Guest Blogger: Mikkel Becker!

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We’re thrilled that well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor, Mikkel Becker is here to share her advice on how to best prevent and treat pet anxiety related to the upcoming 4th of July festivities! Take it away, Mikkel!

Fireworks are exciting to many people, but our dogs see them differently. The sight and sound of the patriotic displays we love terrify our dogs. They seem like an attack, an experience so frightful that days around the Fourth of July are the ones most likely to lose a dog, as they run away in terror.

It makes sense from a survival standpoint for a dog to react fearfully to fireworks, because in the natural world, loud bangs and flashes of light may signal a life-threatening situation animals need to avert in order to stay alive.  The fear they experience is obvious:  Our dogs will be shaking, trembling, panting, pacing, drooling, hiding, running away, attempting to escape, whining and vocalizing.

When dogs are afraid, they can injure themselves when attempting to escape. The people around a terrified dog are also at risk, because a scared dog is more likely to bite defensively.

Stress and the body’s reaction to it has damaging effects when experienced over prolonged periods of time, damaging the immune system and making the body more susceptible to disease.  Stress also decreases reproductive hormones, increasing a dog’s risk of cardiovascular disease. (http://www.livescience.com/2967-animals-stressed.html)

I know firsthand how horrific fear can be.  When I was a young girl I was afraid of air travel, so much so that I would have panic attacks both in the days leading up to travel and during plane trips. Family and friends would attempt to get me to understand that my fear had little basis, but their words didn’t help.  At the time I had flown to more than 48 countries safely, but I was still afraid.  That fear is similar to what many dogs go through: They experience fireworks displays with no real harm done, but the fear remains. Although we may believe that our pets’ fear of fireworks lacks reason, to the dog, the situation is very real.

These dogs are in a state of distress.

To overcome my fear of airplanes and get to the confident state I’m in now as a frequent flyer, I worked to change the way I viewed plane trips, as well as incorporating calming techniques to relax myself during flights. Today as a dog trainer, I help dogs overcome the fear that feels very real to them by changing their perspective and using calming techniques.

If your pet experiences fear around the Fourth of July, there are some practical ways you can decrease your pet’s panic and help him or her relax. The right training will not only keep your pet safe during the days around the holiday, but will also boost your pet’s quality of life and promote the bonding between you and your pet.

The top recommendation I give to clients with anxious pets is to use the ThunderShirt, a pressure wrap that’s a non-invasive, natural way to calm pets.  The ThunderShirt is the top anxiety-reducer recommended to pets at the North Idaho Animal Hospital, where I teach training classes. I’ve seen the dramatic difference in dogs and cats on many occasions. Pressure wraps are calming to pets. Just as swaddling a baby or giving a tight hug to a close friend is comforting, pets are similarly comforted by pressure hugs. Dogs respond amazingly well to the gentle pressure the ThunderShirt provides. The ThunderShirt works on 80 percent of dogs. (And if it doesn’t work, as I remind my clients, there’s no harm done to your dog or your wallet, since ThunderShirt offers a money-back guarantee.)

The ThunderShirt provides immediate relief. I’ve watched time and time again as dog’s whole body relaxes and outward symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling and panting, decrease shortly after the ThunderShirt is on. For best results, I have clients use the ThunderShirt at the onset of stress, such as when the pet first hears fireworks in the distance. The faster fear is addressed and comfort is applied, the less panic a pet will face. But even if the pet is already in a full blown anxiety response when an unforeseeable event occurs, such as when a surprise crackling and bangs when fireworks next door suddenly set off, the ThunderShirt will still do its job and calm the pet at whatever stage of anxiety they are in. The ThunderShirt also works for other stress evoking situations, such as trips to the veterinarian, car rides and thunderstorms.

In addition to the ThunderShirt, there are training tactics that can help pets remain stress-free during the season of fireworks and thunderstorms. One of the best tactics is to prove your pet with a comforting den-like hideout they can retreat to when fireworks are being set off. When pets are in a panic, many seek out a place of refuge to hide in. Closets and bathrooms make ideal hiding areas, because they’re smaller in size and usually dark. Make these areas as comfortable as possible; giving the pet blankets and even hiding areas inside, such as their regular crate or a chair with a blanket draped over the top for them to hide under. Keep the windows of the area and surrounding rooms closed to prevent the pet from catching the flashes of light that accompanies the sounds of fireworks or storms.

Drowning out the sound of fireworks is another helpful tactic. Classical music has been shown to be naturally calming for dogs. Play it loud enough to make the crashes of fireworks less abrupt and to drown out some of the background noise.

You can also change your pet’s perception of the fireworks to make the noise symbolic of the onset of something pleasurable happening. Depending upon the dog, a food puzzle, a trick training session, fetch or a structured game of tug are all ways to change your pet’s association of the fireworks. Changing your pets focus, such as getting them to work towards getting food or engaging in play, changes their focus from fear to food acquisition and food. One trick I’ve used with my parent’s dog, Quixote, is to howl with him. The act of getting your dog to vocalize in a socially facilitated situation of howling along with a person immediately changes a pet’s focus. The more the pet associates fireworks with something they enjoy, the more relaxed the pet will be.

Pets should never be left in an area where they can escape or injure themselves when the fireworks are happening. Unattended canines must be left in a doggy proofed area, such as a crate or enclosed area in their hideaway den when left alone. For dogs with a history of escape or panic when left alone, use constant supervision during fireworks season or leave them with a professional, such as a pet sitter, who can provide the comforting techniques to calm your pet while you’re away.

When taking your pet outside to potty or when going out on walks on the days surrounding Independence Day, keep your pet on a leash or a long line to prevent escape and subsequent harm. Pets can be walked and taken outside with their ThunderShirt to make outings less frightening even with fireworks around. Exercise provides an outlet to channel excess energy in dogs; it also releases calming endorphins. If you use a regular flat collar, you may opt for a martingale type instead that tightens on the neck without choking the dog to prevent the animal from backing out of the collar on walks if startled. For pets who react to the sight of fireworks, consider using a  ThunderCap, which reduces the visual stimuli, making it less frightening.

The Fourth of July doesn’t have to be a frightening experience for your pet. You can keep them safe and calm by using training tips, providing a safe and secure hideaway, and using the natural action of the ThunderShirt to calm your pet.

-Mikkel Becker

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