What to do if my dog is afraid of fireworks?
Loud noises are a part of life, and while we can’t always prevent our dogs from developing phobias, we can do our best to desensitize them to random noises throughout the year.
These noises could be motorcycles, train whistles, horns, fireworks – you name it.
The rescue I work with said the Fourth of July is one of the busiest times for pounds and shelters because so many dogs get scared of fireworks and bolt from their owners.
This is a good example of why we should be desensitizing our dogs to loud noises during every season, not just fireworks season.
Puppies should be socialized to all kinds of noises and experiences from a very young age.
And those of us who adopt adult dogs also have a responsibility to help them learn to handle various noises.
What do I do if my dog is afraid of fireworks?
If your dog is afraid of fireworks, thunder or gunshots, you have a few options:
1. Buy a Thundershirt.
There are some body wraps out there designed to fit snugly around the dog in order to make her feel secure. One is called the Thundershirt.
Like some people, sometimes dogs also feel more secure when snuggled up. You may be interested in my post on the Thundershirt for dogs.
The Thundershirt is not a quick fix. It should be combined with other training techniques and only works for certain dogs.
2. Use the fireworks as a learning opportunity for your dog.
If my dog were afraid of fireworks, I would make sure to something fun every time I heard fireworks.
I would bring out all kinds of treats and goodies like pieces of hot dogs or chicken and some tennis balls and play fetch in the hall or work on training, rewarding him for any calm behavior.
I would ignore anxious behavior such as panting or whining and distract him with favorite toys, games, obedience training and tasty treats.
If you have to take your dog outside for a quick bathroom break during fireworks, make sure you have a collar she can’t slip through. Dogs that are freaked out can easily slip through nylon collars, harnesses, choke collars and even martingale collars if you’re not careful. Of course, make sure your dog is wearing ID tags.
A dog that is extremely anxious around fireworks can learn there is no reason to be afraid. It just takes a lot of creativity, time and patience. The more fearful your dog is, the more important it is for you to be a calm, relaxed leader.
3. Provide your dog with a safe, secure place to hide out.
Allowing your dog to hide out in a safe place during fireworks will not help her overcome her fear, but it’s often the next best thing because a kennel or crate will keep most dogs safe.
The safest place to put an anxious dog is in a kennel/crate. Fearful dogs are more likely to damage property, injure themselves or go to the bathroom indoors. This is just one more reason why it’s so important to kennel train your dog at a young age.
If your dog feels secure in her kennel or in a small room, then it’s OK to let her hide out there for a while. Leave a radio or TV on and a fan to create white noise.
Provide her with things to chew such as rawhides or Kong toys filled with peanut butter since chewing helps a dog relax. A stressed dog may also lick or bite at her paws, so if you can provide her with something good to chew on, she may not develop self-destructive behaviors.
Also see my post: How to help a dog with EXTREME fears of fireworks for even more tips from a professional trainer.
How do I get my dog used to loud noises in general?
Here are some tips for desensitizing your dog to random, loud sounds throughout the year. Don’t start working on this on the actual Fourth of July holiday. That will be too much for most fearful dogs.
1. Gradually expose your dog to loud noises.
It’s not hard to find loud noises. You could carefully walk near a busy road with truck or bus traffic. Walk by a train, starting with several yards away of course.
You could seek out people mowing the lawn. Or, ask someone to honk a car horn or to play a musical instrument.
Ask someone to drop a large book or a can full of coins. Don’t try to scare your dog, but expose her to as many sounds as possible very gradually over time.
Try not to respond to these noises yourself. Just stay calm and reward your dog for any calm behavior too.
2. Walk your dog in different environments.
Walking in different areas will help expose your dog to new sounds. If you live in the country, walk your dog in the suburbs or the city where there’s more traffic, people and commotion. If you live in the city, go out in the country where there are different sounds like tractors, gunshots, farm animals or snowmobiles. Go to a lake where there are boats and jet-skis.
3. Act like the noise doesn’t exist.
If you react to a noise, then your dog will also react. When you are trying to desensitize a dog to a noise, the best thing you can do is pretend you don’t hear anything.
If your dog is scared of fireworks, don’t react to the fireworks yourself. Don’t even look at your dog. If you look at her, it shows that you expect a reaction.
4. Do not coddle your dog when she’s fearful.
I’m torn on the whole idea of whether or not you can reward a dog’s fearful behavior. Fear is a real emotion and it’s OK to offer your dog some comfort.
But, to help our dogs, we should try to encourage and reward calm, appropriate behavior. If you have to hold and cuddle your dog, that’s OK, but personally I would prefer to reward the dog for resting calmly on a dog bed next to me.
5. Don’t correct a fearful dog.
I do not recommend correcting a very anxious dog when the cause of her anxiety is a loud noise. Yelling “NO!” at the dog, jerking her collar or shocking her will generally make her more anxious. Instead, ignore unwanted behavior and praise your dog when she’s calm.
6. Distract the dog from the noise with something fun.
A tennis ball works great for distracting Ace when something “scary” is going on.
He is slowly being desensitized to gunshots, and I do this by throwing his ball around and playing while someone shoots in the background. This helps Ace get used to the noise without focusing directly on it. We carry on with our game of fetch as though the noise doesn’t exist.
7. If your dog is very scared, try again later.
It’s normal for a dog to jump at the sound of a sudden noise. Who doesn’t? But it’s not normal for the dog to remain startled.
If your dog seems very scared, then slowly get away from the noise and try again later. Don’t run away quickly as though you are also scared because this will make the dog more anxious. Just walk away in a calm, controlled manner.
Signs of a very upset or scared dog include heavy panting and drooling, pulling on the leash in an attempt to bolt or frantically trying to climb into the owner’s lap. Some dogs will bark or cry nonstop and others will begin to shut down completely.
If Ace is afraid, he will lie with his tail between his legs, ears back, eyes shut and head on the ground.
8. Use anti-anxiety medication as a last resort.
There are rare instances where a dog needs medication during fireworks. This is up to each vet and dog owner to decide, and there are pros and cons to each medication.
Some anti-anxiety medications will cause dogs to feel confused and disoriented which can potentially bring out aggression. Sedatives can take a good half-hour or more to work and can affect the dog for hours after the fireworks display has ended.
Some dog owners insist on using natural calming products for their anxious dogs. I’ve tried some of these with my foster dogs, and these products did not work for them. What an anxious dog needs most of all is time, patience and understanding.
9. Do not rush a fearful dog.
Desensitizing a dog to a loud noise can sometimes take weeks, months or years. Do not push a dog too far or you will end up taking a few steps back.
Many dogs end up being “gun shy” because their trainers pushed them too quickly and had unreasonable expectations. Every dog is different. Some are naturally more comfortable around noises and some take a long time to realize loud noises are usually no big deal.
10. Realize that training and socialization are never over.
I’m always bringing my mutt Ace to new places so he can experience more. I want to have a dog that is comfortable in all situations so he can visit more places without making a scene. I will never be done socializing him to different environments, sounds, people and animals.
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