Know Your Pooch
The writer is a former director, GSI, and an avid animal lover. His understanding of man's best friend comes from over six decades of dedicated association with it
By the time you all read this, the festive fervour will be upon you. What with Navratri kickstarting the festive season, the festival of diyas-Diwali- will not be far off. While diyas have been majorly replaced by electric jhalars, the main spirit of the festival has also become synonymous with crackers. It may be enjoyed by many humans but for our four-legged pals, they are a pain of the most excruciating type. But, if you read this article, you should be able to help yourself and your pooch on this Diwali.
Diwali is a great festival in India. The entire country is lit up with oil lamps the air reverberates with the sound of crackers and the sky is lit with the fireworks. It is the time of set of the winter and the air is thick. The fume of all the fireworks and crackers rents the air, making breathing difficult for the people. Still, it is a festival full of mirth and happiness, and tons of sweets go down the gullets while people visit friends and relatives wishing them happiness for the coming year. Diwali is also a day which marks the closing of accounts books for many businessmen.
Poor dogs oblivious of the significance sulk all the time. Shivering with fear, so scared they are sometimes that many run out in the open street to seek a safe soundproof place and die a premature death under the wheels of a truck. While many others just run amuck in the house and injure themselves in the process. The stress of loud noise is so much that many stop eating a few days before and after the festival. A particular pet dog in my locality, used to break away and come to my door on Diwali nights, shivering with fear. I don’t know how he felt safe under my sofa. In the morning after the din had subsided, he would have meals with my other dogs and go back to his house happily. When he did not show up for the next Diwali, I was apprehensive and my apprehension was right-poor thing was crushed by a speeding vehicle, right in front of his owner’s gate!
In a nutshell, what we call a festival week is actually a torture week for the dogs. Not just dogs, most other animals go through the same torture. One of the main reasons is that most animals (particularly mammals) have lesser-developed mental faculties but greater powers of hearing, smell, and sight. Their survival depends upon these only. A dog can sniff his prey much before it is within his reach. He can hear it approaching from a long distance and he can see it even if it is directly not in front. Similar conditions apply to a predator too.
In the wilderness, there is no Diwali or a celebration involving the bursting of firecrackers. Yet, there are episodes of thunder and lightning which do terrify the animals. But animals like dogs, living in packs, huddle over each other and feel safe. I have seen wild dog packs shivering on hearing an approaching thunder in Raja Ji National Park near Dehradun in Uttarakhand. But our problem is how to make our dogs accustomed to loud noise. Like our children, some dogs are always more scared than others. It has been found by dog psychologists that shy dogs are most scared of noise and tend to go neurotic on hearing the loud noise of thunder or crackers. And by now you must have realized that how difficult it is to teach anything to a neurotic dog. I will try to help owners of such dogs which literally run amok when scared with a noise.
These types of dogs not only get scared of crackers or thunder they even get scared if someone claps/speaks aloud/walks in thumping his feet, suddenly. Once scared their first reaction is to put their tails between their hind legs pull their ears back and run for cover. Putting the tail between legs is a wild trait, in order to hide their genitals from being sniffed by the enemy. The world of dogs revolves around their sense of smell. Once scared, a neurotic dog can even bite the owner in a fit of fear. Sometimes they run under the bed and attack, if pulled out forcibly. They even chew off their leash, if they can, and run out like a bolt from the blue.
To cut it short, the best way to teach a dog to accept sounds of higher and higher decibels, it is best to get him accustomed. Now if you have a shy dog, the first step should be to get over his shyness, by teaching him simple commands of come and stay, followed by lots of rewards and caresses. Such dogs should never be shouted upon yes, a firm tone is okay. Body touch is important for a shy dog but not at a time when he is in his fit of shyness. Body caress should be given only during training sessions.
I must mention here that some of the shy dogs are incorrigible and almost impossible to cure. If you have one such dog then you should consult a vet and administer pills to keep him calm always. These days herbal pills have come that have no side effects even if given continuously. Your vet knows them better. Once a neurotic dog has been calmed down, he can be trained to a considerable limit.
In order to teach your dog to accept loud noises you need a recording of crackers. The best time to teach this is when a ravenously hungry dog is busy gulping his food. On day one, play the record in a separate room at the lowest volume. Observe the dog. He might be able to catch the sounds and flicker his ears, but if the volume is really low, he will continue to eat. Once he finishes off his food, praise him a lot and at that time simultaneously a helper should switch off the tape.
On day two, raise the volume very slightly while the dog is having food. Mind you what is very slight for you may be high for him, therefore be careful. Don’t be in a rush. Such things are best taught very gradually. Continue at that volume for another three days, in case the dog accepts the volume. If he gets fidgety during his meals and tends to leave his meals, better reduce the volume.
Likewise, very gradually go on raising the volume till it is easily audible to you in the room where the dog is having his food. If he continues to have his food without bothering about the sound, he is almost conditioned for the booming noise. Let him adjust to that level of noise for a few days and then raise it further, however, the recorder should be played in the other room only. Remember, to praise the dog each time after his meals and caress him a lot too.
Once he goes on eating unmindful of the sound, bring the recorder to the room where he is having food, but reduce the volume to a bare audible level. A higher volume can shock him and it would be then difficult for you to win his confidence. In case he accepts the volume of sound that is just audible to you, you may start increasing the volume every day very slightly. In about three weeks’ time, about 80% of shy dogs start accepting the sound of crackers. Please remember never to try to comfort the dog in your lap, while he gets scared by the crackers. This inadvertently conveys the wrong message that you are rewarding him to be scared. Instead, reward him if he has remained quiet even after a loud bang.
Loud noises do disturb the dog but fortunately, quite a percentage of them shows no fear of such sounds and remains normal. But one never knows about the reactions of a puppy after he grows up. Therefore, this training of conditioning for loud noise should be given to all puppies beyond four months of age irrespective of the breed. Hope your dog accepts the crackers and thunders before the next Diwali!