Imagine being a dog and all of a sudden an endless stream of scary monsters show up on the doorstep and keep ringing the doorbell. For many dogs, Halloween, just like July 4th and New Year's Eve, are days of infamy.
Shelters all over the country are filled the day after Halloween (and on January 2nd and July 5th) with lost dogs who ran away from home to escape the scary sights and sounds. Once on the street, these distressed and disoriented dogs often run for miles until there is no hope of them finding their way back home. Sometimes only luck and the help of kind-hearted rescuers bring the exhausted dog safely back home. Sadly, many others simply disappear and are never seen again, leaving their families heartbroken. So what can we do to help our beloved pets get through the holidays?
Here is a list of thirteen tools all professional trainers use to help dogs and their human families stay safe:
Thirteen Tools1. Prevention and Management: Safety for your dog, you and your property are your primary concerns. First and foremost, anticipate problems before they occur.
- Supervise your dog so mistakes can't happen. Keep your dog with you, but never put an anxious, distressed dog in a crate or tie her to something and leave her there. She would likely injure herself while hysterically attempting to get free. If you are away from home, hire an experienced pet sitter.
- Keep your dog inside and make sure the locks on your doors are secure so your dog can't break through.
- Check Identification: It is imperative that she always wears her collar with some kind of identification just in case she does manage to escape. Microchips have reunited many a dog with their family.
3. Exercise: Provide extra exercise so your dog has less energy to pay attention to the fireworks and may even sleep through the displays.
4. Play: Playing with your dog can trigger neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, the same chemicals responsible for us feeling happy. These chemicals can help counteract the stress of the situation and help your dog tune out the sensory environmental and holiday bombardment.
5. Massage your dog everyday so he or she loves the time with you. Then, when the storm or fireworks appear, the massage will help relieve her tension. There is also a touch-related therapy called T-Touch that has been found to be very effective for many dogs. A brief internet search should point to several sources.
6. Do not coddle your dog when he or she acts fearful with words like "It's OK, don't worry" unless you combine it with deep massage. If you coddle her when she is frightened, it can reinforce the fearful behavior.
7. Be a good actor or actress. Keep a happy attitude around your dog and maintain her daily routines. Dogs feed off your energy. If you act stressed, your dog will feel stressed too.
8. Leave the area. If things get really rough, put your dog in the car and go for a ride. I know families who plan a one or two day vacation around July 4th so they are away from fireworks.
9. Try holistic aids. There are holistic options such as Bach Flower remedies, aroma therapy, and even pheromone therapy that can help many dogs. Check out products called DAP and Thunderspray. Lots of internet info.
10. Thundershirts: A Thundershirt is a wrap that comfortably and snugly fits around the dog's body and has been found to work on a high percentage of dogs to help them relax.
11. Dietary and Herbal remedies: I have found products like Nutricalm, Composure and Anxithane effective for some dogs. Always check with your trainer and veterinary healthcare professional.
12. Consult with your veterinarian. There are pharmacological aids that can be prescribed to help your dog get through the roughest time where fireworks or storms are of greatest intensity. Check with a vet who is well versed in behavioral modification.
13. Train Your Dog: By teaching your dog to stay relaxed in the midst of intense distractions, you can gradually build up your dog's trust and raise his stress management threshold. Buy masks and practice now, before the goblins appear. Hiring a qualified professional trainer is highly recommended. Part of the training includes two very important tools: Counterconditioning and Systematic Desensitization
Classical conditioning is used to counter the way the dog feels about something he fears by linking the scary thing with highly valued treats. Dogs eventually learn to not react to scary people at the door or the sound of fireworks because he anticipates a treat's on the way.
This is often used together with a process called systematic desensitization, which is used to get him used to scary things in baby steps or small increments until they're no longer a problem. A trainer can demonstrate the step-by-step methods used to do this.
SPECIAL NOTE: Never force your dog. Some people make the situation worse by forcing their dogs to stay in the situation that is causing them grief. No dog should ever be yelled at or swatted with newspapers, let alone a scared, fearful dog. These methods are not only cruel, they do nothing to help your dog learn to relax and will even exacerbate the dog's anxiety.
With kindness, compassion and time, almost all dogs can learn to handle the stressors of Halloween, July 4th and New Year's Eve.