12 Ways to Calm Dogs During Fireworks
There are ways to calm dogs during fireworks, but advanced planning is your best friend. As the saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." So don't wait until the fourth of July or New Year's Eve firework display is about to begin but instead, start getting organized as early as you can.
First of all, understand why your dog is fearful of fireworks. By better understanding the reasons behind your canine companion's noise phobia, you are better armed to help him overcome his fears and will also be more likely to show empathy.
Dogs aren't scared of fireworks because they are "dumb" or "crazy." Their fears make perfect sense because they can't reason as we do. Dogs cannot grasp the concept that fireworks are for celebrating and there is nothing to be afraid of.
Dogs are instinctive beings and react by doing whatever it takes to feel safe. They instead might wonder what's wrong with us humans who ignore all that noise or even appear enthusiastic or fascinated by it!
Why Do Dogs Fear Fireworks?
So why do dogs fear fireworks? What makes them so scared of them that they must run for their lives upon hearing them? Turns out, if we put ourselves in our dogs "paws" we can find many reasons for this fear.
An Instinctive Response
Dogs, and most animals in general, are biologically inclined to react quickly to anything that may denote danger such as slow-to-fast movements (think rock falling from a height, a predator who stalks and then chases, or a hawk swooping) and strange or loud noises, explains Steven R. Lindsay in the book: "Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Adaptation and Learning." It is therefore totally natural for them to fear fireworks.
Lack of Early Exposure
Although a fear of loud noises is instinctive, a lack of early exposure can play a big role too. Here's the thing, early exposure can help pups adjust to loud noises if it's done in a gradual, systematic way.
Gun dogs as puppies are exposed to the sound of gunshots from an early age so they can habituate to the sound. The sound is often used to predict happy events.
For example, hunters may work on creating pups who become fanatic over the sight and smell of birds. Then, they may start shooting at a distance and present a bird right afterwards so that the dog starts associating the sound with the appearance of the birds.
Another method is to present the sound of gunshots at a distance right before feeding the puppy. With time, the puppy habituates to the sound and looks forward to it as it predicts meal time.
Starting exposure at an early age is the important keyword here. Breeders should ideally start this work when the puppies are still in their care. Conscientious breeders should help habituate their pups to sounds by banging the food bowls before feeding their pups in a careful, systematic way.
This can make the difference between pups who run for their lives upon hearing gunshots (or other loud noises) and dogs who tolerate them or don't care.
"Unfortunately, a dog that is improperly introduced to the gun can quickly become gun-shy. Any trainer will tell you that curing a dog of being gun-shy is very difficult and time-consuming. "Many times it's an impossible task," points out Chuck Johnson, author of the book: "Training the Versatile Hunting Dog."
Did you know? Puppies between the ages of 8 and 10 weeks of age go through a phase during which they are particularly sensitive to the effects of fearful stimulation (Fox, 1966). A single traumatic exposure during this critical fear period in puppies may have an everlasting effect.
Dogs have a much more sensitive sense of hearing compared to humans. Indeed, to better appreciate this, it helps to do some comparisons.
Dogs are thought to being capable of detecting and distinguishing sounds approximately four times as far as humans. "This means what a human can hear at 20 feet a dog can hear at roughly 80 feet," points out Marc Bekoff in the book "Canine Confidential, Why Dogs Do What They Do."
Now you know why humans have relied on dogs since ancient times and used them as precious sentinels. Since dogs are capable of hearing better, they have alerted humans for centuries about potential dangers that humans couldn't detect.
A dog's heightened sense of hearing, therefore, explains why they are much more sensitive to noises. It comes naturally therefore for dogs to react with intense fear when they hear loud, startling noises such as fireworks.
The Startling Effect
Another reason dogs fear fireworks is their unpredictability. The fact that they appear randomly prevent the dog from habituating to them.
Here's the thing: a well-predicted threat feels more controllable, and, most likely, less aversive for the simple fact that, dogs have a chance to prepare for its occurrence, versus being caught off-guard. Unpredictability instead is something that is not very welcomed.
"The occurrence of a strange loud noise will evoke a vigorous orienting response in most dogs. However, if the noise is repeated many times, dogs may learn to ignore it. If subsequently exposed to the same noise a day or two later, the dog's response will have probably returned to nearly the same strength as it was prior to habituation" further explains Lindsay. This phenomenon is known as spontaneous recovery.
On top of this, exposure to closer fireworks leading to louder effects, or possibly exposure accompanied by the lights, or situations where the dog is prevented from escaping, may have a startling, sensitizing effect rather than a habituating one.
A Genetic Component
Interestingly, fear of noises may also have a genetic component. Research shows that herding breeds, with border collies being particularly affected, are predisposed to noise phobias.
Indeed, it is not unusual for other dogs in the same litter to exhibit phobias of noises as well and for parents to pass down this trait to their offspring.
Signs a Dog Is Fearful of Fireworks
- Dilated pupils
- Tense body
- Accidents around the house
- Seeking extra attention
- Attempts to escape
12 Ways to Calm Dogs During Fireworks
As mentioned, advanced planning prior to firework events goes a long way in helping your dog cope with his fear. If didn't prepare though, you still have several options to help buffer the noises and help your dog feel less panicky. Here are several ways to calm your dog during fireworks.
1) Practice Ahead of Time
Unpredictability, as mentioned, is something that dogs dread. As Lindsay explained: "if the noise is repeated many times, dogs may learn to ignore it." This applies to normal dogs though, dogs without a firework phobia.
In dogs with a fear of fireworks, plain exposure won't work, and actually may do the opposite, sensitizing the dog rather than desensitizing him.
In such dogs, your best option is to, therefore, get a recording of fireworks (do this several weeks prior to festive firework events) and play it at a low volume at first while making great things happen. Which brings us to the next tip.
2) Use Desensitization and Counter-conditioning
The concept is almost the same as the puppies who had to learn to enjoy gunshots, the biggest rules being exposing to recordings of fireworks played at a low level (desensitization) and creating positive associations through counterconditioning (giving treats contingent upon the fireworks firing).
When doing so though, there are several important guidelines to follow. For instance, you need to pay close attention to your dog to ensure he doesn't go over the threshold, and you need to go slowly, taking steps back (like playing at a lower volume) if your dog seems to be struggling at any time and not moving forward until he appears comfortable at the level.
You know your work in on the right track when you start noticing what's called a conditioned emotional response upon hearing the recording of the fireworks.
You can see some examples of an exercise for dogs fearful of noises using these powerful methods here: the hear that method for dogs fearful of sounds.
Veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall though warns about the use of recordings in her book: "Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats." She claims: "Under no circumstance should anyone continue to expose a dog to these recordings if the dog remains at the same level of distress or becomes more distressed."
For this reason, it's crucial to implement behavior modification correctly to prevent the opposite effect (sensitization versus desensitization). For correct implementation of behavior modification, please enlist the help of a dog behavior professional.
3) Practice With the Real Sounds
Consider that recordings may not be intense as the real thing, so you still need to continue the above exercises upon hearing real fireworks so don't be caught unprepared!
Get into the habit of carrying in your pocket or treat bag several super high-value treats (think in terms of roasted chicken, baked liver, tripe treats, anything that has your dog drooling in anticipation) and be ready to say something like, "How fun!" as you toss a tasty treat the moment you hear a firework.
Hopefully, you will take a multi-faceted approach and employ some of the tips listed below to make the fireworks less intense.
4) Disguise the Sound
Playing some music with a good beat or turning on the television at a volume that is loud enough to decrease the firework sounds can help make them less salient. The less salient, the more likely your dog will feel less panicky.
5) Provide Calming Aids
There are a variety of calming products for dogs that may help take a bit of the edge off Rover's fears. Composure produces a line of treats known for having a calming effect on dogs.
Bach flowers, DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collars and plugins, calming caps, and anxiety wraps may help too. Eye shades may be helpful for dogs who react to the flashes of light produced by fireworks while Mutt Muffs can help reduce noises of fireworks. Dogs must acclimatize to aids that must be worn when calm and not exposed to triggers.
6) Avoid Restraint/Confinement
As mentioned, fear of noises may become worse if dogs are unable to escape since escaping can reduce their aversiveness. So avoid restraining your fearful dog in your arms (which may lead to biting), avoid keeping your dog tied up, avoid crating him with the door closed (some dogs may voluntarily go inside an open crate and feel safe there, especially if you place a blanket on top).
A restrained dog may panic (as he has no way to escape) and risks injuring himself or others in his attempts to get away from the noise. Dogs left outdoors may escape. Not coincidentally, the Fourth of July is a holiday during which shelters are notorious for taking in lost pets.
So make sure you prepare in advance a place for your dog to go to (ideally the farthest away from the sound) and that the path to go there is clear with no obstructions.
7) Provide Escape Options
If your dog is too over the threshold to take treats, then you must make sure your dog is provided with a place to escape. Your dog likely has a room or place that is his go-to area when he feels fearful.
If your dog doesn't have a specific place to hide, you can provide one for him. Look for a quiet area of the house that is centrally-located, has thick walls and has a minimal number of windows. Some dogs will seek closets, dark rooms and spaces under beds or desks.
Place the DAP diffuser in this area along with plenty of blankets where he can burrow along with something that has your scent.
Don't forget to place some food and water bowls (nervous dogs tend to drink a lot) and make sure your dog has had an opportunity to eliminate prior to the firework displays.
8) Provide Darkness
Ensure the room remains dark so that your dog doesn't see the light from the fireworks. This may entail closing all the windows and pulling the curtains.
9) Load Up on Carbs
Feed a meal that is rich in carbs the afternoon prior to the firework display. Options include cooked pasta, mashed potato or overcooked rice. These foods should help your dog feel sleepy and calm, points out veterinarian and behavior consultant Dr. Jon Bowen in the book: "Behaviour Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team"
10) Watch Your Mood
Dogs rely a lot on how we react to specific situations, so help your dog cope with his fears by acting like a role model. Ignore the fireworks and act happy and relaxed.
Don't worry about giving your dog attention when he's acting fearful. Contrary to what you may have heard, you cannot reinforce your dog's fear considering that fear is an emotion rather than a behavior and behaviors are what are reinforced.
11) Provide Your Presence
According to a recent study, dogs were found to undergo the same “secure base effect” observed in children when they bond with their parents. It's therefore very likely that your dog perceives you as a parent, providing shelter and care and food. Dogs therefore come to depend on you and in return, they want to be close to you so your presence may surely have a reassuring effect.
However, rely mostly on just being there and try not to push things. Some dogs dislike being touched when they are fearful and invading their need for space when they are in panic mode may sometimes lead to a growl or even potential bite.
12) Ask Your Vet for Meds
Don't hesitate to ask your veterinarian for medications to help your dog through the firework displays. Make sure that you provide such medications prior to when your dog displays any behavioral, physical, or physiological signs of distress.
A word of caution is needed about certain sedatives. For example, while acepromazine's sedative effects may be appealing for use in dogs with sound phobias, acepromazine has been associated with increased sensitization to noises which ultimately makes it a poor choice for dogs with firework phobias, points out Dr. Jon Bowen.
Acepromazine does little to nothing to help lessen or relieve the fear and anxiety that these suffering pets experience from fireworks and thunderstorms. What it does do though, and do well, is make them unable to move and/or exhibit any of the other outward signs of their fear and anxiety. Ace is kind of like a “chemical straightjacket” in these instances.— Jason Nicholas, BVetMed
Did You Know?
Other than the loud noises produced and risks of direct exposure to fireworks, which can cause serious burns, unlit and spent fireworks contain harmful chemicals that can be harmful if ingested by dogs.
How did your dog cope with the fireworks?
What Helped Your Dog the Most During Fireworks?
- Behaviour Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team by Jon Bowen, Sarah Heath
- Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats - by Karen Overall
- Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems – Steve Lindsay
- The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task Lisa Horn, Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range Published: May 29, 2013
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 Adrienne Farricelli