Fireworks and fear in dogs

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Blogs
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It’s not often that I have to think carefully about what I write. I don’t mean that I turn out sentence after sentence in a slapdash fashion, or that my ranting drips with any particular eloquence after careful thinking through. I don’t normally have to consider so carefully how what I write may be perceived by others, it is more about the experience than the opinion. Sometimes I struggle to reach my own opinion, because a lot of the time things don’t come to me quickly in conversation, they creep up on me over time. My opinion is a midnight marauder waiting in the shadows. When it comes to dogs, my opinion is quite strong, but I’m trying to remember my sensitivity too.

The heartbreaking news over the last week of four year old Lexi Branson, mauled and killed by the family’s dog, is a terrible story. With an ongoing investigation into the exact history of the dog and the circumstances, there are few facts to draw on. BBC news reported that the dog, believed originally to be a stray bulldog, came from a rehoming centre and had been in the family’s home for two months. The dog was not one prohibited under the Dangerous Dogs Act.

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was introduced in response to incidents of serious injury or death such as the tragic case of Lexi Branson. Under this act is illegal to own or breed any specific dangerous dogs without court exemption; including the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. The act has previously been criticised, sited as a rushed piece of legislation. The fact that it also covers cross breeds and that actual dangerous dogs are classified by ‘type’ and not breed has also been met with controversy. Using the definition ‘type’, means that a judgment is made on physical characteristics by a court.

While of no comfort to those directly affected by incidents of attacks by dogs, thankfully they are extremely rare. Any breed of dog has the potential to cause harm, so taking for granted the natural instincts and behaviours of dogs that we become familiar with, is perhaps unwise. That’s not a criticism of anyone, but human beings have a never-ending capacity to take things for granted. I work with dogs every day and I hope I have a certain amount of understanding of the behaviours and communication signals they display, however, I have little fear of dogs. We could all do with becoming a bit more present around our canine companions as their temperament, much like us humans, is never constant.

Interesting to see this case occurring around Guy Fawkes Night. I read some comments from animal behaviourists who believe that it is not a coincidence that more of these type of incidents seem to happen around Guy Fawkes Night and New Year’s Eve. The lead up to which can be commonly stressful and anxiety inducing for many dogs – even a seemingly confident dog can tremble, drool and run and hide at the unpredictable loud noises and bright lights. Pushed past their comfort zone, an increasingly frightened dog has the potential to become more aggressive. Their basic response is ‘fight or flight’ and when running and hiding doesn’t solve the problem (they can still hear the noises) and they are also unable to ‘fight’ the fireworks, there is no escape. The recent television programme ‘Dogs: Their Secret Lives’, documented the behaviour of many dogs when left home alone, also measuring their cortisol levels. If this is a reliable method of measuring anxiety levels in dogs (here is where I wish I was more scientific!) maybe some research should be done with noise phobic dogs.

I was perturbed to hear of some recent backlash in the direction of rescue centres with regard to bull breeds; some people (in my opinion ill-informed), believing they should all be euthanised. Firstly this is massively discriminative and a sweeping generalisation. I’ve met and spent time with a lot of Staffordshire Bull Terriers (SBT) and SBT cross breeds, personally I’ve found them to be mostly gentle, sweet and oh so affectionate. If they have issues they usually stem from being sensitive and people dependant, not because they are aggressive. Personally I think it more pertinent that bull breeds are neutered, to help address the increasingly high numbers of unwanted SBTs finding themselves in a kennel environment, stressed out, not doing well and not advertising their true nature. Secondly, I can think of other, smaller breeds of dogs far more likely to display aggressive behaviour, in the eyes of many it is more acceptable purely because they are smaller and less likely to cause damage.

I have absolutely no idea about the circumstances in which Lexi Branson lost her life, but speaking more generally, education and outreach to every dog owner and parent out there would surely go a long way to stop it happening in situations where people just don’t understand a dog’s behaviour or the warning signals it gives.  Like many, I was shocked and horrified by a YouTube video of parents encouraging a toddler to jump around on their pet Rottweiler. Watch the footage here and see just how much patience this poor dog has. No dog should have to put up with this.

In the UK every 20 minutes an SBT or SBT cross is put to sleep and 40% don’t make it past their fourth birthday and in a world where the media are looking for negative experiences from rescue or rehoming centres to highlight, I’d be inclined to reinforce the thousands of happy ever afters that so many wonderful dogs and their new found owners indulge in. Give staffys a chance. On a lighter note, If you have a stressy staffy, or any variety of anxiety-prone pooch come to that, try giving it Scullcap and Valerian during fireworks!     








  1. Alex says:

    Hi Minnie I’ve shared this on Facebook for a few dog-lovers I know, I hope that’s OK.

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