Halloween through the eyes of a dog

Dr Tim Kirby MVBMRCVS

Each year some of us feverishly look forward to the spectacular fireworks, the excitement of costume making and the general noisy mayhem and raucous carnival that is “Halloween”. We have done so for generations.

For dogs, it is a much different story however! They do not enjoy the fear filled atmosphere that we humans relish during these festivities, nor do the deafening and hair tingling explosive fireworks that illuminate the night skies bring them anything but more fear, dread and anxiety.  Not to mention the constant tide of young people hammering the dreaded doorbell like an alarm clock that cannot be switched off at 5am! As man’s best friend, why do we therefore repeatedly subject our beloved canine companions to such un-necessary hardship, aren’t we supposed to respect their wishes and space? As with most aspects of society, we see people who care and those that don’t care about the welfare and emotions of our beautiful dogs. At Halloween, it is important for those of us who care to extend and spread our consideration much more widely to ensure that pets are not un-necessarily frightened or suffering as a result of the festivities. Some practical tips for protecting your pet from any such fears are:

  • Ensure you pet is microchipped.

If loud noises frighten your pet sufficiently, it may escape from your house/garden and as a result unfortunately become lost. The only way of re-unification is by identifying your pet’s microchip and your details.

  • Keep your pet inside

This is really important, and if your pet becomes agitated and distressed by the sound of fireworks, then it will be more comfortable inside your house. It is also less likely to find a gap in the fence to escape through!

  • Provide a Den

Dogs in the wild use dens as their safe place, a place of sanctuary and reprieve from threat. Create an area in your house where you dog can safely run to and hide, and where it will not be disturbed. This will emotionally be very satisfying for your pet.

  • Use treats & words – properly!

When your dog is becoming agitated, use soft, re-assuring, comforting words and language to appease it. Gently stroke your dog and lovingly tell him/her how it will all be fine. Dogs are highly sensitive to our words and body language so do not underestimate the power of this positivity. Also, only when your dog is calm and not distressed, offer it some treats and again reassure him/her that everything will soon be fine. Do not give treats when your dog is distressed as this only reinforces that unwanted behaviour.

  • Treatments

Several products are available which can be used to calm your dog, these are available to buy over the counter. More effective products are pheromone based, and they work by releasing relaxing hormones/chemicals into the environment. Such products can be sprayed or plugged into the wall and used in a room where your dog is.

For pets that become severely distressed, it is worth having a chat with your local veterinary surgeon. They can supply you with medication such as sedatives which will relax your pet and make the whole experience less traumatic overall.

Some other tips such as playing calm background music to drown out the noise of fireworks can also help.

As lockdown restrictions have almost been completely lifted, more and more people are returning to the office as working lives revert back to normal. For anyone with a pet, it’s important to realise that this spells a completely new ‘normal’ also for your pet. They have been used to your constant presence for the past 20 months, and now they will think that “you are leaving them”!? To allay their fears, and overcome the risks of separation anxiety, there are some things you can start immediately which will help…..

  • Build up to leaving your pet a room

You want your pet to tolerate being in the house for short periods on its own.  Leave your pet in a room on its own, and you can be in the room next door in case it becomes very anxious. Start with a two-minute trial, and gradually build up every day so that it can tolerate being on its own for up-to 2 hours.

  • Use body language and cues

Use your voice to let your pet know that now it’s time to play and introduce a specific toy that reinforces that association. After you’ve played tug for 20 minutes, tell your pet that now you need to leave and remove the toy at the same time. This let’s your pet know that play time has now finished, and you need to leave the house for a short time.

  • Enrich the Environment

Dogs are highly intelligent and cerebral creatures. They like nothing better than a good brain teaser or a mental challenge, which uses up a lot of their energy. Simple tips such a filling a Kong with kibble and making it “challenging” to remove or pasting a lick mat with their favourite pate are simple but highly effective ways of soaking up a dog’s attention, time, and energy. Replenishing their toys every few weeks is also keeps them occupied. If your dog can move about the house from room to room, they will also enjoy that freedom, and always remember to have a dog walker available if you cannot make it back within 3 hours. Dogs need regular exercise, which is not only beneficial for their physical health but also equally as important for their mental health and wellbeing.

You may not be a pet parent however you can really improve a pet’s life by sharing this with any pet people you know.

Tim Kirby is a Veterinary Surgeon and founder of www.petbond.ie where pets meet people.

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