Remember remember the 5th of November…and the 4th…and the 6th…and Diwali…
A mindful approach to an age old problem.
Well, the firework season is here again along with the heartache and pain of having to see our pets go through what can be an absolutely terrifying time for them. I’m not going to go through the usual list of things to try as these can be found all over the internet. Firework phobia can be really tricky to resolve due to it’s random nature and everything is worth trying at least once, and perhaps even a combination of strategies may be helpful in getting your dog through this. However, letting our dogs run off and hide, or wrapping them in things, or trying to soothe them, but still allowing them to be fearful and hoping they get through just isn’t helpful. We need to be using this as a training opportunity to help reduce their fear of fireworks in general. As fireworks are becoming a more frequent and random event we can’t always be prepared for when they do go off, so trying to ease the fear, rather than just getting them through, is for me, the only way to go. What dogs (and people) are looking for when they are frightened is guidance and leadership, not pity and sympathy. We need to act from a position of empathy and compassion. We all know what it’s like to be crapping yourself, right? Then we need to put our feelings aside and do what’s right for the dog, which is to act compassionately.
Ok, here we go. If you already practice mindfulness or other forms of meditation you are half way there already. If not, don’t worry (really, don’t worry), just be as still as you can and simply observe your breathing without trying to control it.
Starting with the basics for the next few weeks.
If it’s possible give your dog a really good walk earlier in the day and feed them earlier too and give them chance to go to the toilet.
Close the curtains and turn the TV up. Gentle classical piano pieces (Moonlight Sonata, etc) seem to work quite well.
What we are looking for is for your dog to be as close to you as possible without actually touching. They can be standing, sitting or lying down as long as they are still. Pacing only serves to feed the anxiety. If they have a place they feel safer like a crate or their bed then you will have to go them at first.
Our golden rule is to only reward the behaviour you want. Do you want your dog to be fearful and shutdown? Then don’t reward it. This means no “Good dog”, no pity and no affection because they’re not being good, they’re being fearful and shutdown. We need to save the praise and “Good dog” for when it’s really needed, when they start to show signs of calming like yawning, shaking or scratching, so that we can start to encourage a calmer state of mind. If you have to talk, just use your normal voice.
Make yourself comfortable near to your dog, not too close, and fix your gaze on the floor just in front of him, but still able to see him with your peripheral vision. So now we’re using mindfulness meditation to move from the mind to the body and to try to create an atmosphere of calm and peacefulness. If your dog displays one of the calming signals, slip back into the mind, give him some gentle praise, one of the “Good boy”s you saved from earlier and make a value judgement on his anxiety level, then, as he re-settles, go back to the mindfulness. If he gets up and goes somewhere else, follow him and repeat. Without restraint, try to encourage your dog to sit or lie next to you; this is the main goal, to have them come to you when they are anxious because you provide a little bubble of peacefulness.
This is far from a quick fix and will take time, patience and perseverance. Practicing meditating with your dog during “peace time” will be most beneficial. Obviously it also requires that you are able to be mindful or at the very least be still and calm, so you need to practice for yourself as well. If you start now and practice daily for 10 minutes with your dog, you might see some improvement for the New Year fireworks but bear in mind it is a long term project, and next year will be easier, and the year after. But if we don’t keep working at it, our dogs will always be fearful, that’s guaranteed.