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.