Dog on the Couch

2015-12-10 06:00

ONE of the most difficult

questions I am frequently asked is how to alleviate the anguish suffered by most pets during the “big bang” seasons, especially for those unfortunate enough to live in close proximity to the explosions where the noise can reach unbearable volumes.

In spite of the oft-repeated evidence of suffering caused by animals’ hypersensitive hearing, pleas for empathy and restraint fall on the deaf ears of the offenders and their defenders who selfishly ignore the trauma they inflict. It is ignorant to suggest that animal-lovers can simply “manage their pets”.

Talk of “problem” behaviours exhibited by animals on this issue typically ignores the question of problem behaviours in humans. What are the pertinent questions? Is it natural or abnormal to react to loud explosions? Are we aware that animals have much more sensitive hearing than us? Haven’t we all at some time been shocked by a backfiring car, a gun-shot or, indeed, a big bang rocket launched outside our window?

Evolutionary survival systems have typically ensured that because sound travels at such a speed, the thinking parts of the brain are bypassed in order to instantly ready the body to escape the threat. Attempting to alleviate these shocks involves a process called habituation, but the noise in question must be identified as non-threatening.

Exposure to noises at low level which are gradually increased can result in habituation in some instances. It is very difficult to accustom a dog to noises which induce a defensive response. Obviously the dog can be accustomed by this kind of exposure to noises that it may perceive as alarming rather than threatening, such as, for instance, the fairly regular start-up of a loud motorbike engine in the garage.

However, the 120 decibel (dB) detonation of big bang rockets is certainly not in this category. If we as humans were to identify a sound as gunshots in the garden, we would be very stupid to behave as though there were no threat. How can we expect a dog or cat to decide that big bang rockets launched next-door and exploding above the house are not potentially life-threatening?

The kinds of noises that cause fearful responses in dogs are gunshots, fireworks, thunder and other reports of about seventy decibels or more, especially with short staccato bursts of un-patterned, chaotic sound. Big Bang rockets can register noise levels of over 140 dB (which in the system of decibel measuring is much more than double 70 dB). Self-preservation mechanisms that induce the reaction to escape from danger or even to attempt to attack the source are certainly not pointless or “stupid”. How can we possibly expect an animal, with far more acute hearing than ours, to ignore a traumatic and physically painful onslaught which may be deemed life-threatening?

As many animals suffer during the fireworks seasons, here are a few ways to try to reduce some of the domestic animal’s trauma. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult problems to cope with, and there is no easy solution. It should go without saying, make sure your pets are secured in the house well before any fireworks are likely to begin. Find a cupboard or dark enclosure for the dog or cat to retreat into. You can buy or download “firecracker” CDs which should be played initially at a very soft volume, perhaps during meal times or while giving the dog treats or while stroking or playing with him, attempting to associate the noise with pleasure.

Gradually increase the volume until you approximate the real thing, though this is unlikely to convincingly emulate the prohibited big bangs. Otherwise, produce some other sort of ‘buffering’ noise from a CD (in cases of close proximity to the explosions, this competing noise will need to be very loud – use Prokofieff rather than Mozart), or switch on a very noisy TV programme.

Get some calming medicines from your vet. Do not give human medication without consulting your vet. Try to stay calm yourself, because your distress will be sensed and add to the dog’s trauma. You may need to take something yourself to achieve this calmness if your situation is dire and your acting skills are inadequate.

Pray that one day people will have enough empathy to deserve the term humane and celebrate without causing pain to other creatures, domesticated or wild, and that the law will deal with offenders.

- Susan Henderson (accredited animal behaviourist)

One of the most difficult questions I am frequently asked is how to alleviate the anguish suffered by most pets during the “big bang” seasons, especially for those unfortunate enough to live in close proximity to the explosions where the noise can reach unbearable volumes

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