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Part III: Hawai'i's love affair with fireworks—desensitizing your dog's fear


I'm all ears.                                                         Photo: www.chuckspeir.com

If firecracker noise was a constant factor in "Dog World," dogs would naturally adapt and treat loud noises as part of their normal environment. But, since that is not the case, many dogs can’t adapt to the upsetting intermittent noise or come to understand that it won’t hurt them. The solution is to first desensitize them to the noise, and then countercondition them so they associate their fear with a positive emotion.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are extremely protracted endeavors. You must be committed for months, not weeks or days. But—it is well worth the effort.
 
How to desensitize
 
Note: Before beginning this program, the strategies outlined in “Part II: Hawai‘i’s love affair with fireworks—helping dogs cope,” should be successfully in effect. You may also check with your vet before proceeding.
 
1.      Make a recording of firecracker or fireworks noise during an actual event or browse YouTube for legal downloads.
2.      While you are present to monitor progress, play the recording often and at the lowest level that does not upset the dog. (If the dog displays fear, lower the volume.) The idea is to introduce the sounds at a comfortable level. The dog will then begin to get used to them and accept them as normal.
3.      Do pleasant activities while playing the recording.
4.      Over the weeks, gradually increase the volume. Never too high. Stop immediately if the dog exhibits any negative behavior. Reduce the volume for two weeks if you have a setback.
 
How to countercondition
 
When your dog becomes somewhat used to the fireworks noise, he needs to begin associating it with a positive emotion, one that is incompatible with fear. This is called counterconditioning.
  • When you feed your dog, quietly play the firecracker serenade. Gradually turn up the volume. Eating is a pleasant event for your dog and is not equated with fear. If the dog can eat, he will be able to block the fear with the pleasure of eating.
  • Turn up the volume when playing games or participating in your dog’s favorite activity. Offer treats. Be very careful not to trigger a fear response. Increases in volume should be very slight.
  • As your dog progresses, play the recording at a normal volume at random times, perhaps when he expects to have fun. Try playing it low in the car when you’re out for a ride.
Note: Some dogs are also bothered by the acrid smell of firecrackers or flashing lights and vibrations. To desensitize do this:
  • When you think your dog is ready, place spent firecrackers near his food dish—far away, at first, then closer as time passes.
  • Safely, walk the dog near roads where heavy traffic causes vibrations. Give him treats so that he gets used to the rumbling and associates it with something pleasant—treats and walks.
  • If flashing lights bother him, darken the room slightly, and, using a flashlight, splash the beam around the room while you play with the dog.
When your dog successfully copes with each hurdle, gradually employ all of the stimuli simultaneously when you think he is ready. He will eventually master the situation. Repeat the whole simulated event regularly, so that he will remember it as a positive experience, and not revert to his former, overanxious ways. With diligence, compassion, and determination, you and your dog will succeed in surviving noisy, cultural celebrations.
 
This article is based on information—and with permission, from David Ryan, (UK), an ex-police dog handler and Home Office accredited instructor for twenty-six years. He is certified as a Clinical Animal Behaviorist by the independent Association for the Study of Animal Behavior and has a unique blend of practical experience and theoretical knowledge of canine behavior. For more fascinating tips please visit his Web site at: www.dog-secrets.co.uk.

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