Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Firework time of year – stress, anxiety or relaxation for you dog?

Our two collie spaniel crosses, Sam and Sarah, were bred as gun dogs.  They were both from the same litter and inseparable – except around firework time of year when Sam spent much of the evenings trying to hide into the smallest place possible shivering and quaking.  He clearly never realised his initial calling as a gun dog.  His sister is totally not fazed by the bangs but gets upset to see her twin brother looking stressed.

We have tried everything over the years from CDs that have loud banging noises which you are meant to play to the dogs to get them used to the sounds (they didn’t work at all…the dogs just barked along in tune) to pheromone diffusers (which clearly we can’t smell so you never really know when they have run out).  

But before we tried sometime new last year we thought we’d have a go at introducing a relaxation massage routine.  It is well known that when a dog (or a human) feels in danger or stress, it places stress on their body systems.  This can lead to an increase in muscle tension which can cause further problems.  If we could rebuild Sam’s confidence with massage and touch, the hope was we could reduce his stress and generally help him through the firework season.   

During my time working in canine therapy with my AchyPaw Dog Massage service, I know that some forms of massage helps to calm a dog down (repetitive, predicable, slow & rhythmic strokes) while others help to revitalise them (deep fast and kneading moves).  When performing a relaxing massage session you do feel their heart rate calming and slowing down.  It can also help to calm their nervous state – again something that is evident during a massage session where you see their eyes start to go ‘googly’ in their head and you suddenly get that deep long sigh.  The ‘sigh’ helps to fully expel their breath allowing for a complete intake of fresh oxygen and nutrients.  As an ex-academic I have looked through some literature and several research studies have been performed in humans (and dogs) to show how massage can reduce blood pressure and heart rate (research examples are given in the geeky-style appendix but there are plenty more) so trying this pre-firework massage routine made sense to me.

But massage also helps the therapist.  It is such a joy to perform a relaxing holistic massage – I feel my own heart rate slowing and any tension disappearing.  This has to be a double benefit.  Again research evidence seems to back this up (more geeky appendices).  Most behaviourists say that your dog can feel your tension – either down the leash or just by looking at you.  Knowing that your dog is about to get all jumpy and agitated is stressful for the owner as well as the dog.  So anything that can calm both parties down in one hit has to be good – until they develop a calming pheromone diffuser for the stressed owner!

So last year we decided to give regular and short holistic massage sessions to our Sam to calm him naturally a few weeks before the big bangs started.  Three or four weeks before the season we started giving him 15 minute sessions ending up with wrapping him up warmly in a blanket – like a thunder shirt.  Each night the sighs came earlier into the session and his eyes got googlier and googlier.
Halloween was clearly our first test.  So he was massaged early and wrapped up while we waited for the first bangs of party nights.  This time when he heard them, instead of him running round the house, he simply looked up, still aware of the noise, but lay back down again as though the effort of being stressed was actually too much like hard work.  Yes he was aware but no he was not as nervous as he used to be before the massage routine.

So that was a success.  But as an added extra, WE were relaxed too.  Instead of us dreading the next big bang wondering what we could do to calm down our sensitive dog, we were able to get on with the normal evening things – like watching TV (which didn’t have to be on full blast to drown out the noises).  His sister was also able to sleep through the bangs without worrying about her brother.

We continued the routine through the November 5th firework season with the same result – a much calmer Sam.  

It is not just fireworks that worry Mr Sam but also thunder – he is a bit of a wuss but we wouldn't change a thing about him.  He is just a 'sensitive soul'.  We’ve had quite a few storms this year.  Sam was aware of the noise but this time came up to have his special ‘Dad Massage’ and immediately fell asleep.  It seems he is remembering that fireworks and loud bangs should be associated with massage rather than fear and anxiety.

Hopefully if we start the routines now, by Halloween we’ll have two chilled dogs.

If you want to learn more about this form of complementary therapy, feel free to contact me from my website @ or via our Facebook page (  I can happily organise tailored training sessions to teach you how to massage your own dog.  It certainly can’t do any harm and may help you and your dog.

Appendix :

Handlin L. et al (2011) ‘Short-Term Interaction between Dogs and Their Owners: Effects on Oxytocin, Cortisol, Insulin and Heart Rate - An Exploratory Study’. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals. Vol 24, No. 3, pp. 301-315

Hennessey M.B. et al (1998) ‘Influence of male and female petters on plasma cortisol and behaviour: can human interaction reduce the stress of dogs in a public animal shelter?’.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science Vol 61, pp 63-77 

Kaye et al. (2008) ‘The effect of deep-tissue massage therapy on blood pressure and heart rate’ J Altern Complement Med. Mar;14(2) pp 125-8.

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