Helping Your Greyhound With Firework and Thunderstorm Phobia
We can’t stop fear in another being. The best we can hope for is to influence the other being, in this case our dogs, with OUR behavior. Each interaction we have with our dogs during a storm or fireworks has an effect on them, either positively or negatively. Fear is something that can escalate or get better with every exposure. The worst thing we can do is to accidentally influence our dogs negatively with our behavior. Hopefully this article will help you learn how to influence your dog positively. This article is all about what changes we can make in our own behavior to help our dogs.
Don’t feel like you or anyone else caused this fear. Dogs that are fearful of other things tend to be the ones that are also fearful of thunderstorms. Certain breeds like herding breeds are most prone to fear of thunderstorms, so it is likely to have a genetic component. Even if you find you made some mistakes in handling the fear, that may have caused it to escalate temporarily, don’t be upset. If you didn’t love your dog and want to help, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Kudos to you, for looking for a solution. Greyhounds are very forgiving. It is never too late to go a new direction that will be more beneficial to your dog.
Why This Article Was Written
I felt I needed to write this article after being at several dog events where well-meaning humans accidentally terrified dogs that were already afraid of fireworks. These are the most loving people imaginable, the type that attend dog events and whose lives revolve around their dogs. These owners would NEVER intentionally do anything to cause fear in any dog. In fact, nearly all of these people are wonderful, protective dog parents that constantly worry about a dog’s welfare and put it ahead of their own.
At a greyhound event at the beach fireworks went off nearby suddenly. Dogs jumped up, some barked, some started trembling. Owners leaped up, people were yelling at others to grab dogs, people laid ON their dogs to prevent them from getting away. People RAN out of the event carrying their dogs and dragging others out on leash. It was crazy and was scary for me, even though I understood that the fireworks were harmless. Imagine how the poor dogs felt, that did not know how harmless fireworks actually are. I am pretty sure that the dogs all thought that impending doom was near because of the way the humans reacted. They had no way of knowing that the humans were not actually terrified of the fireworks; but were terrified that their dogs might get away from them or be traumatized.
There was another festival we were attending when fireworks went off. The owners did much the same. One dog that had never acted fearful of fireworks before startled and tried to back out of her collar. She was just surprised by the loud noise. Her owner and everyone else grabbed her and raced her to a building yelling for people to let them in because the dog was going to escape. All the people were in a total panic afraid this dog would get away. From then on that dog was horribly phobic during fireworks and had to be medicated. Hopefully this article will help you avoid turning a simple, startling bang or boom into the scariest experience your dog has ever had.
In both instances the owners thought they were doing what was best by removing the dogs quickly from a situation to prevent escape. The people were understandably stressed and upset by the situation they found themselves in, but unwittingly scared their dogs and nearby dogs by their fearful, panicked reaction.
It would have actually have been better and safer for all the dogs if the humans reacted calmly and quietly. Holding the collar under the neck to prevent backing out is safer than pulling up on the collar and holding it from above. Wrapping a leash around the body just behind the front legs makes a harness that would be very difficult to slip out of. There is much less chance of a dog escaping if you sit there calmly, than if you take off in a panic, trying to move the dog to another location.
When the fireworks went off my dogs jumped up too. One is a recovering firework phobic dog and these were very loud and very close. I am not fond of fireworks either and they made me jump too. A few owners didn’t move and remained seated. My first reaction was to make sure I had a good grip on the leashes and had a hold of them very close to the collar. I didn’t start choking my dog or put tension on the leash that would cause fear though. I took a deep breath, smiled, stayed in my seat and corrected my dogs with an “ACK!” And told them to “Down” and “Stay”. They did.
Fireworks went off again.This time the only one of my dogs that moved was the one that was fearful of fireworks. The other dog held his stay. I stayed seated and told the one that got up to “down” again. I had him hold his stay in the chaos around us as owners ran out of the event in panic. My dogs were fine as soon as the fireworks stopped, no stress, no panting. I heard later that some of the dogs that had run out in a panic with their owners had panted and stressed for hours afterwards. In their mind they had run for their lives from a serious threat that could have killed them. It could be still out there waiting for them. Would it even be safe to venture out to the beach the next day? I tried to let my dogs know with my behavior that I was in control of the situation, there was no cause for alarm, there was no threat, and proper, calm behavior was still expected and required.
What do you do when your dog does something you don’t want him to do? Correct him? Offer an alternative acceptable behavior? Do you allow your dog to bolt around on leash and back out of collars normally? Or is it a behavior you just accept as inevitable just during thunderstorms or fireworks? Most of us correct these behaviors normally and let the dog know that they aren’t acceptable (it just isn't safe to allow these behaviors). When the dog does them because of fear, people tend to be more accepting because they feel sorry for the dog. It is even MORE dangerous to allow a fearful dog to engage in these behaviors though.
It is OK to correct a dog and ask for appropriate behavior even when dealing with behavior that is the result of fear. Understand that the dog may not listen and obey as well as usual, when fearful. Telling the dog to stop the behavior and showing it what you want it to do instead, is better than allowing craziness and participating in it. Interrupting the behavior early can often stop it from escalating. It can also keep your dog from getting away from you. Taking charge of the situation and telling the dog what to do also helps the dog feel safer.
People and dogs have similar reactions to fear. If there was an explosion in your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want someone, that knew what had happened, to tell you what the best course of action was? Would you feel safer with a person who was calm and in control or one that was running around hysterically? Of course, the first person we would all go to for help would be a police officer or a fireman that had information on the situation and was trained to remain calm and knew what to do. None of us would call the hysterical, next-door, neighbor for advice. Don’t be the hysterical neighbor! Foster a relationship on a daily basis that lets your dog know that you are calm and in control in every situation and he can put his trust in you. A fearful dog should NOT feel he needs to protect you or is on his own in a scary situation.
If you have a greyhound that is prone to freaking out for any reason it is SO important to have a properly fitted martingale collar on the dog AND a separate tag collar. If the dog were to panic and slip its' collar it would still have identification on this way. Harnesses are far from escape proof but some people that have fearful dogs have found that a harness and a martingale work well together to prevent escapes with dogs that tend to bolt.
Here are a few things that we have found that help our dogs:
- DO NOT PARTICIPATE – if you jump up, stress out, and worry about your dog every time you hear fireworks or a thunderstorm, it will make him more stressed. Do not react! Don’t rush to get meds or a storm coat, tighten up on the leash (unless you absolutely have to). Don’t start talking frantically to the dog or others or try to rush the dog to another place. Take a deep breath and sit there very calmly.
- Stay Positive- Your dog will sense if you get angry and stressed because neighbors are setting off fireworks and will get more stressed too. Practice saying “This is really good! This gives me a chance to practice helping my dog and myself stay calm” instead. Keep it in perspective, it is just a storm, it is just some kids having fun with explosives. It is NOT the end of the world or even a serious problem. If you stay sane, your dog is more likely to also. If you blow it out of proportion so will your dog.
- Do not accidentally reward your dog’s stressed behavior – if you tell a dog it is a “good boy” when it is freaking out, pacing and acting fearful, it will think that is the correct behavior and the one you want. Better to ignore the behavior entirely than to reward it. Be careful about petting the dog to try to calm it down for the same reason. Petting the dog to calm it down in a scary situation rarely works and often escalates the fear. Reward the calm behavior you want not the pacing, whining, and destructive behaviors you don't.
- Give the dog an alternative behavior. Teach him to “down” on a dog bed on command and “stay” before the fireworks or thunderstorms come. Many dogs learn “go to bed” at night, which also works. Once he knows these commands very well, ask him to do it during a storm instead of pacing back and forth. When he is lying there concentrating on staying on the bed he won’t be able to focus as much on the storm. Sit near him calmly and remind him to “stay” frequently if he gets up. Many dogs work themselves up into a panic pacing back and forth. Interrupting it early and giving them an alternative behavior often helps them calm themselves down.
- Teach The Dog How Walk on Leash Properly. Your greyhound should be taught to walk safely and properly on leash in a non scary environment. A dog that is fearful and likely to bolt should not be wandering around at the very end of a 6 foot leash (too dangerous). NEVER EVER use a flexi leash!!! Six feet of leash allows a dog that bolts to get up a lot of speed that can hurt him or his owner or allow him to get away. Better to hold the leash short and give the dog just enough leash to walk beside you. A timid dog shouldn't be leading the walk, where he is the first to meet scary things either. That is too much to expect. The human should confidently lead the walk, decide the direction and be in control of the dog at all times so the timid dog can relax and enjoy the walk. Dogs should be taught that bolting is never allowed for any reason and even the fattest squirrel has to be left alone. Make sure your dog understands that it is expected to stay in one place- right beside you.
- Make it a party – throw a party for yourself when a storm or fireworks start. Break out some special human treats and eat them in front of the dog. Smile! Hum an up beat tune! Turn on music and dance. If you have dogs that aren’t afraid of storm feed them some treats. Play with the other dogs and have a ball. Pay no attention to the scared dog, but reward him with treats and fun if he even attempts to interact with you or join the party. If your fearful dog will take treats, then save your best treats for “Thunderstorm treats”. Even if he isn’t comfortable enough to join the party, your joy WILL affect your dog positively.
- Walk your dog -if you can do it safely in your house or in a fenced yard. Not a good idea to go outside in lightning, of course. Helping him safely expend that stressed energy in a calm, controlled manner can help your dog calm down. Asking a dog to walk politely beside you in heel position without bolting around, will give the dog something to concentrate on other than the storm. Dogs generally focus on one thing at a time and a nice heel is better to focus on than a scary storm. This may be part of the reason that a storm coat works on some dogs. They focus on the tight, odd feeling coat rather than the storm. It may also be why the coat stops working for some dogs when they get used to wearing them.
- Exercise your dog- Greyhounds don’t have a lot of energy. A dog that is already tired will fall asleep faster and have less energy to put toward pacing panting and other stress behaviors. We know which day fireworks are most likely to be set off already. With radar weather on our cell phones we can know when storms are headed our way. If one or the other is likely, make sure your dog has exercised that day. Throw a ball, drag a toy on a rope, or go for a walk to tire your dog out before the storm gets there. Exercise your dog every day for a few days before and after New Years and the 4th of July if fireworks go on for days. Exercise also releases calming, happy chemicals in the brain, so helps in more than one way.
- Give the dog a safe place to go. If the dog feels safe in the bathtub or in a basement or walk in closet and it helps the dog calm itself, it is OK to let the dog go there. Often greyhounds like the comfort of a crate so give that a try. It may be why we don’t see as much thunder phobia at the racetracks as we do in retired racers. Often a room without windows or with curtains closed makes them feel safer. Keeping the lights on may make the bright flashes of lightning less obvious. Playing music or turning on a TV may help mask the noise of the thunder. Again don’t rush to do these things in a panic. Slowly and happily do them while yawning and acting as if you don’t have a care in the world.
- Be your dog’s fearless leader. Be sure your dog doesn’t feel like he has to protect you or take care of you on a day-to-day basis. Make sure he knows you are in charge and a calm, capable leader every day, so he will trust you to take care of all situations. This is especially important for fearful dogs. A timid dog feels more comfortable with rules and structure he can depend on. He needs to know what is expected of him and that someone will step in and tell him what to do when he gets nervous or something bad happens
- Use calming signals such as yawning, sitting, or lying down to help your dog calm down. Here is an article http://theartofdog.com/articles/calming.pdf
- Look for alternative therapies that have worked for others Rescue Remedy, valerian, DAP Diffusers and melatonin have helped some dogs and might be worth a try. Just taking the edge off can help your dog learn to cope better with a storm. One of our vet's has had very good results using a calming supplement called Composure Pro.
- Understand that dogs are not human so using methods that work with a child may not be successful. If you teach your dog what to do and how to act in one room of your house, don’t expect him to automatically know that the same rules apply outside, at PetSmart or even in another room in your house. Dogs need to be taught in new situations and new places. They really need help to understand that it does help to lie down calmly on a bed and wait for the storm to pass and that it is never appropriate to throw themselves around on leash and panic. Just because they learn to be calm in one situation doesn't mean that they will be OK in a new place or situation right away.
- Stay away from the “cants” and “wont’s”! “I can’t do that” or “That won’t work because it didn’t work before”. Keep at it! Remember that each interaction has an effect on the dog and you are influencing him positively or negatively EVERY time. It doesn’t matter if you see improvement every time or not. Practice saying “This is good!” and welcome every opportunity to help your dog overcome his fear. Stay away from negativity like “My dog won’t ever do that”. If he won’t now, he just needs to be taught how.
- Try Storm Shirts and wraps help some dogs and are always worth a try in extreme situations. Be careful how you use them though. Don’t leap up and run to get the coat at the first thunderclap, while yelling at your significant other to see where it was left the last time. Better to sit there and get the coat calmly without frantically searching for it. Do it between booms if possible. Put it on the dog while singing a happy tune and thinking happy thoughts. This isn’t the “end of the world” shirt this is the “happy” shirt and all is well when we are putting on the shirt and wearing it. You are not “saving” your dog’s life by putting on this shirt and it is NOT an emergency situation.
- Expect positive results. Dogs are masters at reading our emotions. Try to actually BE HAPPY rather than just pretending you are happy when fireworks go off. Love thunderstorms too! Believe the dog will be fine and happy! Negativity will affect your dog. It is hard to be happy when worried about your dog, but you MUST put the worry aside for your dog’s sake. Thinking “this won’t work” will make it so. Even if you aren’t successful the first time you try, be happy over every small step in the right direction and every small success.
- Don’t automatically rule out medication in very severe cases. It isn’t a permanent thing. The goal is to take the edge off the dog’s fear to get it to a workable level so you can help him overcome it. Gradually, he can be weaned off the medicine as he gets better. If you are a very anxious, high stress individual, medication may help you stay calm enough to work with your dog too.
Working through fearful behavior takes time and there is rarely a magic bullet that changes it overnight. Each dog is different and each owner is different. It is possible to change your own reactions, but you can only influence your dog’s fear. By changing your reactions you will see your dog improve. Will your dog ever love fireworks and thunderstorms? That is a huge goal so lets shoot for the moon like the positive thinkers we are. If we get half way there our lives and the lives of our dogs will be a lot better.