Doin’ The Displacement

AUG, 2015

“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket

behavior

Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?

I do.  We all do.

We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on.  They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid.   When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.

To-Dos-List
I wish my To Do list looked like this.

What Is Displacement Behavior? 

Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:

In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.

Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.

Displacement Activity defined:

1. (Psychology)  behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time

Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.

Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object.  Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.

In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors.  You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered.  Men often scratch at, or touch their face.  Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe.  I call it fiddling and flirting!  Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men. 

Body-Language--Men-Flirting-8
Male displacement behavior when flirting

Mating and Conflict in Many Species

Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration.  There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom.  They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs.  Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:

If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.  

Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.

Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.

Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.

What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict.  They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.


Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones

Gulls are not unlike our pets at home.  If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions!  For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy).  During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight.  So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming.  Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!

displacement behavior cats
Grooming can be a displacement behavior.

“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior

Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:

  • yawning when not sleepy
  • grooming out of context
  • using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
  • shaking off when not wet
  • stretching deeply
  • Scent marking with their face
scratching post cats displacement behavior
Have you seen your cat suddenly run over to use his scratching post? What happened right before he did that?

“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen


parrot behavior
Beak wiping and scratching are common parrot displacement behaviors you will see when they are feeling conflicted.

Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure.  In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a behavior which helps to relieve stress or deflect trouble, without dealing with it directly.
Scratching can often be a dispacement behavior during training sessions and when other dogs or kids are getting too rowdy.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.


How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?

—> We need to look at the FULL picture.

We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”

We also need to become aware of the ABCs of Behavior.

ABCs of behavior_dog behavior_cat behavior_ antecedent_consequence
The ABCs of Behavior began with people, but are now used for pets!

What’s In The Name?

The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context.  For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors.  Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.

NOTE: Observing a single action, behavior, or posture is not enough information to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior. A displacement activity might indicate eustress, distress, and/or fear … or not.


Displacement In Action!

The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs.  See how many you recognize.  Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?


The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe


Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.


Cats and dogs aren’t the only companion animals who show displacement behaviors! Rabbits, rats, ferrets, horses, pigs, and parrots do too!  Check out the licking, yawning, sniffing, grooming, foot flicking, tail swishing, digging, scratching and more in this video!


Why do we need to be aware of these behaviors? 

These behaviors can indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted.  Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.

What should you do?

If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe.  Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat.  If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on.  Remember to keep it upbeat and easy!  We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.


Note that being “stressed” is not inherently a negative state. Stress, if defined and used correctly in the biological sense, refers to being pushed out of a state physiological homeostasis, either by something negative or positive. Being excited about seeing a rock concert is as stressful as being afraid of going to the dentist. Eustress refers to stress (or arousal, or excitement) that is perceived as positive. Distress refers to stress that is perceived as negative. – Patricia McConnell, PhD, a Zoologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, (CAAB)

funny-awkward-cats-
Putting this random image in here is another form of displacement behavior for me; I would rather laugh at this kind of silliness instead of proof reading this blog post.

Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!


Recommended Reading

Growls Are Better Than the Alternative

May 2015

dog growls
Hocus Pocus is offering an appeasement behavior to both the camera in her face and Albert in her space.

Growls Are Good. 

Let me be clearer: Growling is good when compared to not growling, and biting instead.

In this post I will share with you what I have learned over the years concerning The Growl.
 

Why I Don’t Recommend Punishing a Dog for Growling.
 

When a dog growls he/she is asking for help.  They need an out.   Growls are a dog’s way of telling you, another dog, another person, child, or animal, I do not like this. I cannot handle this. Go away, or let me get away. NOW.

A dog that chooses to growl instead of bite, should not be punished.  Punishing a dog for growling doesn’t teach the dog that growling is unacceptable behavior.  It only suppresses the dog’s natural form of expressing their fear and discomfort.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away a very critical warning signal.  Dogs who are punished for growling learn to not growl anymore, to avoid being punished.  So if you have successfully managed to stop your dog from growling, you have only suppressed your dog’s behavior.  The fear and stress are still present within your dog!   You haven’t addressed the underlying cause for growling.  Now you have a dog who is just as stressed as before s/she growled, but the dog has no safe means of express his/her discomfort. The growl may be gone, but now you run the risk of having a dog who could bite without warning.

Instead of punishing a dog for growling, we must learn to see the growl for what it is – Communication.  

Growling is a valuable (and productive) form of canine communication.  There are many reasons dogs growl!  Growling is a behavior that more dog guardians should understand, appreciate, and respect rather than punish.


Give Your Dog a Mental High-Five for Growling.

I suggest giving our dogs a mental “high-paw” when they growl because our dogs haven’t done anything wrong.  In fact, they did something right!   Growling is normal canine communication!   By choosing to growl your dog is clearly and appropriately expressing his/her fear, discomfort, anger, frustration, and stress level in that moment.  Without the growl, a bite can happen when we (or another animal) fails to recognize the dog’s warning signals.

Growling is a dog’s way of saying, Back Off! Go Away! I’m very uncomfortable!!

What many people don’t realize is that aggression is caused by stress. The stressor may be related to pain, fear, intrusion, threats to resources, and past association or anticipation of any of these things. An assertive, aggressive dog attacks because he’s stressed by the intrusion of another dog or human into his territory. A fearful dog bites because he’s stressed by the approach of a human. An injured dog lacerates the hand of his rescuer because he’s stressed by pain. –Pat Miller


Is Your Dog In a Grumble Zone?

In our Family Paws Parent Education program, we refer to crowded, close quarters as “Grumble Zones.”  These areas in the home have an escape route, but a child, cat, or another dog may be blocking the escape route.  This can lead to a potential “grumble”.  Grumble zones are important for families to consider if you have multiple dogs, cats, or children in your home. You can see examples of these here.


Is Your Dog In Pain?

Growls can occur during a defensive reaction if a dog is in pain or any form of discomfort.  The growl can happen when a dog anticipates being moved or touched.  Questions that need to be asked? Could your dog have an upset stomach, tooth ache, stomach ache, or arthritis?  When is the last time my dog had a full check up, including blood and urine analysis?


Is Your Dog a DINO?

Some dogs need more space.  They are referred to as DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space).  We have a DINO dog.  In the past she would become reactive in certain circumstances if I did not properly manage her environment.  Dogs who need more space (and display this through various behaviors) are not “mean” dogs.  The have learned to communicate to people, dogs, cats, or other species that they either need some more space, a slower introduction to a newcomer, or a gentler interaction with another dog.  Growling is how dogs communicate this.  Growling is meant to avoid aggression.

In general, the more behaviorally healthy and mentally sound a dog is, the more relaxed that dog will be in varying situations. This means the dog is less likely to aggress quickly.   Since dogs are not able to verbalize their thoughts, they communicate through very specific and deliberate behaviors.  But we have to know how to read and recognize these behaviors.

Let’s look at the image below.  To the untrained eye, it looks like our dog and cat are just hanging out.  Ah, not so.  Hocus really does not want Albert in her space.  Albert just wants to be near Hocus. But she is tired, and wants to relax right where she is, without anyone (including me) in her space.  She IS communicating.  All of the canine clues that she’s sending out are not being heard.  This is a perfect opportunity for me to step in and  help Hocus by calmly calling Albert away from her.

Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
 
 
In the next image you will see another Canine Clue that is often overlooked; the stress yawn.  This behavior usually happens repeatedly in a situation that’s stressful to the dog.  This type of yawn is done with more intensity than a dog’s “sleepy” yawn.
 
dog behavior_stress yawn_dog yawn
STRESS Yawn
 

Other Canine Clues 

When Hocus begins to emotionally respond to something that makes her feel threatened or uncomfortable, she will display physical signs of this.  I call these her Canine Clues.  It varies based on the situation, but these are some of her common canine clues:

First she will close her mouth.  Ears will fold back.  Then maybe she will close her eyes, or look away.  She then she gets very still (she freezes).  If she is standing, her tail will raise very high and start to wag vigorously.  If she is sitting her tail is motionless.  If I am unable to intervene at this point you would see her whiskers stiffen.  If I am not able to intervene quickly and positively at this point, her emotional response to the perceived threat will continue to escalate and present itself in more physical forms.  I will then see a slight forward or backward wrinkle of her lips, or the top of her muzzle will begin to twitch.  When I see any kind of stillness, flick of a whisker, or her lip wrinkle I am already behind the ball.  I am late to the “Help Me” Party, and I have failed to help her.  She is now screaming  BACK OFF.


The image below is a great example of what I call “The Perfect Storm” in our home.  I’ll share more on this in an upcoming post, but I for now I will quickly cover the factors involved here that are setting Hocus and the cats up to fail.
 
 
 
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl, or air snap.
The arrows in the above image are triggers, perceived threats, or circumstances in which she’s unable to cope effectively:
  • Beaux, the black cat creeping up behind Hocus
  • Albert the grey cat in Hocus’ space
  • Hocus is “pinned” to that spot, unable to back up because the stairs are behind her.
  • She is tired, and does not want to get up from her chosen place of rest.
  • She has just returned from a long romp in the woods; the stress hormones in her body are high.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.― Maya Angelou

 

I have no problem admitting that when our dog growls at one of our cats or another dog, it upsets me.  Thankfully, it rarely happens these days, because I have learned how to better manage Hocus, the cats, and also Hocus with new/unfamiliar dogs.  But life happens.  And growls can happen when the perfect storm creeps up.  If she does growl, I can feel the fear and anxiety hit me in the stomach immediately.  That’s how I know how easy it is to yell at a dog for growling.  But I don’t.  I know better now. 

Yelling “HEY! Cut it out! Stop it!” at the dog is our natural response when they’re doing something that makes us afraid or uncomfortable.  Growls and lunges make us feel awful!  We just want it to stop!

But if you step back and think about it, responding this way is really just telling the dog to shut up and stop doing what’s making us feel awful at the moment.   We don’t help them by yelling at them.  We only added MORE stress to a stressful situation.

And, if you are in the habit of hitting, yanking, poking, or “tttssst”-ing your dog, he/she will quickly learn to not growl in front of you.  Why continue to do a behavior that you are going to be punished for?  By punishing the growling behavior, you teach your dog to avoid doing that behavior.  Well done!   The next time your dog feels uncomfortable, he or she might skip the growl, and bite instead.

 Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. ~Nicole Wilde


The Fear Doesn’t Have to Make Sense. 

Our belief or personal opinion about what’s threatening the dog does not have to make sense to us.  The perceived threat is very real to the dog.   My fear of roaches is ridiculous to my entomologist friends, but the fear and my response to the perceived threat (The Roach) is totally appropriate to me.  Usually I flee, but under the perfect storm I will fight.  -Sorry bug friends, trigger stacking happens in people, too and we lash out.  Our dogs’ fears and perceived threats are not unlike my issues with the “R” word.

roach fear
Even googling “roach images” was hard for me.

Growls Work!

In the past our dog learned that growling and/or air snapping worked for her.  Each of these behavior increased distance between our dog and the perceived threat.  So today, if our dog is placed in a situation where she is unable to cope, I know that the growling and/or air snapping behaviors will happen again.  Why?  Behaviors that work (and were reinforced — the animal leaves her space) are likely to repeat.

 Growling and air snapping is a distance increasing behavior.  Dogs do what works for them. 

For example, let’s say Hocus is chewing a high value treat or bone and another animal (cat or dog) has the opportunity to get too close for Hocus’ comfort, a growl will most likely occur if The Perfect Storm is at hand.  (We refer to this as Trigger Stacking.)  When the growl or lunge happens, the other animal quickly leaves Hocus’ space.

What has happened here?  The growl has effectively increased the distance between Hocus, her prized possession, and the perceived “intruder” threat has left.  Growls work.  That’s why dogs choose to use them.


Growls Are Better Than the Alternative.

There are far worse things than a growl.  Think of it this way: Would you rather your dog warn you, a child, or another animal with a growl, or would you rather your dog skip the growl, and go straight to lunging or biting?

I’d prefer a lip curl or a growl, compared to a lunge, air snap, or bite.  But we ultimately want to help our dog to feel like he/she doesn’t need to growl, or lunge at whatever is making our dog feel threatened.

Clearly, no one wants their dog to growl, but we don’t want the dog to NOT growl if something makes her uncomfortable. Growling is communication. So it’s very important information that needs to be heard in a successful canine-human  canine-feline, or canine-canine relationship.


Thanks for the Head’s Up!

If we encounter an unplanned negative situation and Hocus growls or becomes tense, like the images above explain, I make a mental note along these lines, “Oh wow, so that really freaked you out and made you very upset.  Ok. Noted.  Looks like we have to work on how that (insert the perceived threat) makes you feel threatened.  Got it. Thanks for expressing that.  Now I know.  Next time I won’t put you in that situation or I’ll know what to avoid.”

Thank your dog for growling, then calmly remove your dog from the situation or remove the perceived threat away from your dog.


Shake It Off!

After I make the mental note and thank her, I then shake off the stress that I’m feeling, and I encourage her to shake it off too.  I encourage her to play, run, or be goofy!  Help your dog shake off that stress and switch gears in their mind.  We have to remember that seeing that kind of behavior does affect us; it’s alarming and scary to witness, but we don’t have to stay in that fearful place and neither does our dog.  Get out of that situation.  And Get Loose together!

shake it off _dog behavior
Encouraging Hocus to Shake It Off, be Loose, and have FUN after an awkward dog encounter

Set Them Up for Success!

Of course we don’t want dogs to continue to growl all the time.  We want to change the way they feel about a perceived threat.  We do this by setting them up for success.  We do this through positive training techniques.   We do this by managing the environment very carefully.  We do this by using counter conditioning / active desensitization techniques.

How I Set Our Dog Up for Success

I practice full, awake supervision when she is around other animals that might trigger her.  I am aware of the possibility of Trigger Stacking, so I work around that and prevent that from happening.  I am proactive when I know there could be potential triggers for my dog.   Now that I know better, I never put my dog in situations where she is unable to cope.   She now makes better choices that work for her, and the perceived threats are diminished because we helped to change the way she feels about them!


Learn Your Dog’s Canine Clues.

If you can learn to recognize the Canine Clues you will understand your dog’s language, and be able recognize when your dog is uncomfortable and unable to cope.  Set your dog up for success by preventing those circumstances.  Positively respond to the message your dog is sending.  Thank your dog for the message.  Then work with a force-free, science based trainer or behaviorist to work on changing the way your dog feels about that perceived threat.  Rule out any medical issues, and ensure your dog is healthy and free of pain or discomfort.


This week is National Dog Bite prevention week.  We are focused on increasing the safety and harmony of kids and dogs, but I would also love to see an increase in the safety and harmony of all animal companion species in the home.  Cats and dogs, canine companions, and dogs and other pets can become harmonious house mates if we know what to look for, manage them appropriately, and set them all up for success.  This is how be become Conscious Companions.

 
We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
 
Success

Recommended Reads:
 

The Fourth of July Doesn’t Have to Be “Feline Fright Night”!

cats and fireworks how to keep cats safe on 4th of July

The 4th of July is a favorite day of celebration for many people, but let’s be honest.  It’s a day of terror for many pets.  And while we’re at it, let’s be even more precise: the Forth of July might as well be renamed “Feline Fright Night” for most cats.  So what’s a devoted cat guardian to do?? There is a cornucopia of clever advice for dog owners to help their canine companions on the Night of Assault on the Senses, but what about the cats??  Cats need help, too!

Feline Fact:  Hearing is a cat’s best developed sense.  A cat’s sense of hearing is far more acute than that of dogs and humans!  A cat can hear sounds up to 64,000 kHz.  By comparison, dogs can hear sounds up to 45,000 kHz, while humans hear sounds only up to 23,000 kHz.

So why does this matter? Well, it means that all sounds are much more intense for cats.  Combine this fact with a cat’s lack of understanding (or appreciation) for a day dedicated to deliberately making things explode, and you have the perfect recipe for a full on Feline Freak Out.

Here’s the good news:  family festivities such as the 4th of July don’t have to become the Feline Fright Night to our kitty friends!  There are many things that you can do to help your feline family members successfully cope with the Big, Bad Booms and Bangs this weekend.  Below are some of my most valuable tools to help you become a Conscious Companion, and change Fourth of July Fright Night into a stress-free experience for everyone in the home!


How to Make Your Home a SAFE, CALM Haven for your Feline BEFORE The FIREWORKS Begin!

  • Keep Kitty Indoors!  Even the savviest of kitties can become startled, scared, disoriented, or confused and stray far from home when those frightening sights and sounds begin. More pets go missing on/after Independence Day than any other day of the year! Why risk it?  Keep your cats inside the day and night before, during, and a few days after July 4th.  Be aware that Independence Day is on a Friday this year. It’s a safe bet that the firework festivities will last long into the weekend, so be sure to keep your Pet Guardian guard up!  Don’t assume that once the 4th of July passes, that the booms and cracks have passed, too. Be ready for anything!
  • Create Safe Zones. – Make a Feline Fort Hideout!  Set up a “fort” or safe place of refuge for your cat(s) in the home.  If you don’t have a “safe room” yet, I strongly recommend that you create one today.  It can be as simple as a chair covered with a blanket, a comfy “hidey” spot in the back of the closet, the bathroom, or a covered crate that feels like a cozy kitty den.  Even the space underneath a bed can comforting to cats.  Be sure to set up this Safe Zone away from windows where the sights and sounds are loudest and brightest.  Acclimate them to this safe zone before the firework festivities begin.  Offer treats and attention when they are in this area.  By doing this, you are creating positive feelings with this safe zone.

    Our youngest cat, Knox, hiding in his favorite box that we refer to as
    Our youngest cat, Knox, hiding in his favorite box that we refer to as “Fort Knox”

TIP:  If you are not sure where to set up this safe zone, observe where each cat chooses to retreat when they are over stimulated.   Ask yourself: Where do they go when company comes over, the big game is on TV, or when a storm hits?  Where do they hide?  That’s where you want to build Fort Hideout!

TIP:  If you have a nervous kitty like we do, prepare ahead of time for their comfort and safety.  Make sure they have their favorite cozy hideaway ready.  If they love boxes, provide one or two for them to explore. You can also consider adding a dash of catnip to get them relaxed and increase their confidence! Remember that some cats become relaxed on catnip, while others can become very wound-up.

scaredy cat
“Help! My world is exploding all around me!”

  • Play Calming Music. Soothing classical music is beneficial for many species. Therapeutic music such as Through a Cat’s Ear  and iCalm for Cats has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and have calming effects on cats!  It is psycho-acoustically designed and clinically demonstrated to calm the feline nervous system.  However, it’s most effective when you play the music well before the fireworks begin, at a time when the cat or dog is already relaxed.  Animals will start to associate the music with being calm and content.  Then you play the music a couple of hours before the fireworks start and continue to play through bedtime.  Check out these free sound samples!

NOTE: Don’t just crank up any old tunes or the T.V. in an attempt to make the inside of the house louder than outside. That will only create more stress on the cats. Keep the energy inside peaceful and calm.

  • Consider homeopathic calming remedies.  Homeopathic relaxation supplements such as Feliway (cat appeasing pheromones), Spirit Essences, HomeoPet, and Pet Rescue Remedy are very helpful with calming an cat’s nerves on the big bad boom day.  We use Spirit Essences —This product does wonders for stress levels!  Check with your veterinarian before you use them.

    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.
    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.

Note: Feliway is a liquid synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure.  You can spray it on their favorite napping spots to make them feel more secure.

Note:  If your cat has reacted very badly to fireworks, etc. in the past, you can consider discussing stronger medications with a veterinarian who specializes in feline anti-anxiety medicine. I recommend trying the above products before rushing to the vet for prescription meds! We have seen incredible success with these products.  Medication alone is generally not going to “fix” much of anything.  It’s can be a helpful intervention, but not a specific treatment.  It needs to be paired with counter conditioning techniques.

  • Utilize Tactile Tools.  There are two wraps on the market that reportedly help pets with noise phobias.  The original Anxiety Wrap uses acupressure and maintained pressure to reduce stress.  Thunder Shirts have been successful with calming many cats.  Over 85% of Thundershirt users see significant improvement in noise anxiety symptoms.  The Storm Defender Cape has a metallic lining that discharges the fur and shields them from static charge build-up before and during storms.  Rubbing an animal down with scent-free dryer sheets can help with reducing the static charge as well!

    thundershirt for cats
    Thundershirts can be very helpful for many cats.
  • Reduce the Visual Assault.  Close the windows and blinds or anything around the house that will help to eliminate the visual assault on their senses.  Turn on lights around the house. This will also help to block out the flashes from the fireworks.
  • Comfort Your Cat! If your cat is displaying fear and anxiety when the fireworks begin, stay calm and stay near them. Contrary to some belief, this is NOT rewarding fearful behavior!
  • Distract them! Start playful game and break out the treats if they are beginning to show signs of fear and anxiety.  You can also offer novelty items such as cat nip, special treats, and enrichment toys. Grab some of that recycling material and create a fast, homemade puzzle toy!  The idea here is to turn Fright Night into Fun Night!

TIP: Withholding these toys for a few days ahead of time will make these treats even more special on the Night of Assault on the Senses.


How do you keep your feline family members safe on The Fourth of July? Please share your tips!

Things That Go BOOM In The Night

June 28th 2014

Soon people all over the U.S. will be celebrating the Fourth of July and our neighbors to the north are preparing for Canada Day!  Folks everywhere are getting ready for the visual and sound Smörgåsbord paired with good food, great friends, and family.  However, most animals would probably order the food, but hold the fireworks. So while we are preparing to party, let’s prepare our pets, too.

If you have worked or lived with an animal, you know that most of them are frightened of loud or startling noises.  The fear of loud sounds is called noise phobias.  Even if your animal companion has not displayed this fear before, the sights and sounds on The Fourth of July could easily bring out their most intense fears.

scared-parrot
“What are those loud sounds and flashing lights?!”

Put yourself in their position.  Imagine the scene: what is normally a peaceful evening at home suddenly turns into chaos.  All of a sudden there are bright, flashing lights, loud banging sounds, people hollering boisterously, and things exploding over and over.  These stimuli, paired with the unusual smell of burning sulfur and smoke, can bring on a full blown animal panic attack.

Even children can be frightened by all of this, but since parents and kids both communicate in the same language, we are able to explain to them what is happening.  When our rabbit, cat, dog, or parrot is freaking out during moments like this, we cannot just sit down with them and have a calm little chat to explain, “There is really nothing to fear, so just settle down.”  Anything unexpected, out of their ordinary routine, or that involves sensory overload, is a recipe for a full-on Animal Freak Out.

Whether you will be enjoying the festivities at home or away this year, you will need to prepare your home well before the festivities begin.


HOW TO MAKE YOUR HOME A SAFE, CALM PLACE BEFORE THE FIREWORKS BEGIN:

  • Sound Therapy:  Playing calming, classical music is beneficial for many species.  Therapeutic music such as Through A Dog’s Ear and Through a Cat’s Ear has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and have calming effects on cats and dogs!  It is psychoacoustically designed and clinically demonstrated to calm the canine and feline nervous system.  However, it’s most effective when you play the music well before the fireworks begin, at a time when the cat or dog is already relaxed.  Animals will start to  associate the music with being calm and content.  Then you play the music a couple of hours before the fireworks start and continue to play through bedtime.  Check out these free sound samples!
  • Sound Therapy combined with Desensitization:  The Canine Noise Phobia series (CNP) consists of four CD’s that can be used individually or as a set: Fireworks, Thunderstorms, City Sounds, and Calming. CNP is an innovative desensitization training tool that combines three distinctive elements for the treatment and prevention of sound-sensitivities and noise-phobias.  This article by Mary Strauss, published in the Whole Dog Journal, gives a comprehensive overview of possible treatments for sound phobias.
  • Scent:  Homeopathic relaxation supplements such as Canine CalmAviCalmFeliway, and D.A.P (dog and cat appeasing pheromones), Spirit EssencesHomeoPet, and Pet Rescue Remedy can be helpful with calming an animal’s nerves on the big day.  Pet Rescue Remedy works on everything from horses to reptiles.  You can find Pet Rescue Remedy at most health food stores or animal supply stores.  Applying a few drops to their food, water, or directly into their mouth BEFORE the booms begin can do wonders for stress levels!  Essential Oils such as lavender and valerian can also help with various anxieties. Learn how here.  Note: Feliway is a liquid synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure.  You can spray it on their favorite spots to help them feel more secure.  NOTE:  We have tried all of these over the years, but now (2020) we go straight to the CBD bottle and treats. It works significantly better than all of the above combined. You can see the brand we use and strongly recommend here.  

    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.
    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.
  • Tactile:  There are two wraps on the market that reportedly help sound phobic pets.  The original Anxiety Wrap uses acupressure and maintained pressure to reduce stress.  Thunder Shirts have been successful with calming many dogs and cats.  Over 85% of Thundershirt users see significant improvement in noise anxiety symptoms.  The Storm Defender Cape has a metallic lining that discharges the dog’s fur and shields them from static charge build-up before and during storms.  Rubbing an animal down with scent-free dryer sheets can help with reducing the static charge as well!
  • Visual:  Close the blinds or anything around the house that will help to eliminate the visual assault on their senses.  Turning on lights around the house will also help to block out the flashes from the fireworks.
  • Fort Hideout:  Set up a “fort” or safe place of refuge for them in the home.  If you don’t have a “safe room” for your pets, I strongly recommend that you create one.  Itcan be as simple as a chair covered with a blanket, a comfy “hidey” spot in the back of the closet, the bathroom, or a covered crate that feels like a real den.  Even the space underneath a bed can comforting.

    IMG_4242
    Hocus Pocus finding comfort under the bed

    TIP:  If you are not sure where to set up this safe zone, observe where each of your animal companions chooses to retreat when they are over stimulated.   Ask yourself: Where do they go when company comes over, the big game is on TV, or when a storm hits?  Where do they hide?  That’s where you’ll want to start building Fort Hideout.

NOTE: Be sure to set up this safe zone away from windows where the sights and sounds are loudest and brightest.  Acclimate them to this safe zone before the firework festivities begin.  Offer treats and attention when they are in this area.  By doing this, you are creating positive feelings with this safe zone.

If you have a nervous kitty like we do, prepare ahead for their comfort and safety.  Make sure they have their favorite cozy hideaway ready.  If they love boxes, bring one or two for them to explore. You can also consider adding a dash of catnip to get them relaxed and increase their confidence! (note: some cats become relaxed on catnip; others can become very wound-up.)

The most important thing an owner can do for their fireworks-phobic dog is to provide them with a bolt hole – a place where the dog can escape to when the festivities begin.  Providing the dog access to this safe place is essential at all times, particularly during an owner’s absence.  This might be a closet, bathroom or a basement, the best places usually being the ones that have no windows, but with plenty of artificial light (to mask flashes of fireworks).  Music can be played close to the safe haven so that sounds can be masked.  ~ Victoria Stilwell, internationally respected dog trainer

You are welcome to share this image with others!
You are welcome to share this image with others!



Conditioning a dog to feel differently about the sound of fireworks can be achieved by gradually exposing the dog to audio recordings of fireworks at low volume levels and, if the dog appears relaxed, playing his favorite game or feeding him his favorite food.  Allowing the dog to play and relax in the presence of the soft noise for a period of ten minutes, taking a break of five minutes and repeating the exercise ensures that the dog doesn’t become bored with the training.  Introducing the audio at a low level again and slowly turning up the volume if the dog continues to be relaxed and able to concentrate on playing the game or eating the food allows the dog to habituate to the noise without a fear response.  If the dog shows signs of stress, going back to the previous level and building up the noise level again will take pressure off the dog.  The object of noise desensitization is to gradually expose the dog to louder and louder sounds over a period of time, progress being determined by the dog’s reactions.  Going too fast might make the dog even more frightened, so taking things slowly will ensure maximum benefit from the process.  Some dogs will respond well to all of the above therapies, but will become panicked when the real fireworks start.  It is therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and by masking any audio and visual stimuli that elicit a fear response during an episode.

~Victoria Stilwell, internationally renowned dog trainer


IMPORTANT THINGS TO CONSIDER

  • Ideally, you should desensitize them to loud noises well ahead of time.  When you have the opportunity, gently pair loud or startling sounds with their most favorite treats, new toys, and playtime.  You don’t have to walk around the house banging pots and pans, but you can  help them to associate startling, loud sounds with positive treats … days and weeks before the fireworks begin.
  • If you know when the party and fireworks will begin, get potty time, walks, and dinner done ahead of time.  If these noises are frightening to them, they will often refuse to eat, go outside to do their business, or even use the litter box.  Getting these evening “business” routines done ahead of time will make everyone more comfortable. When walking them, be sure to have a secure hold of them; fireworks can start earlier than you expect and could easily startle them!
  • Get them tired! (not exhausted): If you can give them a day of play at a puppy daycare facility, or even a just couple hours of romp and play time before the Big Bad Bangs begin, their stress levels can be greatly reduced if they are already content and tired from a fun day of play and exercise.  Healthy play and exercise is great for reducing stress in cats, too!
  •  Know the signs of STRESS! Cats and dogs, birds and other exotic companion animals show anxiety and stress in a variety of different ways.  Be a Conscious Companion; learn to recognize their individual stress signals, which may include any (or all) of the following:

                           – Panting

                           – Drooling

                           – Pacing

                           – Hiding

                           – Decreased appetite

                           – Abnormal urination or defecation

                           – Dilated pupils

                           – Excessive grooming

                           – Feather plucking + other signs of stress in parrots!


  • BEFORE they are even beginning to show signs of fear and anxiety, offer them Good Things! Be playful with them!  Play games and break out the treats!  You can also offer novelty items such as cat nip, frozen soup (marrow) bones, Bully Sticks, and enrichment toys, such as KONG for cats and dogs! If you have parrots, check out these goodies from The Leather Elves.  Grab some of that recycling material and create a fast, homemade puzzle toy!  The idea here is to turn Fright Night time into Fun Night!
  • TIP: Withholding these items for a few days or week ahead of time will make these treats even more special on the Night of Assault on the Senses.
  • Medication alone is generally not going to “fix” much of anything.  It’s can be a helpful intervention, but not a specific treatment.  It needs to be paired with counter conditioning techniques. — Read how and why here.

scaredy cat
“My world is exploding all around me. Help me!”

  • Avoid scolding or reprimanding them when they are frightened or nervous.  Their anxiety doesn’t have to be understood, but merely respected.  Many animals have fears that to us are not “rational,” but they are still very real for them.
  • Note: Always comfort the animal. You cannot reinforce Fear! If you don’t believe me, read this!

It is essential that if an owner is present, time be spent with the dog in the safe haven or attention given to the dog if it comes to seek comfort from its owner.  Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times.  ~ Victoria Stilwell, internationally renowned dog trainer


If you absolutely must take them with you during the fireworks show, always keep them on a safe, force-free harness, or in a fortified carrier.  When an animal becomes startled or frightened they will run, and often run very far.  Keep them attached to you at all times.  Make sure their identification tags and your contact number are clearly marked on their collars; if they do break free from home, or from you, they can be reunited faster and more easily.  Having your animal companion microchipped is also another important safety measure.  It’s inexpensive and can be done within minutes at your vet. More pets go missing on the 4th of July more than any other day of the year.

Animals are family, so it is natural to enjoy having them around you when you are celebrating.  However, the 4th of July is not be the best time to have your animal companion tag along if you’re headed out, even if you’re going to what is supposed to be a “pet-friendly” party.  If you have set up safe zones, prepared the house, and your animal companions appropriately, they are going to feel safe at home when the noise chaos begins.  Home is familiar, and home is safe – so please keep them inside until the celebration is well over. 

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Suggested reading for cat guardians: Fireworks & Festivities Cat Safety Tips!


Ladder of Aggression

The Ladder of Aggression:  What every dog guardian needs to know

Do you know the subtle signals that dogs give when they are stressed?  Did you know that if you don’t help your dog, they can escalate? Here’s a great way to see how your dog’s behavior can escalate into aggression.  Think of a ladder with many steps.  Each step represents a behavior that dogs will display when they are becoming more and more anxious, stressed and fearful.  If the dog continues to reach a maximum level of stress, aggression can result.  Aggression is the top rung of the ladder.  Since all dogs are individuals, every dog has a different way that he/she responds to stress, so we need to be aware of their individual behavior clues.

Ladder of Aggression

How a dog reacts to stress or a threat can be represented as a series of ascending steps on a ladder.  These gestures are responses to an escalation of perceived threat only and are NOT expressions of a ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant’ state.  The choice of strategy (whether to escalate to a bite or not) will depend on the circumstances (time, target, interactions, previous experience) and on the severity of any underlying physical disease.  Pain frequently converts a ‘flight’ response to ‘fight’.  – Ladder of Aggression by Kendal Shepherd


The behaviors on the lower rungs of the ladder (yawning, blinking, nose licking, turning head away, etc.) communicate in dog language, “I am feeling worried”, or “please calm down”.  The behaviors on the higher rungs of the ladder (growling, air snapping, biting) mean “Stop! Leave me alone right now! Go Away!”

Understanding what dogs are trying to communicate when they are stressed is how we become Conscious Companions, and prevent our dogs from moving up the Ladder of Aggression. This included our felines, too!


I would like to share something else with you:  A dog bite NEVER happens out of the blue.  Let me repeat that; a dog bite never happens out of the blue.

Why is this important to know?  Well, it means that all dog bites can be prevented if we learn to recognize the stressors and behaviors that a dog exhibits as they are becoming stressed.  Dogs will display specific behaviors (listed above in the image) well before they lunge or bite.

Make no mistake about it; it’s our job, our role, and our responsibility as their guardians to learn these behaviors and recognize these stages.  Prevention and safety begins with you!  Setting ourselves up for success is how we do this.

Set yourself and your dog up for success!  You Are Your Dog’s Advocate!

Can you think of a time when your dog was stressed?  How did you respond?  


Related Material about Body Language: