Canine Behavior/fearfull dog
have a male mini schnauzer 6 years old who is terrified of fireworks and loud bangs. the past several weeks there have been distant bangs or gunfire from far away lasting hours. i don't know if its farmers shooting guns, or kids with fireworks and don't know if it is going to ever stop . now my dog is scared to go out for his walks. he trembles, hyperventilates, looks miserable. when theres other dogs at the park that helps but doesn't totally relieve his distress. my other dog is totally ignorant of the matter. how can i help my dog to not be afraid, so we can keep on enjoying daily exercise? i thank you for your opinion
Thank you for your question. It can be difficult with a dog is fearful of something that you have no control over.
There are some tools out there that may help reduce his stress. These include a Thunder Shirt (some dogs find comfort even with just a snug t-shirt). The shirt creates a subtle, but constant external stimulation to the dog's body, and in so doing gives the brain something to process. This appears to help dogs process other external stimulation without becoming so overwhelmed by it. It's about 85% effective in that roughly 85 out of every 100 dogs who wears it will show a decrease in anxiety behaviors. Of course, there are limits, even for dogs who are quite comforted by the shirt. Example: one of my dogs is quite sound sensitive. He loves his Thunder Shirt and will request it when he's feeling anxious. We were having work done at the house, and when the nail gun was in use, even while sitting in my lap, in a bathroom with the door closed, with the Thunder Shirt on, he still trembled like a leaf until the noise stopped. There are limits. But, the rest of the time when work was happening and there was an occasional hammer or drill, he was fine.
The shirt should be worn at times of comfort and play and feeding as well so as to enhance the comfort and good feelings it provides. If it's only ever put on just before something scary, then it will become "poisoned" because it will reliably a scary event. So by having him wear the shirt at other times - relaxed, cuddle, eating, play - we help to reinforce the natural comfort the shirt can give.
Also take note that the effect of the shirt will wear off in 60-90 minutes because the brain will habituate to that stimulation. I've found great success in many dogs to have the dog wear the shirt for 1-2 hours in the first part of the day and again 1-2 hours in the evening, with a 2-3 hour window between wearings. If the shirt is on for longer than 90 minutes, it won't hurt the dog (e.g. if you're out of the house for 3 or 4 hours), but be aware the effect wore off after about 90 minutes (at the outside). Having the dog wear it with this protocol on a daily basis for 2-3 weeks can show a lingering sense of increased confidence, even when the shirt is off. Though you should still have him wear it periodically (several times per week) as well as during the stressful events to keep the confidence up.
Having him wear the shirt perhaps for an hour or so in the morning, again in the afternoon and again for evening walks may help him feel a bit better about the strange noises. The shirt should go on about 5-10 minutes before you leave the house with him, and stay on about 10 minutes after you get home to avoid a direct association with putting the shirt on meaning that a walk is about to happen.
Available at PetSmart and PetCo as well as many local pet stores now.
Another tool you may find helpful are Comfort Zone - a spray that you can put on the neck of the shirt or on his collar (make sure you apply it to the collar/shirt while that item is OFF the dog as the product contains rubbing alcohol which is very unpleasant to breathe in directly. Spray the collar or shirt and then wait about 10 minutes for the alcohol to dissipate before putting the collar/shirt on the dog. Remember, if you can still smell alcohol, your dog can too and it's not a smell most dogs enjoy.
Comfort Zone (DAP) is a synthetic pheromone that is produced by nursing mother dogs. It's called Dog Appeasing Pheromone and is supposed to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Like with the Thunder Shirt, it seems to be very successful for some dogs and not so much for others.
But, aside from these management tools, I'd encourage you to do some counter conditioning training with your pup. This is a process by which we change his emotional response from "That noise may mean my death!!!" to "Oh boy! That noise means STEAK!!!"
When doing this work, you want the dog to stay BELOW his fear threshold (that point at which he's too scared to think straight). So, you may need to start inside your home with a window cracked, or even with the window closed if he can hear the pops and bangs through the closed window.
Have is very favorite treat ready (and you'll need to be ready to do this for as long as the fireworks are going off - which may mean several hours every night, for several weeks right now*). Every time there's a pop/crack/boom say something in a sweet voice like "Yummy!" and hand him a bit of his favorite food. Say the same thing every time so that you create an association for him that the scary noise predicts your happy voice, which in turns predicts manna from heaven.
*Because you may be doing this for hours, you will likely need to reduce his regular food ration so that he's not over eating. There are some complete nutrition dog foods that come in a sausage roll that he may quite like. This way you can feel confident that he's still getting full nutrition, even though it's in a special food right now.
The key, though, is timing/order of events. It needs to go like this every time there's a fire cracker/gun noise:
3. Treat given
The whole thing should take all of about 2 seconds from the noise to the food delivered to his mouth.
As he gets comfortable, he'll begin to look to you when the bang happens, before you say the word. This tells us he's learning that the scary noise predicts something good. That's GREAT! Now try doing this in an open doorway of your house. Then just outside your door on the porch, just down your drive, etc. Let him tell you if he's comfortable and don't force him to continue on if he's not comfortable. The biggest red flag you'll see (aside from the panting, drooling, pulling to go home, etc) is that he'll refuse his favorite treat. If he won't eat, then he's too scared and we've gone too far too soon. BACK UP and take it slower at that point.
Every time he turns to you when he hears the bang, you reinforce him with the yummy bit of food, and after a while, you'll begin to see that he's almost looking/listening for the noises so he can get his yummy. This means we're successfully changing his opinion of the noise. Now it no longer means a potential threat to his life. Now that noise reliably predicts his yummy treat!
When you get to the point of taking him out on walks in the evening, make sure you have way more of the treats than you think you'll need. Every time he hears a bang, pop him a tidbit. If it's closer than you were expecting (louder, bigger), then rain treats on him - drop one after the other for 6-10 treats so that the really big/close noises predict a windfall/jackpot of yummy.
You may need to walk the dogs separately so you can focus on this guy, without having to try to also treat the other dog. Also, because the other dog may be up for a mile-long walk, while this guy may not be able to leave your property for the whole 20-30 minutes.
Pay attention to his body language and tension. If he's anxious - lip licking, yawning, full body shakes, turning away from the noise, sniffing the ground intently (unless you just dropped food there), trying to go back inside - respect his need for more distance/barrier between him and the scary thing. If you can only sit on your front porch with him for 3 minutes and then you have to go back in, that's OK. Just build from there. If in 2 days, you can sit out there for 5 minutes, that's 40% longer than the first day... If you can only walk back and forth on your own driveway, but not leave the yard, that's OK. Perhaps tomorrow you can walk to your neighbor's drive and back to your house. Perhaps you can just pace between your neighbor's yard and your own for a few minutes and then go back inside.
Remember the idea is to keep him calm and relaxed, so we don't want to test him by seeing if you can get all the way to the end of the block the first day. That first day or three, it may be that he pees on your front porch and goes straight back in, and just do the counter conditioning by a window.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist