Deep Breathing – A Tool We Can Use During Fireworks (and other noise events)

Do you remember the smell of grandma’s homemade apple pie? It was overwhelming when I walked into the house. I’d slow down just to take it in. There would be anticipation of what was to come. Looking back, the smell and anticipation of the taste was more gratifying than actually eating it. After that, the experience was over.

Have you ever watched your dog while you were cooking (especially B-A-C-O-N)? Their nostrils flare taking in the smell. They lick their lips. They are living that homemade pie right there in YOUR kitchen. But more importantly, they in that moment are DEEP BREATHING. They are getting a double whammy of “FEEL GOOD.”

Teaching Dogs to Take a Deep Breath

While we know it is very possible to teach our dogs to take deep breaths (and it is highly recommended), our human half takes over and we decide to do shake or spin because well that is way more fun and entertaining, right? In all seriousness, teaching your dog to take a breath on cue and ultimately to choose this behavior in a setting of concern is a terrific idea.  Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Deep Breathing is the document to follow!

Luring a Deep Breath

With fireworks imminent, having our dogs be able to take a deep breath would be amazing! So, how can we get a deep breath when it hasn’t been taught? How can we get a deep breath when we can’t even get any other cued behavior because our pup is too stressed? By luring it with food! Hold some extra yummy food in your hand.  THIS IS THE TIME TO BRING OUT THE BIG GUNS… think bacon, sardines, liverwurst, anything that would stink you out of the place.  Many dogs might not be able to focus on the food, but just having it in the environment during fireworks may be beneficial.  Sniffing things after all is reinforcing to most dogs (especially hounds) and could be used in making a good association.

Alternatively, you can scatter the food on the floor allowing your dog to engage in the activity of sniffing.  But, just a word of caution don’t scatter bacon or other greasy stinky food on carpet.  You’ll be hating me in the morning.

Reward (reinforce) the Breathing

Don’t forget to offer tiny bits of the yummy stuff once your dog engages with your hand. Tiny bits are key… we really want to drag out this experience (of eating and breathing in the wonderful smell) not like when we woofed down grandma’s apple pie!

So Why a Deep Breath?

Have you ever been in a tense situation? If you took a deep breath, how did you feel after? Taking a deep breath calms the nervous system, releases muscle tension, improves the digestive system, and affects the dog’s mental state.

If your dog can’t focus…

Don’t get frustrated if your dog can’t take a breath when food is presented.  Yes, I meant can’t instead of won’t, because your dog is experiencing a very unpleasant and often panic inducing event.  If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you’ll understand the feeling of knowing it’s irrational but not being able to change your own feelings.

Your veterinarian can help.

This won’t be the end all be all fix right now.  We are just talking things we can do when it’s a little late for creating a better association to fireworks.  If you have had a prior experience and know your dog can’t focus, speak to your veterinarian right away.  There is still time to get an appointment with many and they may be able to provide some assistance to get your dog thru the fireworks.

Game of Destruction (Thunderstorm Fun)

Have you ever watched your dog with a new stuffed toy? The sheer joy as they shake it, squeak it, and unfortunately try to mutilate it makes me smile every single time.  Of course, I’d prefer the de-stuffing take several days, but with a Jack Russell Terrier this could be a matter of minutes.  I often told my husband, wish I could bottle the feelings she has right now and then serve them up during the next thunderstorm.  That’s when a little light bulb went off and screamed, YOU CAN!

I could! Not literally, but I could create a similar opportunity during thunderstorms.  Heck, she wanted to destroy my drywall anyway.  As an added bonus this just might just be an avenue for counterconditioning too.  I purchased 10 of her favorite toys, the honking Hedgehog stuffed toy. He only came out during the thunderstorm.  She squeaked him a few times, but it wasn’t until much later when Sileo was introduced that she tore him up like she usually does.

What else could I offer up? That’s when the Game of Destruction was born.  This game alone has made a change for many dogs.  It almost forces us to get super excited and take our minds off the storm and into getting the dog to shred something.  I’d love to explain some science behind this, and I’m sure if I dig deep I could relate it to the “hunt,” but where’s the fun in reading that right now.

The Game of Destruction is simple and there are only two rules:

  1. Use an object that you don’t care if you ever see again.
  2. Children can help prep toys, but only adults should play this game with the dog.

Here’s a list of some of the favorite things we have “destroyed” during a thunderstorm:

  • Pool noodles from the dollar store
  • Egg Cartons
  • Toilet Paper Tubes
  • Amazon Boxes (I know you have a secret shopping addiction!)
  • Old t-shirts
  • Old blankets
  • Paper (Forget the shredder, use the dog!)
  • Old stuffed toys
  • Socks
  • Rope Toys

If your dog doesn’t naturally destroy things, start with a peanut butter smear and get excited.  Have them chase the item while you run (this works great with the pool noodles). If your dog gets too excited, you can always slow down your movements and/or redirect him to a food toy for breaks to calm down.  It typically does not escalate for most dogs as they are stressed and alter what they might normally do.

Play and have fun with your dog. Just remember, this game can have the consequence that your dog may see these items as fun outside of a thunderstorm.  If your kids use pool noodles in the pool, don’t choose that item if you think your dog will try to play this way outside of the storm.  Some dogs learn quickly that its only when they are engaged that they should do this, others don’t learn this so it is important that you know your dog.  If you need help determining if this is a good fit for your dog, we are here for you.

Top 10 Tips To Help Pets During Fireworks

Fireworks can be scary for both dogs and cats. It never fails that on New Year’s Day and July 5th stories pop up in my Facebook feed notifying me of missing pets. When dogs get scared they try to get away from the scary thing. I wish they understood that getting out of their homes and yards is not in their best interest, but unfortunately they don’t. Cats tend to hide and we don’t necessarily know they are scared. It can take some indoor/outdoor cats several days to feel comfortable enough to come back home and unfortunately this could mean they are picked up by someone else. Here are our top 10 tips to help keep your pets safe and comfortable during fireworks (and thunderstorms).

Tip #1: Talk to Your Veterinarian Now

If you haven’t discussed your dog’s fear of fireworks with your veterinarian, now is the time.  They can offer tips and options for alleviating anxiety.  Additionally, if your pet is not already microchipped, you may want to consider getting this done right away.

Tip #2: Blankets to Dampen Noise and Darken the Room

Blankets can be one of the most useful tools to have on hand. They can serve multiple purposes and can save you a lot of money if you have a dog that is in such a panic they dig at drywall or flooring. Many dogs and cats love to burrow in blankets during scary times, but blankets can also be used to cover windows or crates to dampen noise and darken a room.  For more uses see our blog post, 10 Uses of Blankets During a Thunderstorm.

Tip #3: Exercise

Taking your dog out before the fireworks begin for a nice long walk can help tire him out.  This will not necessarily eliminate his anxiety, but can help to elevate those feel good chemicals and reduce some signs of anxiety.  Additionally, this will provide your dog an opportunity to use the bathroom.  It’s possible your dog may not want to go out for several hours after fireworks end so being empty before is ideal.

Tip #4: Close Blinds and Curtains

While it is primarily the sound dogs are scared by, the flashes of light may be scary too.  Additionally, closing blinds and curtains can muffle the noise ever so slightly.  I suggest you ensure the doors and windows are also locked.  It is not unheard of for scared dogs to get windows open and escape.  If you do not have blinds or curtains, you can use the blankets.

Tip #5: White Noise in Resting Areas

White noise can be played throughout the house, but at the very least play it near your dog’s resting areas.  White noise is very good for drowning out other sounds, but for some dogs it can be scary.  If that is the case, classical or other relaxing music can be very helpful.  You can find very good tracks of white noise on YouTube, or purchase a special white noise machine such as the Dohm by Marpac.

Tip #6: TV

While white noise and classical or other relaxing music are beneficial, don’t forget the television alone can be helpful and good for masking noise.  For my own dog, if I put on a funny movie and called her up on my lap and covered us both with a blanket she’d almost completely forget the fireworks were happening.  It doesn’t have to be a comedy, but for me this type of movie can take my mind off of stressors in my life.  She is pretty in tune with me, at least according to the Dognition games we’ve been playing lately, so this could perhaps have something to do with it.

Tip #7: Don’t Leave Them Home Alone

For dogs that exhibit fear, having you there can help calm them.  It’s hard to have to stay home while others are out celebrating the incoming New Year or the country’s independence, but there are benefits.  You don’t have to find a designated driver for one.  The main reason though, is that you will be able to intervene if your dog tries to get loose.

Leash clipped to both collar and harness.
Tip #8: Proper Identification and The Right Tools For Walking

If you absolutely need to take them outside during the fireworks, you will want to ensure you have proper identification on them (even if they are microchipped).  Additionally, a six foot leash firmly attached to collar and if possible a front-hook harness as well.  Using the front hook harness in addition to the collar gives you added security in case your dog tries to slip out of one to run away.

Tip #9: Lots of High Value Food

Don’t skip on the treats during fireworks.  Not only can treats help your dog feel better in the moment and take his mind off the sky blowing up, but they can help create an association that fireworks make treats rain down from the heavens.  The next time fireworks happen, your dog may feel a little better about them.  Some suggestions are boiled chicken, cut up hot dogs (we cut them into 80 pieces), cheese, peanut butter, and bacon bits.

Tip #10: Play Their Favorite Games

Now is the time to break out fetch (in the house of course), tug-of-war, nose work games, and anything else your dog enjoys. If your dog doesn’t want to play, don’t worry. Leave the games out and available until the fireworks end.  They may end up playing as time passes.  At the end of the fireworks make a note of how long it takes for your dog to start to play.  This information can be very helpful if you choose to work on how they feel about fireworks later to know if he is improving over time.

10 Uses of Blankets During a Thunderstorm and Fireworks

During a thunderstorm, blankets can be one of the most useful tools to have on hand. They can serve multiple purposes and can save you a lot of money if you have a dog that is in such a panic they dig at drywall or flooring. Many people have spare bedspreads or moving blankets laying around and these are the types I most often recommend.  Moving blankets are thick and work well for both noise dampening and darkening a room, but they also tend to stand up well to chewing and digging.  Bedspreads are often weighted which can help increase comfort and allow for some great burrowing.  If you don’t have either, don’t worry any blanket will do.  With that said, I don’t recommend your grandmother’s antique handmade quilt.

One blanket can be enough for some dogs, but I do recommend having a few due to the versatility.  Here’s 10 useful functions of a blanket for management during a thunderstorm.

Purpose #1: To Burrow or To Hide

Dogs that can will try to flee or hide when they are afraid.  Blankets provide a great place for the dog to burrow and hide.  Take note to places your dog will try to go during a storm and place a blanket or two in this area.

Purpose #2: As A Noise Barrier Around a Crate

Many dogs love to go into their crate or “doggy den” during a storm.  It is already a safe place to them.  While we don’t want to lock them in their crates we can definitely help make it feel even safer by reducing the noise inside the crate with a few blankets drooped over it.

Purpose #3: Darken Room

While we often focus on the noise, many dogs are actually frightened by the lightning flashes.  Whether it is the lightning itself or a learned association that lightning predicts the scary boom, blankets can help eliminate this aspect of the storm when used to cover windows.

Purpose #4: A place to hide treats for a search in the middle of the storm

For dogs that will take food during the storm, giving them the opportunity to search for those treats in the blankets not only can serve as enrichment and distraction during the storm, but it can also change their opinion of storms.  Some dogs learn, thunder predicts a fun game of find the treats.  Additionally, if they are searching the noise might be muffled by their head under the blanket. For dogs that don’t take food, the smell alone may be enough to change their opinion a little each storm and over time they may start investigating the blanket and eating those yummy treats.

Purpose #5: Allow your dog to play the game of the destruction with an old one

One of the games we play is the game of destruction (post coming soon).  For dogs that chew or dig during storms, I will typically select something I don’t mind being destroyed.  I will elicit a game of play with the item and then the dog takes over destruction. Old blankets can be useful for this and when they are all tired of shredding, you can use those pieces in a food toy.

Purpose #6: Use the shreds to stuff inside of a food toy to make it harder

Shreds whether from the game of destruction you played during a thunderstorm or from you physically cutting up an old blanket can be useful for making a food toy a little harder.  The new Treat Snake or the JW Hol-ee Roller.  For some dogs just taking the shreds out is fun, even without the food.  These are great toys to give during a thunderstorm if your dog will work to get food as this will take his mind off the storm.

Purpose #7: The feel of a blanket can be comforting

Whether your dog decides to burrow or hide, or simply lay on top of it, the blanket alone can be comforting.  If placed as a cover on your dog, the weight of the blanket may have a calming effect similar to that of swaddling a baby.

Purpose #8: A place to spray pheromones

To add to the feel of comfort there are pheromones that mimic a mother dog’s milk that is designed to appease the puppies. Studies do show the pheromones to be effective for some dogs during fireworks, thunderstorms, visits to the veterinarian’s office, and more.

Purpose #9: Make a fort to hide in with your dog

Remember when you were young, how much fun you could have in a blanket fort.  Bring back your childhood innocence while helping a dog out. You and your dog can enter the fort and play with feeding toys while getting the benefit of the blankets muffling some noise and blocking out the light.  Bonus, building a fort brings out the child in all of us which can send out some good vibes to your dog. If you have never built a fort before, don’t worry WikiHow has you covered with this article.

Purpose #10: Put them in places your dog digs to protect surfaces

If your dog has primary areas he goes to dig, say a certain wall or a certain area of the floor, you will definitely want to redirect him, or consult with your veterinarian right away for ways to alleviate his anxiety during storms.  Additionally, placing a pile of blankets in these areas can give your dog a better option while helping to protect the surface.  One client cleverly took a blanket and hung it on the wall where her dog normally dug and put some spray cheese all over it. The dog that normally dug, licked spray cheese instead. Surprisingly this was a dog that would not eat during the storm, but perhaps digging spray cheese was not in his behavioral repertoire.