Fireworks are a staple of celebration in the United States. Some holidays when we enjoy fireworks include New Year’s Eve, the Super Bowl, and the Fourth of July at the least. Your best friend celebrates alongside you, howling at the lights in the sky, it seems perfect.
What if your dog is afraid of fireworks? Scared by the light and sound, that evening may quickly become nurturing your dog instead of celebrating the occasion. Reactions range from enjoyment to violent on the spectrums of reactions to fireworks but other fears often correlate. If they are easily spooked then fireworks are sure to get them jumping. Consider the noise alone, a vibration your body can literally feel as it moves through you. To the sensitive hearing of a dog, it’s a tremendous blast. They may freak out, especially the younger they are. What can we do to help our companion through these times?
The Root of the Behavior
Though fireworks are not a direct threat to your dog, your dog perceives it as one. If he reacts aggressively, it is likely because they believe to be defending themselves. If your dog retreats and whimpers in the reaction, it's likely pure fear. Your first instinct might be to berate them or tell them no. The cause of these behaviors is primarily fear, and so any negative reinforcement approach is not going to do any good here. Dogs just simply won't understand why you’re upset and retreat more. These fears are triggered by sight and sound, the bright lights and the unpredictable bangs. Removing them from the environment seems like the most logical solution, and it's not bad! However, keep in mind the dog has incredible hearing, and so even in the quietest room in your house, they will likely still hear the fireworks, and still bark. Still this, to a degree, reduces the intensity for your friend. Often, the fear of these noises comes from their early life. If they are not exposed to a lot of similar noises when they are younger, they may be more easily spooked. The fearful response to loud noises, or however they respond, are learned behaviors from early development.
Most pet parents do not seek professional advice regarding the invocation of fear from fireworks or other loud sources, but a trainer during their early years is the best way to ensure your pet responds appropriately. As the early development is so important, an early traumatic experience can cause dogs to be spooked more easily. If that experience also had a loud bang involved, like most head injuries, then fireworks and the like may be particularly impactful. That being said, there may also be a genetic factor. Pets may be predisposed to fearful reactions, as anyone who has had a Chihuahua can verify. It is not necessarily particular to breed, though some are more prone than others, but the specific genetic makeup of the parents. The genetic makeup does not dictate whether or not they are afraid of fireworks but can be a contributing factor. If you find your dog shaking, hiding, whimpering, or being generally destructive every time fireworks come around, there are a few things you can do.
Encouraging the Behavior
What works best for you when you are scared? Do you, perhaps, like to be held by a loved one? Maybe you watch a familiar and calming movie. They may differ slightly, but comfort is pretty universal and is almost certainly your best approach. Try removing your four-legged friend from the environment, reducing the stimulus from the sights and sounds of the occasion. Play some music or turn on the television to help disguise or drown out the sound. Make sure to distract them with a game or petting them.
Keeping them engaged in an activity is going to be tremendously helpful. If these do little to reduce your dog’s reaction, talk to your vet. Anxiety can exacerbate these issues, and there are some medications that can help to reduce their fears. If you know that event is happening, say on the fourth of July, then perhaps give your dog a bit of extra exercise earlier in the day. Try to really wear them out beforehand, and they may sleep through the time pretty well. Sound therapy may be a good way to approach the situation with the goal of a long-term fix. Playing the sounds of fireworks over your speakers starting at a low volume, and systematically increasing it over an extended period of time can desensitize your dog to the particular noises that frighten them.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs frequently disappear when they are spooked and so it is no surprise the 4th of July is the day which people most frequently report their dogs missing. Keep this in mind and make sure you make the proper accommodations. Keep them inside, most preferably with you. If they are outside with you, make sure you have them on a leash. Even if they do not typically need one and are traditionally well behaved and responsive to commands, they are not in a clear state of mind when they are afraid and may disappear on you when the fireworks begin. During their early years, showing your dog it is nothing to be afraid of by comforting them can often change your dog’s response to fireworks in the future.
Swaddling them with blankets, applying comfortable pressure, can really help during these early years. Leaving them alone and unattended during this time in their lives is a good way to find yourself with compounded issues in the future. Dog behavior is often of a bit of a hive mindset. If you don't want all your dogs freaking out, try and separate the ones that are easily spooked from the ones with a stronger constitution.
From fireworks to thunder, many of these solutions can really help. Keep your eye on your friend and see how they react, and do what you can to comfort them. Any distraction or entertainment during this time can help a great deal and familiarizing them with the sounds prior can dramatically impact their response. Keep them safe and secure on the days of fireworks, and contact your trainer of vet if the issues persist after these solutions have been attempted!