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Usher might ruin your dog’s Fourth of July

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Usher @ Air Canada Centre, Toronto

For many, the Fourth of July is about food, food, alcohol and more food (maybe with a side of baseball). But as late afternoon rolls around and people prepare for fireworks displays, you might remember, “Hey… didn’t Banjo freak out about the fireworks last year?”

If you live in NYC, R&B star Usher is “curating” the 2013 Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks, which means that while Usher himself is not upsetting any dogs today (hopefully), Usher is indirectly ruining many dogs’ day. While dogs are known for their noses, they also come equipped with an excellent auditory system, which might not always be beneficial. Almost half the owners in a recent survey reported that their dog shows fearful behavior when hearing fireworks.

What does it look like when Banjo freaks out?
“Freaking out” in association with loud noises can take a number of different forms, either catatonia, which is a state of motor immobility, or panic and mania, marked by excessive movement. In one study, dogs exposed to simulated thunderstorms panted, paced, hid, stayed near the owner, and whined and barked. Another study found that lab beagles exposed to thunderstorm sounds in an open-field testing room were most likely to display a freezing response. Dogs might also howl, perform destructive behaviors, attempt to escape, or even urinate or defecate. Even if a dog doesn’t overly respond to cars backfiring or thunderstorms, this doesn’t necessarily mean that 20 to 30 minutes of loud booming and cracking fireworks will go unnoticed.

The bottom line: When loud noises come out, many dogs are not having a good time. In the study exposing companion dogs to simulated thunderstorms, dogs’ salivary cortisol levels (which assesses dog stress response) “increased 207%, and these levels did not return to baseline within 40 min.”

While many around the US of A are oohing and ahhing at the blasts of red, white and blue filling the sky, many Banjos around the country would rather move to Canada. But maybe this year can be different! The Fourth of July should not be about massive dog defection or owners regretting that a companion dog had a horrible day. Here’s what you can do to combat Usher.

“I wish I hadn’t taken my dog to the fireworks”
My mom’s friend recently brought her new dog to the loud fireworks display at the public pool. Her words: she “regretted bringing the dog because the dog was so frightened.”

Ways to avoid this regret:

  1. Don’t do it: Don’t take a dog to a fireworks display.
  2. Lend a helping hand: If possible, have someone stay home with the dog. One study found that reassuring a dog did not intensify or reinforce a dog’s fear response.
  3. Good food: Veterinary behaviorist, Ilana Reisner recommends cooking up irresistible food to give the dogs during the event. “Cut meat into tiny pieces and stock a treat bag. Feed one piece at a time to your dog throughout the fireworks to countercondition and distract. If your dog is willing, make a game of it and ask her [to] sit, down, shake hands and other distracting cues. Freeze a Kong with kibble mixed with baby food. Feed dinner through the toy.”
  4. Make a comfy “chill” spot: Some dogs might retreat and hide instead of taking food. Make a comfy hang out spot for your dog.
  5. Be nice and don’t punish your dog: Dogs might perform behaviors we don’t typically like, like digging or scratching. Remember that those behaviors are part of an emotional response. Change  the underlying emotional state and you can change the resulting behavior.
  6. Bring in assistance: Anxiety wraps, white noise, dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) and pharmacological support could help. Before adding medication, always check with a veterinarian, or even a veterinary behaviorist who is specifically trained in behavioral medicine.

Although Usher and many others around the States are adding loud, booming noises to the sky tonight, there are steps you can take to make your dog hold less of a grudge against Usher.

Photo: Usher @ Air Canada Centre, Toronto Tony Felgueiras via creative commons.

References
Blackwell et al. 2005. Firework fears and phobias in the domestic dog. RSPCA
Bowen 2010. Behaviour: Firework fears and phobias. Companion Animal
Dreschel & Granger. 2005. Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Cottam et al. 2012. The effectiveness of the Anxiety Wrap in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia: An open-label trial, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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