Grouse shooting and fireworks can frighten your dog on a walk, so it pays to think ahead.
From the Glorious Twelfth through to the New Year’s Eve, gunfire and fireworks can cause pet dogs to run away from their owners on a walk, get lost in the countryside and in some extreme cases they may not want to venture out on a walk again.
Sensitivity to bangs from gunshot or fireworks begins even before you obtain your puppy, as some dogs are more sensitive to sound through breeding, stressful early environments and poor habituation to novelty and specifically novel sounds like bangs. A puppy that is relaxed about novelty, and has learnt to accept unexpected sounds, will always be better able to cope with sudden bangs in the countryside. This does not mean that dogs that are less well prepared will always be frightened, but it does mean they will need more help in coping with their fear of gunshot or fireworks.
Even if your dog has not displayed any fearful reactions, you can ensure problems don't develop by taking preventative measures ahead of time. Firstly it does pay to avoid countryside walks where gunshot or fireworks are expected, as it is common for dogs to suddenly over-react to a bang if it is louder or closer than normal. This means avoiding known areas of grouse shooting, for example, and getting home long before evening on November 5th and New Year’s Eve when people will start setting off fireworks.
Giving your dog a good walk before firework night is a good idea, so your dog is tired and more likely to sleep through loud noises. Also giving your dog a good hearty meal of high carbohydrate, rice or pasta can help the dog relax.
It is really important you don't tell your dog off, jerk the leash to ‘correct’ its behaviour, or squirt water in its face if it does bark or try and hide when loud noises are heard. This approach will just cause the dog to be even more frightened, can easily lead to aggression or the dog just running off. Instead you need to be a safe haven for the dog when it becomes frightened.
So if you get caught outside and you hear some bangs, even in the distance, take the opportunity to teach your dog to love hearing them rather than developing a fear of them. To do this you only need to get a ball out to play fetch with your dog, or hand feed really tasty treats like chicken, hot dog sausage or cheese. In this way the dog associates the sound of the gunfire or fireworks with the pleasure of eating or playing so he has a positive emotional reaction to them rather than a fearful one. This also teaches the dog to stay around you, rather than trying to run off and hide.
Dogs read human body language far better than humans do, which means if you are frightened and worried about how your dog will behave, then your dog will pick this up and become more anxious too. So it is important that you don't get anxious and just chat happily to yourself or your dog (which ever you feel happier doing!) even if you feel worried inside.
If your dog is becoming fearful about sounds on a walk or at home, then it is important to seek professional help quickly as it is common for the dog to gradually become even more sensitive over time. The result can be that a dog that starts out being frightened of gunshot and fireworks can become frightened of all kinds of bangs and pops. I had one case where a dog became frightened of the sounds of football crowds on TV, because the referee’s whistle sounded like a firework! In another case, the dog became frightened of a food mixer due to the bangs it made in the bowl. In both cases sound triggered the problem. To obtain qualified professional help, contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors via apbc.org.uk
Graham Thompson is the Technical Editor of Trail Magazine. He also an Msc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling and is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist and he is on the Animal Behaviour & Training Council Register of Clinical Animal Behaviourists.
Cover photo: Cumbria Tourism / Ben Barden