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Helping Dogs Cope With Fireworks

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Fireworks can be scary for many dogs

Fireworks can be scary for many dogs

Fear of fireworks is a common problem for many dog owners. The loud noises fireworks make and the dramatic flashes of light trigger various reactions in our pets.

Some will bark in alarm, others will whine or tremble and seek places of safety. Dogs distressed by fireworks who are alone may become destructive to alleviate their anxiety. They may attempt to escape the noise by getting out of the room or crate they are in at the time, causing themselves injuries and damaging property in the process.

In a worst-case scenario, a dog scared by fireworks may bolt on a walk or escape the garden and end up lost. Every year during the height of fireworks there are reports of dogs running off through fear at the sound, which is a major concern for owners who have no choice but to walk their dogs after dark.

There is no single strategy to help a dog cope with fireworks. Each dog is different and will require a different approach, sometimes multiple strategies are required to assist them. Being in tune with your dog, and being prepared for the fireworks season will help enormously. You may never get your dog to be completely happy about fireworks, but if you can help them to cope with the noise, then life will be a lot better for you both.

There are lots of reasons why dogs find loud noises frightening

There are lots of reasons why dogs find loud noises frightening

Why Are Dogs Scared of Fireworks?

There are a lot of reasons why dogs are scared of fireworks. It can be partly due to their breed and temperament, and partly due to their experiences, especially as young dogs.

Dogs are known for their supersensitive hearing. They hear a greater range of frequencies than humans do and can hear sounds that are roughly four times further away. This explains why a sensitive dog may react to a firework you can barely hear.

Most animals perceive loud, sudden noises as a threat. As Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, Daniel Mills, explains -"From a biological perspective, it pays to err on the side of running away [from a loud noise] even when it's not necessary."

In short, it is far more natural for a dog to be afraid of fireworks than to ignore them.

How severely a dog reacts to fireworks is also dependent on their experiences, particularly when they were puppies. Around 12 weeks of age puppies start to go through a 'fear period'. This can be a critical time, as events that occur at this stage can impact on your puppy's future reactivity to new things. Being startled by a loud noise at this time, if the owner's response was not appropriate, could result in a lifetime fear of loud sounds.

A dog's temperament will also affect its reaction to fireworks. Temperament is a complicated thing that is partly genetic, partly influenced by environmental factors. Some dogs are predisposed by their temperament to be more anxious and prone to stress and fear. This is not something that can ever be completely overridden by training or socialisation as it is a fundamental part of the dog's nature.

Other factors that determine a dog's reaction to fireworks include how long they have been with their owner, how the owner responds to their reaction, their age, breed, gender and reproductive status, though this list is subjective.

In terms of age, older dogs may develop a fear of fireworks, or their existing fear may worsen, due to the deterioration of their hearing. As hearing weakens, it is harder for a dog to know where a sound is coming from and this can add to their anxiety over loud noises.

What this demonstrates is that the reason why dogs are scared of fireworks is not a simple one and is a product of a number of factors. Appreciating all this will enable you to help your dog better and understand just why these sounds are scary to them.

Alarm barking is a common reaction to fireworks

Alarm barking is a common reaction to fireworks

Prevention Is Better Than a Cure

In an ideal world, we would 'proof' our dogs against firework noise long before firework season and avoid them becoming reactive. Unfortunately, events do not always work out that way and we may only realise our dog is scared of fireworks when they suddenly react one night to the noise.

The unpredictable nature of fireworks is part of the problem. Not only can our dogs not predict when they are going to occur, neither can we and so we find ourselves suddenly in a situation where loud bangs are happening and our dog is a quivering wreck under the table.

So, how can we work on preventing things from reaching this stage in the first place? Luckily, even if you have a noise-sensitive dog, it is possible to help them overcome their fear and cope better with fireworks. With both a new puppy or an older dog, working on accustoming them to loud sounds before fireworks season is a positive way to help them cope.

Before you begin, it is a good idea to assess how reactive to loud noises your dog is. This will give you a baseline you can then work from and go back to, to appreciate your progress. The University of Lincoln has developed an app for this purpose, but you could also do it by keeping a diary of any noises your dog reacts to, whether they were high-pitched or low, and whether your dog reacts worse to them at a certain time of day (ie. after dark).

You now have a starting point to work from. It may be that a lot of sounds cause your dog to react fearfully, or it may be just fireworks. The next step is to work on a program of counterconditioning - this is a very easy form of training that has proven to have significant results. In a Swiss research study, counterconditioning compared to other methods adopted to help dogs cope with fireworks could reduce the dog's reaction by 70%.

Counterconditioning involves teaching your dog that instead of being afraid of fireworks, they should see the loud noise as a trigger for good things to come. This could mean high-value treats (cooked chicken, beef, sausage or similar) or a fun game of tug or fetch with the owner.

You can begin counterconditioning long before fireworks season by downloading an app of firework sounds and then playing them quietly when your dog is present. Offer your dog high value treats or play a high energy game as the sounds play. When your dog is confident with this level of sound increase it a little, and continue this way until you can play firework noises loudly and your dog is happy to play or take treats.

It is important to remember that you are not looking for a specific behaviour from your dog before you reward them with food or a game. You are aiming to connect the noise of fireworks with a good thing, so even if your dog looks towards the sound, or barks, or puts back its ears, you would offer the treat or a game. If the dog is too stressed by the noise to interact with you, then it is too loud and you need to decrease it.

Your goal is that when the firework noise occurs instead of being scared your dog looks to you for food or fun.

Depending on your dog's temperament counterconditioning may completely eliminate firework fear or simply reduce it to a manageable level.

You may find that when fireworks go off your dog still barks at first, but then you bring out treats or a toy and they calm down. It is not a failure if your dog still reacts to fireworks, this is perfectly natural. As long as your dog will stop barking to take treats or play, then the conditioning is working and with time, you may see that barking go altogether.

The important thing to remember is that the reward must be of high value. Using kibble or a toy your dog isn't interested in will not have the desired effect. You need really good tasty treats, perhaps ones that you only give when fireworks go off, making them even higher in value. The same applies to a toy, reserve it only for games when fireworks are banging and make sure it is one that your dog will absolutely love.

Stressed dogs may want to hide away

Stressed dogs may want to hide away

Using Training Aids for Firework Fear

There are various items available on the pet market that are advertised to help dogs cope with noise phobia. They generally work by calming the dog and reducing anxiety, however, they do not replace positive training and the results of these tools vary from dog to dog.

Firstly, it is important never to use an aversive training device to change a dog's behaviour, especially when dealing with a fear reaction. This includes using a collar that shocks the dog, emits a high-pitched sound, vibrates or sprays citronella in their face. These devices are designed to punish the dog for barking or displaying behaviour you do not want. Though they may appear to work initially, using these devices to interrupt a dog's reactive behaviour towards fireworks will ultimately increase their fear and anxiety. You should not punish fear, it is unfair on your pet.

The same applies to using bottles filled with pebbles (shaker bottles) or metal training discs that clatter to the floor loudly when thrown, or a spray bottle of water. These are old-fashioned training techniques which either shock or punish the dog for its reaction. Again, we do not want to punish our dogs for being afraid, and using something that makes a loud and sudden noise to startle them out of reacting to fireworks will only increase their overall noise sensitivity.

If your dog is barking at fireworks, then a better way to distract them and bring their attention back to you is to throw treats on the floor for your dog to find, or throw a favourite toy. The act of searching for treats and sniffing them out calms the dog while also taking their mind off the noise outside. If a dog is too frightened by the noises to search for treats, you will need to find a way to bring their anxiety down first using some of the calming tools mentioned below.

Calming Coats

Calming coats or anxiety vests are now available widely. The theory behind them is they gently but firmly wrap around the dog, rather like a comforting hug. The idea is that pressure on key parts of the dog's body releases endorphins, chemicals that create a happy feeling in the dog.

There is a lack of scientific evidence to prove these coats work, but anecdotally many owners believe their dogs are calmer while wearing them. There are concerns that this may not be a genuine calm response, but rather the dog feels inhibited by the wrap from displaying its normal reactive behaviour. Therefore it is still stressed and anxious but cannot express it. Like many training aids, people use calming coats as a replacement for teaching their dog to be more confident and less fearful, which is ultimately not solving the problem.

Calming Sprays, Plug-ins and Collars

There are a variety of sprays, diffusers, plug-ins or collars advertised as being able to soothe your pet and reduce their anxiety. Many of these items are herbal remedies and the evidence for their effectiveness is mainly based on owner experiences and whether they think their dog is calmer or not.

Only a few calming aids have the science to back up their claims. One of these is the Adaptil range of products which release a pheromone (DAP) that soothes a dog. One study tested if the use of DAP could alleviate anxiety in dogs during long stays at veterinary clinics. Though the study was small, it was found that dogs exposed to these pheromones showed less anxiety during their stay than those who were not exposed to it. Another study looked at noise sensitivity in beagles during a simulated thunderstorm and found that those treated with DAP had a significant decrease in their anxiety and fear both during and after the storm.

Medications

There is a vast range of herbal products on the market for dogs that are said to ease anxiety. As with the sprays and collars mentioned above, most do not have firm evidence to back up their claims. However, they are unlikely to harm your pet if you wish to try them and may be useful in mild cases of firework anxiety.

In contrast, the calming medication Zylkene, which is available for purchase without a prescription, has been proven to have a calming effect in studies and is recommended by vets. It contains a natural ingredient derived from a protein in milk that has been found to have a soothing effect on animals. A number of studies have proven that this protein (scientific name alpha-casozepine) reduces anxiety.

Editor's note: It's important to speak with your vet before giving your pet any OTC medication.

Human anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines are sometimes prescribed for dogs in extreme cases of distress. These should be considered the last resort in a behaviour modification process and should only be given after consultation with a vet.

Pets should not be given medication prescribed for a person, as the dosage may be too high. It is very important that you discuss with your vet the potential side-effects of these drugs before deciding if they are appropriate for your pet.

Comforting a scared dog will not worsen their fear, but can help them cope

Comforting a scared dog will not worsen their fear, but can help them cope

Make Your Home a Safe Refuge for Your Dog

Behaviour modification and calming aids take time to work and some dogs will always remain slightly worried by loud noises. By making your home as peaceful and pleasant a place as possible, you can help your dog cope with fireworks.

Soundproof your house as best you can by closing windows and curtains, and keeping your dog in a room that has a lot of soft furnishings (these deaden noise better than an empty room). Thick curtains not only reduce the noise but prevent your dog seeing the lights of fireworks. Put a television or radio on loudly, again to mask the noise outside.

Give your dog a safe place they can retreat to if they need it. This can be a crate or a table covered with a cloth they can get under. These should be places your dog can choose to enter or leave as they wish. Forcing a dog into a confined space when they are scared will increase their anxiety. Scared, crated dogs may thrash about and hurt themselves, so they should always be able to escape the crate if needed.

Be with your dog: This is of the utmost importance—your dog will gain confidence and security from your presence. Though you may not be able to be at home with your dog every night in the winter, you should make sure you are around on nights when a lot of fireworks are expected to keep them company and help them feel safe.

Use counterconditioning to distract dogs from the noise. As mentioned above, counterconditioning is very successful at training a dog to see firework bangs as a good thing, rather than something scary. It does require patience, but long-term is the best solution for dogs with mild to moderate firework fear.

For dogs that are very scared, sitting with them, perhaps on the floor, and gently stroking them can help. Speak to them calmly and reassuringly. However, if a dog chooses to hide away from you, do not force your presence on them.

Don't Ignore Their Fear!

It is a widespread myth that reassuring a scared dog will increase their anxiety. This is inaccurate, according to Naomi Harvey, Research Manager in Canine Behaviour at Dogs Trust.

“There’s a myth that by reacting positively you’re reinforcing fear, which you can’t do because fear is an emotion not a behaviour.”

Along with other canine behaviourists, she advises comforting a scared dog. In a 2013 study monitoring the heart rate of dogs exposed to stressful situations, (in this case a threatening stranger) it was found that those who were supported by their owners had a lower heart rate and were less worried. The study concluded - "Similarly to parents of infants, owners can provide a buffer against stress in dogs..."

Use calming aids to help soothe your dog, but don't consider them a replacement for positive training. You need to begin using calming aids several days before fireworks begin to give them time to take effect.

Don't let your dog outside alone at night: There is a risk of a firework going off and a dog being so frightened they will bolt over the garden fence. If your dog is truly terrified of fireworks, it may be helpful to train them to toilet on a puppy pad so that on bad nights you do not have to take them outside to toilet.

Walk your dog at night on a lead, or avoid night time walks altogether when firework season is on. If you have to walk your dog at night, by having them on a lead you will not risk losing them if they are spooked by fireworks.

Above all else, be there for your dog as their guardian and protector. When fireworks go off, our dogs only have us to help them. They do not understand why there are loud noises, they cannot help being scared and barking. We have to offer them guidance and kindness to assist them through this trial and, with patience and positive training, maybe we can even condition them to not react to those loud bangs.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Sophie Jackson