4 Strategies to Help Your Dog Cope with Bonfire Night
A Games-based Approach to Firework Season.
With the upcoming ‘firework season’, I wanted to share a few games that may help to destress and calm your dog before and during the displays.
It’s best to introduce all of this before Bonfire Night so that they are used to varied activities. For dogs who find comfort in a set schedule, you may prefer to stick closely to the normal routine and perhaps just introduce one of these. For dogs who love things to do, you can give them a really fulfilling day through choosing a few activities.
If your dog gets severely stressed during firework season, I would recommend consulting with an ABTC Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist or Veterinary Behaviourist to work out a personalised plan.
1. Designate a Go-Settle blanket for your dog.
A go-settle blanket is what it says on the tin – this is yours, go lay on it here.
While it’s great to give your do a job to do, such as working them or through games and training, they also need to:
- Have designated downtime.
- Be free of responsibilities they may have taken upon themselves, namely patrolling and defending the house.
Clearly defining your dog’s place of rest can help them unwind.
This is something I’ve learned with my dog. He is naturally very busy and I have had to teach him that it’s OK to do nothing, otherwise, his level of alertness creeps up, and he begins honing into outside noises. As we all know, this can create reactive responses which can snowball over time.
A designated bed, mat or blanket can be used as your dog’s go-settle area.
A blanket is ideal as it’s so portable to move about the house (such as going from the office to the kitchen to the living room) and beyond.
You can also lay it next to you on the sofa, which is a great comfort for dogs who like to sit with you.
Otherwise, in busy households, you may want a quieter spot where your dog can get away from it all.
A note on crates: Outside of the birthing process, dogs are not innately den-habituating creatures. Some will find comfort in retreating to a covered space, such as a covered crate or tipi bed. Others will prefer to be out in the open or by your side. If you do use a covered crate as a bolt-hole, this should be open access during fireworks as confinement could exasperate their stress levels.
You will of course want to spend any nights during firework displays with your dog to provide a calm presence.
It can be good to snuggle up on the sofa with the blanket so it gets your scent on it too. Then, anytime you do have to leave your dog at home in the future, your scent can provide comfort.
You could also spray it with a relaxing scent such as Pet Remedy’s de-stress and calming spray to help build a calm association. I have this available in my Calm Kits.
WHICH GAME CARDS?
↠ Pamper: Give your dog regular “pamper” sessions on the lead up to Bonfire night. There is a Pamper card in the deck in the Bond category (instructions below).
↠ Chameleon: Building value in the blanket (this card is from the original deck and will be making a comeback in Vol 2 – Training and Exercises). We’ll alter it slightly to be more of a ‘go settle’ ritual than a playful game (instructions below).
Have your dog lay on the blanket (or start with standing if they prefer).
TALK to them softly. STROKE along their body using long hand strokes. Try to always keep in contact with them, as taking your hands off and then putting them back on somewhere else can be startling.
Calmly MARK and REWARD CALM BEHAVIOUR (stick to stroking them if food is too distracting). With a brush, GROOM them using slow, steady movements. Give them a gentle MASSAGE using light pressure and moving your hands in circular motions in areas you know they are 100 percent comfortable with.
If your dog hasn’t experienced a brush before, let them explore the brush before trying to use it on them. They may think it’s a toy, that’s ok. The more familiar they get with an object, the less interesting it becomes. So if your dog gets excited when you get the brush out, you could leave it out somewhere they can see it. It will become ‘part of the furniture’ soon enough.
Place the blanket on the floor and sit on the edge of it.
Wait for your dog to come over to investigate. Mark (“good”) when they touch the blanket.
Ask them to lay down, you can pat the blanket to encourage them.
Once they’ve laid down, calmly reward them with small treats. Place these directly on the blanket rather than rewarding from your hand.
Go for 5-10 pieces.
Slowly get up and place another treat on the blanket as you do. If they get up, encourage them back onto the blanket.
Spend some time paying into the blanket. Repeat these sessions over the course of a few days.
Once they are well versed at settling on the blanket, you can introduce the cue “go settle”.
The Day of Bonfire Night
2. Fulfil your dog’s exercise needs.
The opportunity to fulfil their exercise needs is the foundation for a happy, healthy dog.
Going for a long walk during the daytime before the fireworks begin can help to tire out your dog physically and provide them with the mental stimulation of a good sniffing session, increasing the likelihood that they will sleep deeply during the evening.
If your dog enjoys swimming, this is an excellent way to provide a non-impact workout, especially if you don’t have the time or mobility to increase the length of your walk. I like to incorporate a long walk plus a swimming session.
If your dog is reactive, walks can be a source of stress. Could you book private field hire or a hydrotherapy session? Or drive somewhere quiet for a lowkey explore?
Physical Games: Tug toys are a good way to give your dog a workout in a limited space. Digging is another enriching physical activity, so a beach day could combine digging, swimming and running!
WHICH GAME CARDS?
3. Provide calming enrichment activities.
Play ‘find it’ games with your dog’s food and scatterfeed too.
Sniffing can be extremely relaxing for dogs and these extended feeding sessions will give them the opportunity to utilise this self-soothing behaviour.
You can use a snuffle mat or scatter their food across the garden. You can hide stashes for them to seek out in or outside the house.
You may want to be mindful about your feed times so that they can either go to the toilet before the fireworks begin or after they have finished. For dogs who find comfort in a regular, predictable routine, keep feed times the same.
Keep a portion of food back for some games during the evening.
Give your dog the opportunity to sleep and rest between activities.
WHICH GAME CARDS?
↠ Easter Egg Hunt
↠ Chew ‘N Chill
↠ Etc (all cards)
By this point, your dog has had an amazing day and is ready for a good snuggle session and some more sleep.
You may find it helpful to increase the volume of your normal household activities a little prior to the firework displays commencing. This can help buffer out the bangs when they begin.
For example, you could turn up the TV volume or music, put a wash on, blow-dry your hair, hoover etc. Obviously don’t use any noises that are a source of stress or trigger reactivity (such as dogs who bark at and attack hoovers!).
My dog absolutely loves the hairdryer. He doesn’t sleep on my bed at night with me so getting to lay in the bed is a special treat. He gets to do so when I sit on the bedroom floor and dry my hair. He hangs off the edge trying to lick my ears or sits on my lap and gets lots of attention. So he now associates the hairdryer noise with lots of fuss. If he’s downstairs with my husband when I turn on the hairdryer, he will leap off the sofa and sprint up the stairs to find me. It’s become a little ritual and is an example of how you can create a positive association with an ordinarily unpleasant noise.
4. Play Brain Games
Playing brain games with your dog can help direct their focus away from the fireworks and onto you. Since brain games are mentally challenging for dogs, they are also a way to tire overactive brains and help your dog to sleep soundly.
I’d recommend the cards from the Focus and Puzzle categories for this.
Both provide a welcome distraction from any noises. High-value treats can get their attention and noisy toys (that squeak and rustle) can help keep it. Engaging the nose through scent games can also be helpful as sniffing is calming.
I’ve included a couple of options below.
An easy nosework game.
Hold a small TREAT in ONE HAND. To start, let your dog see which hand the treat is in.
CLOSE your HANDS and OFFER these OUT to your dog. CUE “find” and wait for them to choose. MARK (“good“) for polite nudging or TOUCHING of the CORRECT HAND.
If they choose correctly, OPEN your HAND and give them the TREAT along with lots of PRAISE. If they don’t identify the correct hand, open up your hands so they can see the treat and then close them and play again. Once they understand the game, hone their nose skills by not letting them see the treat first.
Play 3-5 times.
My spaniel loves this activity as it’s an outlet for his instinctual prey-drive.
EQUIPMENT: Knotted rope/plait, soft bottle/carton and, for extra protection, a fleece sleeve.
Stuff food into the bottle along with a knotted rope. Encourage your dog to grab the rope and thrash it about to release the food. Alternatively, stuff the bottle inside a sock or fleece sleeve and tie a knot around the opening. This crinkly element can be very appealing to dogs who enjoy noisy toys and is a more low-key version of the activity.
Plastic is a blight on the planet, so if using plastic, please keep and reuse if undamaged.
Ensure your dog does not chew as plastic can be sharp.
I hope this helps a little!
If you don’t have the deck and want more ideas for brain games and enrichment activities you can play with your dog you check that our here.
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