I am off for Diwali. Every year, we chose to spend Diwali in the lap of nature and pass up on the revelry in the city. This suits us and our dogs best. But for those of you who are going to be in the thick of all the celebrations, it is time to remember that Diwali is potentially a very stressful time for dogs. In my last two posts I wrote about the effects of stress on your dogs and how your dog may express it. Today, before I take off, I want to leave you with some tips on how to deal with the stress in your dogs.
I want to start by narrating three stories. The first one was told to us by a classmate during my dog trainer education. She told us about her claustrophobia and how she overcame it. It’s funny that until she told this story, I never thought of how people overcome fear. She was terrified of attending conferences and large gathering and yet there she was talking to all of us. She said that the way she coped with it was to come early to conferences and get a seat close to the door, so that she felt that she had the option of leaving if she was overwhelmed. That’s how she eventually got over her fear. She vehemently insisted that despite best of people’s intentions, no one could actually do something to get her past her fear. She had to do that herself.
My classmate’s story reminded me of my own battle with fear. I was being taught to swim by literally being thrown in the deep end of the pool. I can never forget how I felt. I used was a wee little kid and as soon as I was in my swimsuit, I would bolt and try to hide. I would be chased down by my aunt and the coach. The whole experience was so traumatic that I could not even get myself to watch swimming on TV. Finally my parents gave up on me getting over my fear of water. Several years later I ventured back into the pool. This time, it was on my terms. I gradually learned to get over my fear. The attempt was so successful that I went on to become an advanced deep sea diver.
The last story is that of Bruno, the Great Dane. Bruno had been used in dog fights as ‘bait’! He was rescued after years of abuse. As one would come to expect, at the time he was rescued, he was terrified of dogs. In his experience, if there was a dog in sight, he had to kill the dog or he would be killed. The mere sight of something that looked like a silhouetted of a dog at a distance set him off and he ran for the kill!
He was brought to my teacher, Turid. Turid and her dog stood at a distance and Bruno’s owner had him on a leash. The distance between dogs was 300 mts! They stood like that for 10 minutes and Bruno returned home. Several days later they repeated the exercise. Again a 10 minute exercise. By the 3rd time they had reduced the distance to 5 meters!!! And at Bruno’s will. He had gained confidence over these short 10 minute sessions that a dog was not going to kill him. Turid visited Bruno months later. Bruno had become an uncle. His human had another dog who had littered and Bruno had taken on the responsibility for all the pups. She saw him indulging mommy and puppies and being the perfect gentleman.
All these stories outline the same concept –fear is personal! Coping with and getting over fear is one’s own task. Others can only stand by, watch and support from a distance. Fighting fear is an internal battle. It’s the same for humans and for dogs.
My point here is this: Diwali noises are loud and disturbing and for a dog it will be scary. But your dog has to and will learn to deal with this fear and he alone can do so. All you need to do is to stand by and support his inner battle.
Different dogs are perhaps going to cope in different ways. The first set of noises are perhaps going to start within a few hours of me writing this. It is perhaps going to startle your dog. Your dog is perhaps going to look at you wondering what to make of the noise. Do nothing! And when I say “do nothing”, I mean be deliberate about doing nothing. Try to wrap up all your work, plant yourself in one comfy place with a book or the TV turned on in low volume. Put your heels up and sit back relaxed. Try not to get up from this position for the duration of the firecrackers going off. When he looks at you – yawn. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t say anything. Don’t PITY your dog. Just yawn. If he happens to catch you looking at him, smile and say something casual like “Hey there. Chill puppy! It’s all cool”, yawn and go back to what you were doing. Act like it were an everyday noise like the traffic noise or the pressure cooker noise. If you are reading a book, try to read it out loud in a boring monotonous voice. The overall theme should be – boring!
Your dog may decide to hide in some room or under some surface. Again – Do Nothing! Don’t try to extract him from his corner. Don’t try to talk him out of it. If possible, be in the same room as him, but doing your own thing and being boring as ever. If he is in the middle of the room and is looking towards the door or window, you can seat yourself, so that you are between your dog and the window or door that he is looking at. When spending time with him, sit with your back towards him, looking in the same direction as he is, and, you guessed it right, reading out aloud or talking in a monotonous voice. Each time the crackers get particularly loud, you can hold your hand out, showing the palm of your hand to him. But don’t look at him or talk to him. I cannot stress this enough.
If you must mingle and cannot be in the same room as your dog, that’s ok. He will learn to cope. Don’t worry too much about it. Make sure he is comfy in that room. Leave a warm blanket in a corner. Leave some water for him, chews and his favorite pillow or soft toy. Don’t leave food around. It can add to the stress.
It’s OK to ignore your dog. But the most damage happens when we over indulge and make attempts to calm our dogs. We talk to our dogs. Hug our dogs. Try to pull our dogs out of the corners that they chose to sit in, because it looks sad and pathetic to us. However, by doing so, we are taking away their ability to cope and reinforcing the message that the scary noise is indeed something to be afraid of. By yawning, we are not only communicating to our dog that it’s nothing to be worried about, we are also calming ourselves down and donning a calmer body language for the benefit of our dogs. Us being calm is most critical for our dog. If we can’t be calm, we need to pretend to be calm. That’s the only thing that is required of us. Our dog is capable of the rest.
My dogs, Tigger and Nishi have very different coping strategies. Nishi choses to sit close to us, with her back or butt touching us. I simply sit on the floor watching TV. Sometimes she sits beside me and sometimes on my lap. I concentrate hard on the TV show, so that I don’t give her undue attention. I stroke her lightly and steadily, while talking to people around me or watching TV, as I would do normally. Tigger sits in a far corner, on one of her beds. I put blankets and fleece everywhere – one under the table, one next to the TV, one next to the sofa, one under the dining table, one in the kitchen, one under the bed, one on the bed, one in the bathroom…you get the idea. I just let her pick her spot and lie on it. I don’t even look at her. She does not look at us either. That works better for her.
During Diwali, avoid walks all together – does not matter if it’s during the day or the night. People in Bangalore burst crackers during the day as well. The fumes are all over the place. A stray cracker could scare your dog infinitely more if he is right next to it. Take short pee breaks well before the peak cracker hours. Stock up on chews. Finish meals early. Dogs are unlikely to eat once the noises start, even if they don’t show the stress. Put blankets in several cozy corners. Shut doors, windows, draw the curtains and be prepared to keep your dog indoors for Diwali.
People often ask me about medication. I would consult a vet before administering any medication. However, all medication, herbal or otherwise, act by numbing the brain. If I were put in the face of danger, I would not like my senses to be unnaturally blunted. I would want all my senses sharp, so that I think the situation through and cope. Dogs also think situations through in order to cope, like Bruno did, when he figured out he was not in a – kill or be killed – environment any more. So my personal preference is not to medicate a dog and give the dog his best chance at using the full potent of his brain in coping with the situation.
So, finally, these are my parting notes
- Dogs are at huge flight risk during Diwali. So put name tags on and DO NOT be casual around doors
- A dog needs to learn to cope with his fears on his own. As much as we want to, we cannot fight that battle for him, because it’s an internal battle. Stay out of it.
- The worst we can do is to accidentally reinforce their fear, in our well intentioned effort to help. Avoid engaging with your dog all together and prevent accidental reinforcement of fear.
- If you MUST engage with your dog, do so only when he looks at you. When your dog looks at you, yawn if you are facing your dog. Show your palm to the dog. If you make eye contact, smile and say something cool and look away.
- In all your interactions with your dog, let your theme be – Boring! Do Nothing! Be deliberate about doing nothing and being boring.
And of course, I cannot say this enough – encourage friends and family to have a sensitive Diwali. Give the loud crackers a miss. Your dog is lucky to have you and the home you provide. But there are millions that have no home and have nowhere to hide. Diwali is the festival of light, not of sound. Let’s celebrate the spirit of Diwali – spreading light in the lives of all creatures big and small. Sending peaceful, safe and happy Diwali wishes from my canine family to yours. See you on the other side of this holiday.