ARE THEY RELATED?
This has been the season of loud whizzes and bangs, and a lot of us are living with dogs who can’t cope with the weeks around bonfire night. Fireworks seem to get set-off for days both before and after November the 5th. For those of us living with troubled dogs, it can be a time of real anxiety.
I’m lucky. Mine aren’t that bothered by them, but most of the reason they’re not is because I was determined it was one issue we weren’t going to have! Finn can be inclined to bark at them if they’re nearly in his backyard, but we did the usual Mark-and-pay for quiet and he’s soon stopped it. Maggie got terrified of a random one a couple of nights ago, which sent her several feet into the air and galloping back to the house. But I just-about got enough of a grip to stay neutral (despite my heart hammering. I hate the things), sauntered back in the house and did a quick game of Ping Pong Puppy with her. She was fine within seconds and they all ignored the next smattering of fireworks outside.
I was worried about the next time we went out in the dark, though. It doesn’t take much for Maggie to develop fear-associations, so I made sure that we Ping Pong Puppied our way out of the door, down the yard and up-and-down the garden before she could even think about any scary noises. She was fine, and has been since.
So they’ve been fine with fireworks, but we have another problem at the moment. We’re dealing with Separation Anxiety from Lily and Moth again, after a long period of them being settled when left alone. And I’ve started to question if fear of loud noises and separation anxiety aren’t two faces of the same coin.
My dogs’ anxiety around being alone has been building-up for a while because they’ve had a lot of changes in their world over the last year or so. Sand has started working full-time since the summer, which has had a big impact on Lily. She is also doing some very long shifts, which have no routine, and Lily is a dog who thinks she needs to hook her life onto routine to feel safe.
This is always going to be the way with troubled dogs. If you have a dog that struggles with anxiety, any kind of change in their lives or daily routine is likely to set them back a few steps. The more that you’ve been able to teach them to self-calm and deal with stress, the more easily they will adjust. But some dogs are naturally anxious.
There are several studies that have been done on stress and anxiety in a range of mammals, including human babies, where the findings have shown that the emotional state of the mother during pregnancy has a profound effect on foetal emotional development. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are absorbed by the baby’s system, resulting in babies and off-spring that have a pronounced tendency towards anxiety.
This has real implications for those of us who live with anxious dogs. How we help them cope with the stresses of daily living makes a huge difference to their ability to be able to deal with such big stressors as life-style disruptions, such as moving house or owners changing jobs.
HOW ARE THEY LINKED?
So why would I be thinking that Separation Anxiety and Fear of Fireworks are linked? Because a number of clients who have contacted me over the last few weeks with dogs who are panicking over loud bangs share the same thing: their dogs are clingy and attention-junkies. Most of them struggle with being left alone. A lot of them don’t even cope well with being left in a room on their own while their owners are in the house.
All of them respond to fireworks with shaking, panting and needing to crawl onto their owners laps. Their shaking becomes worse when their owners look at them, touch them or speak to them.
Lily might not react to fireworks like this, but she used to do it if she wanted a cuddle and didn’t get one. She would lie next to me and shake. This was 7 years ago, before I knew what I know now, and I used to react by cooing at her and cuddling her. I believed I could stroke her out of the shakes.
Except that I couldn’t. The shaking would become more pronounced and she would start to pant. Occasionally she would also begin to whine.
WALKING AWAY FROM ‘FEAR’
I knew enough in those days to walk away from whining – that nearly all whining is attention-seeking, and so I started to get-up as soon as she started doing it.
She stopped doing the whining.
Which made me start to question if the trembling was about ‘fear’. After all, why does the body shake? Is it cold? Is it in panic?
Or can it also occasionally start as moderate anxiety, where the body tries to displace and eliminate muscle tension by shaking, and then turns into something else? Such as a learned behaviour? It made sense that, if there is any response from a person to the dog’s shaking, there is an instant Feel Good response in the dog’s brain. So shaking then starts to become a learned behaviour. And, I’m afraid, many dogs who struggle with both Separation Anxiety and fear of fireworks are doing it as a learned behaviour because of the response they get from their owners.
I began getting-up and walking away if Lily started shaking. It didn’t take long for her to stop using it as a way to get me to touch her.
I was reminded of Lily’s shaking last week when one of my clients sent me footage of her husky x staffie. She had been told on a FB page that she should make a fuss of her dog when she panics about fireworks because ‘fear is an emotional response and you can’t make it worse by giving attention. How would you feel if you were ignored when you wanted reassurance?’
The video she sent me showed Poppy sitting on her lap, pawing at her, intermittently looking at her, panting and shaking. The more she touched and spoke to her, the more pronounced her behaviour became. Her mum has worked with me for several years, I although I haven’t done any behaviour work with the dogs for a long time because they’ve been doing so well. But the comments on the FB page, added to her own real concern about her dog, had clouded her thinking. Her gut reaction, and everything she knows that she has learned through Thinking-dog meant she knew that giving Poppy more attention was making her feel worse rather than better. In fact, it was making both of them feel a whole lot worse!
Her story was echoed by one of my assistant trainers contacting me about Lottie, her staffie who has always had high levels of anxiety. She has gone from highly-reactive with dogs and uneasy around people, to a cuddle-monster who has several dog friends after a lot of hard work from her mum, Rhiannon. However, she has never overcome her fear of fireworks, and this year things got worse.
A WHOLE LOT OF LOTTIE
Several days after bonfire night, with no more fireworks being let-off nearby for a while, Lottie had taken to standing in the kitchen for the rest of the evening after being fed. She was panting, hanging her head, trembling and whining. She was also moving towards her family to be touched and was shaking more overtly when they spoke to her.
Her family were becoming frustrated with her and had tried everything to stop her getting herself into such a state. Moving her into another room didn’t work, because she just put the brakes on and then went back to the kitchen, working herself-up into a real lather of anxiety.
When her mum sent me footage of her, the thing I noticed was that Lottie kept looking intently at Rhiannon. Although her behaviour was understandably upsetting (and we do get very upset when we feel our dogs are distressed) neither Lottie nor Poppy were in extreme states of stress. If they had been, they wouldn’t have been seeking eye contact with their owners.
Extremely distressed dogs pace, pant and have glazed eyes. They tend to do displacement activities such as shredding and chewing items, and in real panic they will lose control of their bowels and bladder and are likely to vomit. There are undoubtedly dogs who react to fireworks and thunderstorms as severely as this, and they need a careful programme of work to help them. They may well also need medical intervention to help them deal with fireworks as part of a rehabilitation programme.
But most dogs have a lower level stress-reaction to fireworks, and it's this level that their owners often find distressing. Unfortunately, they often make their dog’s behaviour worse by the way they respond to the panting, trembling and whining.
Vomiting is understandably worrying, but not in all dogs. Some dogs will be sick because they don’t deal well with any level of stress. Lily is one of them. As humans, we think there is a lot wrong with a dog being sick, but many humans, cats and dogs have digestive problems as a result of stress. I’m not saying this is ok, and it certainly needs dealing with, but it isn’t as alarming as it may seem.
Lottie had vomited, but this was because she had worked herself into such a state of agitation. She tends to have a sensitive stomach, and like some people, if she is stressed, she will be sick. And, understandably, the vomiting was alarming for her family.
Her mum felt at her wit’s end, because she had been behaving like this for several days and it looked as if it would continue unless they could find some way of distrupting it. It was definitely starting to turn into a habit, because the neural pathways in Lottie’s brain were being worn deeper into a belief that ‘this is what I do after I’ve had tea because it feels safe.’
THE SCIENCE OF IT
So what was happening with Lottie’s brain? I explained to Rhiannon what was going-on for her, because I thought that looking at Lottie in terms of how a brain functions may help the family step back from her a bit, and that some of the emotions they were all feeling may feel more manageable.
Being around a dog that is chock-full of cortisol can be upsetting for owners. We meet cortisol with our own levels of frustration and upset, which can perpetuate how the dog is feeling.
The fear of firework noise flooded Lottie’s brain with adrenaline (the ‘fight or flight’ hormone). As adrenaline flushes out of the system, it then gets replaced with cortisol, and a number of other stress hormones which keeps the body in a state of being ready to run away or fight if necessary. Muscles are tense, blood is directed to the vital organs (which is why we often get stomach upsets when stressed, because of reduced blood flow to the stomach) and the brain has gone into ‘reacting’ mode rather than straight-thinking mode. The brain and body are just about holding things together enough to keep functioning.
What the brain and body want in this situation is to feel safe, and Lottie felt safe in the kitchen. The longer she stayed in there, her brain would have been starting to shift a gear from Feel Safe to Feel Good, which was unfortunately reinforced by family members giving her eye contact and trying to soothe her when they went into the kitchen. Even though this soothing turned to frustration, (which would have had a degree of Feel Bad for Lottie) by then her neural pathways had already been grooved for the Staying-In-The-Kitchen to have become habit. And habits Feel Good, enough so that they will overcome any sense of Feel Bad from frustrated owners. It takes very few days for something to become habit in dogs if it feels good enough or safe enough. In short, Lottie was getting a lot of Feel Good for shaking and panting.
COME AND BE WITH US!
There was also something else going-on for Lottie and her family. Her owners saw that getting her out of the kitchen may stop her being agitated, because if she was able to be removed to Rhiannon’s room she would sometimes crawl under the bed and calm down. It wasn’t just a thing of wanting her to be able to be calm, though. Like most of us who own dogs, they wanted her to come into the front room to be with them.
Lottie’s family love her. They want to be around her when they’re at home and they really look forward to getting back from work and seeing her. Lottie is particularly attached to Rhiannon, who has been working some 10 hour shifts recently and Lottie has been missing her.
Rhiannon is highly attuned to her wee dog, and had noticed something that a lot of owners may have missed: Lottie was much more likely to react with shaking and panting when Rhiannon was in the kitchen than when anyone else was.
THE TRICKY BIT
So here is when I finally get to the explanation of how the two things are linked! Separation Anxiety and fear of fireworks are based on the same emotional response in dogs: their adrenal systems are triggered to produce high levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
If we raise those levels by giving our dogs attention that reinforces their physical response and then makes it intensify, (increased shaking, panting and pacing) then we are making them increasingly dependent on us for ‘reassurance’ and we’re creating a habit-based, learned behaviour.
Then there comes an even more tricky bit. I realised with Moth and Lily that I really needed to look at myself and my own behaviour. There is another blog post in this, because the reasons why I have inadvertently contributed to my dog’s separation anxiety are complicated and need explaining in some depth! But, in a nutshell, they have become clingy with me because I’ve added to their high levels of cortisol. Fuss and attention tends to create clingy dogs who can’t deal with frustration, fear, anxiety or stress with ease. Although my dogs are very calm, two of them are prone to anxiety. Unfortunately, Lily’s adrenaline levels shoot sky-high very quickly with any level of excitement, and even stroking her can make her excited.
So the only way that I have been able to deal with her anxiety is to sustain very steady levels of calm in the home. Not easy in a tiny terraced house of 6 dogs and 5 people, on a busy street with thin walls and noisy neighbours!
If you hate fireworks, and get onto Facebook or the phone and rant away about how awful they are, then your adrenaline and cortisol levels will rocket. Most of our dogs are very attuned to their owners and most mammals react to high levels of stress hormones by meeting them with their own. Adrenaline meets adrenaline, and your ranting is likely to raise your dog’s adrenaline, as well as your own!
You may well be reading this and thinking that you’re naturally anxious yourself and can’t help how you respond to your dog’s anxiety. Or that you need a cuddle as much as your dog does. Or that you’ve read on the Web the same advice that Poppy’s mum was given – which led her to feeling very guilty about ignoring her dog. There is no scientific evidence that ignoring a dog who is showing habit-based moderate stress behaviours is unkind, ineffective or detrimental. There is, however, huge amounts of footage that show dogs whose learned stress behaviours are the result of owners feeding into them by giving excessive fuss and attention.
HELPING POPPY AND LOTTIE
Poppy was an easy case in some ways. She had only been intensifying her panting, whining and trembling since her mum had been fussing her and her mum was very happy to go back to not feeding-in to those behaviours.
We talked about how to ignore her, which is probably the part of the solution that most people struggle with. I’m not talking about completely removing yourself from your dog, because both you and your dog would probably find that hard. The strategies that I use with troubled dogs who experience firework fear are exactly the same as another dog would behave with them – I’ve developed Thinking-dog by observing my own dogs over the years and what older, calm dogs do with other dogs generally works.
DO WHAT DOGS DO
Another dog will never fuss a panicking, stressing dog. They are most likely to walk away from it, because its agitation will increase their own levels of cortisol. Some very steady and calm dogs may lie down next to a stressing dog.
And that is all they will do:
They won’t look at it. They won’t lick it (their form of stroking). They won’t distract it with food or try to play with it. They will just lie next to it so that it can lean against them if it wants to. Or squash it, if you're Tia with Keegan...
It’s all your dog needs. Just be there without touching her. Poppy’s mum has practised this with her in relation to her startle-reponses to other loud noises, and it’s having an impact.
Lottie simply needed to be allowed to stay where she felt safe until she doesn’t need to be there anymore. So we made the space in the kitchen feel more comfortable, so that she could calm herself down in there. She’s been provided with a very comfy bed and some chews so that she can use them if she needs to. Anyone who goes into the kitchen is now happy to not engage with her, because they understand what her brain is doing, so they feel easier about ignoring her. However, if she needs to go and lean against them, they will let her. If she shakes or pants, or looks at them, they will move away so that they don’t feed-into her stress-response.
Two days later, Rhiannon has contacted me to let me know that Lottie has happily left the kitchen and gone for an evening walk in the dark, consisting of loads of Ping Pong Puppy and sniffing about. Lottie loves clicker work, so going back to basics to re-set her brain has been really good for her. She has a bed in the kitchen, and last night she left the kitchen of her own accord earlier than she has done and went calmly up to bed.
THE PAWS DEN
As for my little lot. Well. As I said, there is a whole other blog post in what has been going on for them. But they have been much calmer in the last 3 days. I’ve been able to go upstairs in the morning without any of them following and when I leave for work in the morning, instead, they’re all lying quietly on the sofa instead of trying to herd me away from the back door. Yes, 4 of them really were doing that!
I looked at them in terms of how their brains were working and what I was reinforcing by feeding with attention, in just the same way as I did with Poppy and Lottie. It can be a difficult thing to do, because it means that we often have to look at ourselves and work out what we’re doing to our dogs and why, which isn’t always easy. But being able to do it means that our dogs will become more independent, less anxious and much, much happier