It’s that time of year, folks!
Even with this weekend’s Memorial Day festivities–it seems that many of us live in communities where we have neighbors who enjoy shooting off fireworks. I know in my neighborhood, my dogs and I have heard them throughout the year, regardless, because I guess some people just can’t get enough. Luckily for me, my dogs don’t have a lot of fear of them or sensitivity to sounds in general.
However, there are many dogs who do have sound sensitivities, have had bad experiences with loud noises, lack socialization or just find them very scary. Whatever the reason, I wanted to go over my four steps to a safer Fourth so that all of you can be as prepared as possibly–and hopefully have a more peaceful pooch!
- Consult your vet or, better yet, a vet behaviorist. I’m going to say it: natural or homeopathic remedies can only help so much, if at all. If your dog has a very mild reaction to loud noises, then sure–that Thundershirt or natural oil diffuser may help take a slight edge off. Most, however, are not that effective and even unproven, such as L-Tryptophan supplements.
The only two OTCs that I have recommended in the past are treats like Composure (L-theanine has been proven to have a relaxing effect on the brain but must be taken daily/over time to have the effect) or Adaptil diffusers, sprays or collars (pheremones that can naturally relax dogs that have had more proven effects through research as well). There are variations in what you can buy for L-theanine supplements and pheremones but if your dog is truly stressed: panting, pacing, unable to settle, drooling, trying to escape, shaking, or cannot relax in the presence of toys/play or even eat food, then you should speak to your veterinarian or consult a veterinary behaviorist for medical interventions, as that would be more effective and appropriate. Steer clear of acepromazine (ACE), as it will sedate the body and not the mind, and can actually increase anxiety because of this.
- Secure your home environment and make it as comfortable for your dog as possible. Make sure everyone in your family is on board with ensuring doors and gates are shut and locked as needed, and if your fencing needs repairs or fortifications, to see those through. It’s best not to allow your dog in your yard or outside off-leash at all. Supervision and well-fitted harnesses attached to leashes are key to making sure your dogs can’t escape. Take your dogs out to potty well before many fireworks begin (more on this below as we go through having a routine).
Inside, set up an area or two (or more if you have more than one dog) where your dog will feel comfortable and safe. Some dogs might want their crate, while others might enjoy a closet space or under a table or another “enclosed” spot. Having white noise or soft, relaxing music ready to play can help drown out the noises outside, and make sure you have their favorite foods, chews, toys or other items prepared too.
Giving them outlets for enrichment and mental stimulation, as well as having a more positive experience, can help everyone get through the celebrations more successfully. Maybe your dog really loves nose work games–this is a great time to do some of those, maybe have some tug afterward, all while eating delicious chicken bits as noises happen. Whatever your dog loves, bring it all out to help them!
- Do training in advance with desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) is the process of presenting a stimulus at a low intensity to a dog, and then giving them something they love in order to make them feel, over repetition, happier about that stimulus. Most of us know about Pavlov and his dogs, which represents classical conditioning: he rang a bell and would then feed them dinner. Over several repetitions, the dogs began to salivate in anticipation of their dinner!
With DS/CC, the same process applies but it is vital that the stimulus being presented (i.e., the sound of fireworks in this case), be presented at a lower intensity so the dog won’t be so scared that it is ineffective. If you’re making it hard, it won’t work and can make things worse. I recommend getting recordings of fireworks and playing them at a very low volume to start, from a device like a phone. You play a bit of the noise and then feed your dog a high-value treat (i.e., bits of cheese, hot dog, chicken, roast beef–whatever your dog will LOVE). Noise stops = treats stop. Do short amounts of time of this and, as the dog is comfortable and even happy-looking when they hear the noise, you can gradually increase the volume. Do this in all areas of your home. Then you can also use a system with speakers, but again, at a very low volume, gradually raising it, practicing in all rooms of the home, for very short sessions (5 minutes or less).
You can also do the same DS/CC process using other things your dog likes. Start playing the noise and then play tug, if they love tug. Or you can give them a bully stick, or a stuffed Kong–whatever your dog loves. Incorporating play can be a great way to help your dog loosen up too. The main goal is that the noises make their favorite things happen! Practicing this daily can help you be more prepared for when the actual fireworks in your neighborhood begin.
- Have a routine ready to go when it’s showtime. If you know fireworks will begin at 8:30 pm, take your dogs out before that time to adequately potty and get some outdoor exercise. Have their well-fitted harnesses and leashes on at all times, and avoid going outside at all once the festivities begin. Have all your good things and safe spaces prepped. You might even consider getting some potty pads for your dogs for inside if necessary. It’s better to have as much ready for any case scenario than not. Establishing your routine for the evenings during fireworks times can help you stay on point, as much as it will help your dog know what to expect and lessen their anxiety.
I hope that these tips can help you and your dogs feel more comfortable this year, and following years. I know many people who struggle with this, and feel terribly for their dogs and what they, too, are going through. I also think of the veterans in our communities, or others with post-traumatic stress that these fireworks can trigger, and it hurts my heart. Feel free to reach out for any questions and remember to help each other through this time. If you are celebrating, please be mindful.
Thank you for reading and be safe!