Just in time for the summer fireworks season, this month features an interview with Emily D. Levine, DVM, DACVB, MRCVS, author of the “I Know It’s Going to Rain, and I Hate the Fourth of July” chapter from “Decoding Your Dog,” a a go-to behavioral reference book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.
(Originally published June 30, 2014)
Can you tell us how you decided to become a veterinary behaviorist?
When I was a student in veterinary school, I learned how many animals were euthanized for behavioral problems. I was then exposed to behavior cases and how to treat them. I saw first-hand that many of the issues were the owners misunderstanding what the animals were doing and that too often harsh punishments were used to attempt to stop the behavior when, in reality, that punishment was making the animals worse – not to mention the ethical issues with use of harsh punishment. Many of these animals, and pet owners, were in desperate need of qualified help. Once I was exposed to these cases, there was no turning back.
How do suggest preparing a recently acquired rescue dog of which you know no background, for July 4th and New Year’s neighborhood fireworks?
Prior to these holidays, play sound recordings of fireworks at a very low level, a level low enough that the animal has no or very little anxious behavior. While the recording is playing, offer the dog treats or play ball. The goal here is to establish a positive association with these sounds. After several sessions at low sound levels, the level can be increased slightly. Do this five times a week for 15 minutes eight weeks prior to the holidays. If playing sounds at a low level causes the dog to show clinical signs of anxiety seek help from your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. On the holidays, stuff Kong toys with food the dog can work on and stay at home with the animal. Always have emergency medication in the medicine cabinet if the dog exhibits significant anxiety, fear or panic.
Can family arguments with raised voices trigger sound sensitivity?
Scientifically, we do not know the answer to this question. There is research that suggests dogs can acquire noise fears after a traumatic noise event. If a noise such as an argument is a trigger, then I would be suspicious that the dog has other issues as well such as generalized anxiety. I have patients that have noise sensitivities, generalized anxiety for whom any loud voices (yelling, cheering) can produce an anxiety response.
Is there a certain age at which you should prepare your dog to noise sensitivities?
As early as you can as long as you are doing this responsibly. Responsibly does NOT mean taking a young pup to a rock-and-roll concert, Fourth of July fireworks show or shooting range. Exposing it to sounds in a gradual manner with positive associations with those noises is a more humane approach with much less risk.
My veterinarian prescribes Acepromazine for July 4th noise sensitivity. I see you do not recommend it. Are there continuing-education courses for veterinarians that address noise sensitivity?
There are continuing-education lectures at conferences nationwide throughout the year. In addition, there are many good veterinary textbooks on the subject. No veterinary clinic should be without a behavioral textbook in its library/bookshelf.
Are some breeds overly sensitive to sound?
Research shows mixed results. Some say certain breeds are predisposed – such as herding dogs or gun dogs – but other studies show mixed breeds are more predisposed. The jury is still out and we should assume that any dog has the potential to develop noise sensitivity.
Are there veterinary studies being conducted today on dogs and noise sensitivity?
I am not sure what research is being done, but, in general, there is lack of it on this subject. We need a lot more research if we hope to have a better understanding of which dogs may be more predisposed, the different ways noise fears can develop and if those differing developmental pathways require different treatment approaches. As is the case with most research, it is difficult to secure funding.
To put it in perspective for the owner, how much greater is the firecracker or thunder sound the dog is hearing vs. his/her owner?
It is well known that dogs can hear things much better than us. There is no doubt that the loudness of the sound is an important factor. It is time that we understand that, for dogs, there is no context that can help them understand that fireworks are not scary. They have no concept of what a firecracker is or the human culture that leads to setting it off on certain holidays. Dogs are hearing something sudden, loud and unexpected with no source to identify. When thinking about evolution, it makes perfect sense to be scared of such a potential threat. The brain is wired such that a very loud sudden sound passes the thinking part of it when the initial loud sound occurs so that the body can escape and survive and think later. Without culture context, how can we expect dogs to reflect on what they just heard and make any sense of it?
Do Thundershirts help reduce anxiety for dogs confronted with fireworks and thunderstorms?
There is never a panacea for noise fears. It is a matter of finding the right treatment or combination of treatments for that individual pet. For some dogs, the Thundershirt does help. For others, it doesn’t.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Animals that show clinical signs of anxiety are not stupid, they are not behaving badly and they cannot control this feeling. They need help just as a person who has a fear of flying needs help, not judgment, criticism or punishment. In cases of moderate to severe noise sensitivity, medications are often a necessary part of an overall treatment program.
The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or Goodnewsforpets.com for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.