Its that time of year again — outdoor celebrations, picnics, and, of course, fireworks. It’s a festive time for Americans, but for many, especially for those with four legs, it can be a time of anxiety, stress and fear.
Loud noises cause stress. You may call it various names, like ligyrophobia, acousticophobia, sonophobia or phonophobia. Whichever name we choose call it, the effects are the same. When our dogs are exposed to sudden loud sounds, there is a release of adrenaline and an increase of the hormone cortisol, as well as changes to their amygdala, hippocampus, and parts of the frontal cortex of their brain. In other words, brains change as a result of loud, anxiety producing noise. Our dogs are especially vulnerable to this effect during the summer months when thunderstorms prevail and during Fourth of July celebrations, where fireworks are set off in some neighborhoods all day and night.
I see advice from well meaning “experts” about how to help your dog if they suffer from noise anxiety that may actually cause more fear and stress, negatively effecting your dog’s well-being. Advice such as, “Don’t allow your dog to hide”, or “Don’t coddle or comfort them.” The reasoning behind this is that doing so will supposedly “reinforce” their anxiety, and thus increase it.
The archaic idea that “comforting your dog when they are stressed will reinforce their feelings” is an outdated, Skinnerian, mechanistic approach that views dogs as one-dimensional machines, rather than complex, multi-dimensional, fully conscious beings that strive for self-realization.
Study after study show that allowing our dogs to “tough it out” and endure their stress can create the above-mentioned neurological changes that may lead to PTSD or PDSD. Much of this stems from the old and outdated Watsonian/Skinnerian ideas that have been proven, based on evidence from modern neuroscience, to be damaging to babies, such as allowing them to cry and not responding to their needs. In addition, denying your dog comfort in these situations may create insecurity in their relationship with you (Bowlby, Ainsworth, Schore) that can lead to a vast array of more anxiety issues, such as separation anxiety, confinement/barrier anxiety, and further noise anxiety. In short, to withhold your love and kindness when they need it most will not solve the problem, it will exacerbate it.
I’ve also read a few suggestions that advise you to “Take your dog outside during the fireworks” in order to get them used to it. This machismo attitude is extremely risky and can often destroy any sense of security your dog will ever have. It borders on cruelty. I have also heard the suggestion of putting your Dog in a crate. This will only work if your Dog feels that this is a safe place and it is their choice. Otherwise it will have the effect of making your Dog feel trapped and unable to escape. This is unspeakably damaging to your Dog’s sense of safety and security.
One thing we can do for our friends when they are stressed is to allow our dogs the dignity of choosing their own coping strategies, as long as they aren’t harming themselves. Our Dogs are intelligent, self-determined beings that can find coping strategies to help them deal with fearful situations and regain a sense homeostasis. We don’t always know what’s best for them. (“Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown”, said the Monkey putting the Fish safely up a tree.) We should also make sure our Dogs know that we are there for them — to comfort and protect them, and most importantly acknowledge their concerns, and not disregard their feelings. This attunement is the foundation of feeling safe, secure and loved.
We can help our Dogs cope with the noise by distracting them with play, providing we don’t add additional stress by attempting to “train” them. If we can interest them in chasing a ball, or a game of tug without coercion, it may help them shift their focus away from the noise and towards play. That will change their emotional state, as what they pay attention to determines how they feel. That said, if it becomes a “training exercise”, we may be adding more stress to the situation. However, this only works if the stress of the noise is not that severe.
Medications are often prescribed to help, however these only blunt the experience, rather than helping the dog process and integrate what’s happening. Our dogs should learn to self-regulate their emotions, and we can be instrumental in helping them achieve that through emotional resonance and mindful attunement. Drugs can allow us to get our “foot in the door” to help our dogs, so they can be used in conjunction with other methods, as long as the goal is not to become dependent on them.
One of the best ways we can help comfort our Dogs is through touch. Gentle, easy massage is a great way to stimulate oxytocin, which is a natural antidote to adrenaline. This is a way to create emotional resonance and attunement, where we can gently guide our dogs to a safe and secure feeling. It can stimulate ventral vagal complex which counteracts the “fight-or-flight” system.
Technique is not that important. It’s just the close, loving physical contact that helps. This is precisely what those “compression shirts” on the market attempt to simulate, but they can’t come close to the genuine experience of your actual loving touch and connection — one living being to another, as friends; fabric cannot stimulate oxytocin.
Another great way to help your Dog through these tough times is Shared Mindfulness. This is something I highly recommend all year long, and not just under stressful conditions. It is a wonderful way to deepen the connection between you and your Dog, and it will ease the anxiety for both of you. You can learn more about this great experience here.
Although this time of year can be difficult for you and your Dog, there is a bright spot. When you connect with your Dog by putting into practice some of the suggestions above, you may find that sharing this experience brings you a closer, more trusting relationship. By helping each other through this tough time, you further deepen your friendship.
So, the question arises, why limit this connection to the Fourth of July? Our friendships with our Dogs need to be nourished every day of the year so we grow deep, connected roots. And, if the roots grow deep, even the strongest storm can not do us harm.