dog all the time, offer them lots of opportunities to sniff, gentle massages, take them for a swim… you know best what makes your dog go all soft and chill.

Other options include:

  • prescription medication – consult your veterinarian on whether this is an option for you
  • a pheromone collar
  • a thunder shirt
  • anxiety relieving food supplements

3. During the event: manage the situation as best you can

  • walk your dog before the fireworks begin
  • secure your dog either with a safety harness or with a combination of a harness and a collar
  • use a GPS tracker if you have one
  • if your dog has a favourite hiding spot, you can make it extra cozy for them
  • turn on music or house appliances during the fireworks – the noise from outside will be less distinct then
  • provide comfort if your dog asks for it
There is a popular belief that you shouldn’t “fuss” over your dog when they’re anxious. This is partly true – you’re not afraid of fireworks, don’t behave as if you were. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pet your dog or provide companionship!  However, if they do want physical contact pay attention to its form: do not pet your dog with these short, nervous pats on the head or roughhouse with them. Choose calming forms of contact instead: cuddling together, a gentle massage, slow, long strokes.
A woman cuddling with her dogs.
By all means cuddle with your dog if that’s what they need and ask for! ©Lis Berger

4. Long-term solutions: relaxation training and classic counter-conditioning

According to the study conducted by the research center HundeUni Bern the two most effective methods are relaxation training and counter-conditioning.

Relaxation training can include:

  • teaching them to associate a specific piece of rug or music with relaxation
  • introducing a conditioned relaxation cue – your dog learns to relax on cue
  • rewarding them each time they choose to settle down on their own

The usual method used in dealing with fears is classic counter-conditioning (CCC). Let me quote Jean Donaldson, one of the pioneers of modern day training methods: Counterconditioning is about changing associations. It’s called counterconditioning because the dog already has an unpleasant emotional response [CER] to the thing we’re trying to condition. So we counter that by establishing a pleasant CER2.

For example: your dog hates the vacuum cleaner. Your aim could be to have your dog calmly leave the room when you take out the vacuum cleaner instead of barking at it wildly.

  1. Start with either a recording of the vacuum cleaner or someone can start vacuuming at the other end of the flat3. Your dog decides what is too much.
  2. Pair it with something your dog loves: feed them something delicious, play their favourite game or give them a gentle  massage. Your dog should not show signs of stress!
  3. You gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus until your dog starts liking the vacuum cleaner or at least stops being freaked out by it.
  4. Once they’re not freaked out anymore, you can start working on an alternative behavior, for example resting in another room.

Counter-conditioning might seem easy but it is actually really difficult to plan and execute properly. If you want to help your dog, I’d strongly advise you to work with a competent trainer!

A dog wearing a safety harness.
A dog wearing a safety harness. ©Conny R. Centuri
A dog wearing ear protection.
There is ear protection for dogs (Mutt Muffs) but it’s only good for short periods of time and you must condition your dog to tolerate them! ©Martina Uebersax
a dog wearing a GPS tracker
A dog wearing a GPS tracker. ©Renate Helfert