By Sayli Rajadhyaksha*
Diwali is a time for fun and frolic for all. It is a complete family festival where everyone comes together to celebrate by wearing new clothes, lighting diyas, and eating lots of yummy food! Though, originally, it has been known as a festival of lights, it is often celebrated by bursting deafening crackers. While we humans seem to enjoy bright lights and loud noises, our dogs find it terribly difficult to cope with the same.
Main reason for their discomfort is the loud noise released while bursting crackers. A dog’s sense of hearing is much stronger than humans. As per the American Kennel Club, a dog can hear sounds up to a frequency of 47000 Hz and at decibels as low as -5 to -15 db. Hence, their perception of loud noise is stronger as well. What seems like a pop to us, sounds like an explosion to them! As a result, they are often unable to tolerate the noise created by crackers bursting around them. Hence, we see dogs displaying high anxiety behaviour, hiding in dark and secluded spaces, or sometimes, even running away from their owners in fright.
As a behaviourist and dog trainer, one of the most common requests I receive, in anticipation of Diwali, is to train dogs to be calm during the days of festivities. So when should you start training your pets to be comfortable during Diwali? Ideally, this should start the day you bring your dog home. By that, I don’t mean to light firecrackers the day your dog comes home, but start exposing your dog to various sound stimuli from a young age. If this is your pet’s first Diwali with you, get started right away. Do not wait for your pet to develop a negative association towards the festival, but instead, start preparing it to be comfortable during those few days of festivities.
The best way to prepare your pets to be calm is to desensitize them to loud noises through classical conditioning. Materials required for this are – a calming oil like lavender in a diffuser, some soothing music like sound of waves or white noise (nothing exciting, though), a bed/surface other than the one your pet is used to, and one person to massage him. The idea is to get your pet’s senses to respond in a particular manner to the stimulus of loud noise.
Here is what you do with these materials. On a daily basis, switch on the diffuser with calming oil and play some soothing music. Lead your dog to the new surface and ask him to sit and stay on it starting with a short period of a few seconds and then slowly increasing the time. Repeat this for a few times till your dog realizes that you want him to sit on that surface. Once he settles down on that surface, join him there and start massaging his body such that he starts relaxing. Dim lighting works best for this. Continue the massage till he is completely relaxed.
This exercise has to be carried out on a daily basis, irrespective of loud noises or uncomfortable situations. Within a month, you will start to see that as soon as you switch on the music and diffuser, and dim the light, your dog will automatically go to the surface and start relaxing. This needs to be started as early as possible so that he is ready to relax on his surface by the time it is Diwali.
Why is this whole tedious process important? The most important reason for us to keep our dogs calm during Diwali is to prevent long term effects of stress on their bodies. Studies have shown that living in a constant state of stress is harmful for everybody, and that includes dogs. Noise hypersensitivity can lead to cognitive dysfunction such as disorientation or panic attacks, destructive behaviour, and even tendency for self-mutilation. It can also cause systemic problems such as gastro-intestinal sensitivity, thyroid hormone level fluctuation, and excessive adrenaline rush that can cause strain on their heart muscle.
Some most common signs of stress in dogs during Diwali are cowering or shaking in fear, refusal to eat food and/or drink water, hiding in dark corners such as under the bed or inside cupboards, pacing in the house etc. Some dogs are also known to salivate excessively, pant heavily, lick their paws continuously, and in extreme stressful conditions, even self-mutilate or hurt themselves intentionally. These dogs need to be evaluated by a behaviourist on a priority basis and rehabilitated accordingly. Repeated exposure to such stressful stimuli can lead to serious health implications in dogs. Hence, it is best if your dog can be taught to be comfortable in presence of such sounds.
Here are a few tips for you to keep your dog calm and safe during this Diwali:
- Create a safe space for your dog to retreat into, if scared. Let him have access to that space 24/7. It could be a room, a crate, a cupboard, anything that he is positively associated with. Never punish your dog in that space as he will then start viewing that space negatively.
- Try to make your house as sound proof as possible – put thick curtains around the house to prevent outside noise from coming in. Keep windows closed during peak time of firecrackers.
- Distract your dog during such times. Play some other music in the room, or play games he likes. Should the signs of stress increase, discontinue the game. Give him a sniffing, licking or chewing activity instead, to let your dog decompress by himself
- Humans in the house need to display calm and confident body language. Remember, your dog is watching you! If your anxiety level is high, or you are constantly checking in with your dog, he will mirror you. Hence, it is important that you remain calm and behave as if the occurring situation is nothing out of ordinary.
- Do not constantly reassure your dog by petting – your dog may see this as reinforcement for anxious behaviour and continue feeling stressed. Reassuring it once in a while is fine, but do not overdo it with constant petting.
- Take your dog for its walks early in the morning and late in the night, when crackers are at their minimum. Use two leashes in case you need to take him out when crackers are at their peak. This is to ensure safety if he tries to bolt on getting startled. Also, ensure he has a name tag with your contact information so that he can be returned to you in case he does escape. Also, make sure that all escape routes such as main door, gates etc. are kept close to prevent your dog from escaping.
- Give your dog access to a bowl of fresh water at all times. In all likelihood, a stressed dog will not eat when crackers are bursting outside. You can feed him once your neighbourhood has quietened down.
- You can put ear muffs or a thundershirt on him when crackers are the loudest. Mutt Muffs is well known company for noise cancelling ear muffs.
- In case of severe anxiety, talk to your vet and consider medication. Addition of hemp seed oil has been known to alleviate anxiety in dogs.
- If it is feasible for you to go out of town with your dog during this stressful period, please do so. You and your dog could unwind together and celebrate the festival, your way.
I hope this helps you to have a safe and comfortable Diwali with your dogs while enjoying the festivities. Here’s wishing you a Happy Diwali from the house of PawsRUs India!
*She is a canine behaviourist and trainer certified by the organization, Canines Can Care, India, since last 6 years. She runs her venture named PawsRUs India, which offers services such as puppy obedience training, behaviour modification, and aggression consults for older dogs. She believes that dog training is not about a dog just responding to commands, but imbibing good behaviour as a way of life. She believes in creating a strong human–canine bond that lasts for life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pawsrusindia and her Instagram handle is @pawsrusindia.