Dogs and Fireworks: Tips for Relieving Anxiety

Laura Nativo

Summer holidays are here, and there’s nothing like a nice fireworks show to end the night. While it’s a beautiful display for us, many dogs tend to disagree with the noise. Statistics show that more dogs get lost during the 4th of July holiday season than any other time of the year. It’s never too late to teach your dog to be calm during fireworks or thunderstorms – and you can start months before a holiday weekend.

How is it that I’ve managed to teach my dogs to not only endure, but to, dare I say, enjoy fireworks? I was thrilled when Embrace gave me the opportunity to create this fireworks desensitization video and article. To my dogs, 4th of July is the one night where steak and chicken rain down from the sky. How did we get here?

My first true experience with fireworks desensitization came four years ago when I adopted Delilah. I bottle fed her from seven weeks and I was determined to do everything right! I began desensitization to sounds early on and will always remember one pivotal night when Delilah Jane was 10 months old, and likely going through her second fear period. The second fear period is thought to be tied to a dog’s sexual maturity period, between 6-14 months, and one single frightening event may create life-long trauma.

We were driving home and, thankfully, had Mediterranean takeout in the car. I noticed fireworks booming very close to our home and I was thrilled I had my clicker and yummy dog-safe “human food." I pulled over, cranked up what I believe to be my dog’s favorite song (her theme song, “Hey There Delilah,” of course!) and began training. I was determined to make it a positive experience for my newly rescued puppy! I noticed Delilah’s initial body language: with every boom and flash her ears flattened, eyes grew wide, and she was nervously looking at me. With each BOOM! I would CLICK, then offer her a piece of chicken and sweet potato. After a few booms and treats, I noticed her nervous body language shift to excitement. I continued to CLICK and TREAT every time a firework went off. When I saw her relax, I lowered the music and windows in my car and noticed she became excited by each BOOM: she looked at me in anticipation of the takeout and was thrilled to be rewarded.

As my supper dwindled, I turned the music up, closed the windows, and drove home while Delilah licked the remaining morsels of my takeout. SUCCESS! This session took less than five minutes. Ever since that night, I have always made a point to pair fireworks, thunderstorms, and other terrifying sounds with the best food possible.

Months later, Delilah and I presented a TV segment on a national lifestyle show all about dogs and fireworks preparedness. I went home hoping my audience would take the tips to heart only to see the most devastating news on my social media feed: Delilah’s birth mother and father went missing after escaping from the gate in their yard in a panic after hearing fireworks! Unlike many dogs who run away, Delilah’s mom and dad were found a few days later, but that incident fueled my passion for fireworks training.

fireworks

Before the Sounds

In the months and weeks leading up to a fireworks show, you can practice desensitizing your pup to loud, potentially frightening, noises.

Begin with counterconditioning them to fireworks sounds. You may also practice with audio recordings of thunder, fire alarms, or even airplane noises. Search YouTube or Spotify for fireworks playlists, or use the Legacy Canine Sounds Good Fireworks CD by my friend Terry Ryan.

Here are a few ways to practice:

Exercise 1: Play fireworks sounds on a speaker, or with your phone, at a low volume while your dog is gnawing a safe chew in their crate. Monitor your dog anytime they are chewing in their crate! Raise the volume if your dog seems undisturbed, and always turn the sound off before your dog finishes their bone or chew toy.

Exercise 2: Play these sounds while you’re playing your dog’s favorite game. Turn up the volume to a louder setting as your dog becomes more at ease with the noise. Your dog will begin making a connection that good things happen while firework sounds are playing in the background.

Exercise 3: Keep high value treats with you at all times and give your pooch a reward whenever there’s a loud random noise nearby. Only give your dog this special treat when you are surprised by a noise in the environment. Think thunder, a firecracker, or construction sounds.

Note: Play sounds only while your dog is happy, relaxed, and doing something that they enjoy. Pay attention to their body language and if you feel they are at the edge of their comfort zone, step back. Remember to keep your training sessions short!

It’s Showtime

Now it’s time to put what you and your pal have learned to the ultimate test – a real fireworks show.

Step 1: Check your area’s calendar events for a fireworks display and plan a trial-run for your dog. Be sure you are close enough to home that you can drive away quickly if needed.

Step 2: Pack your pooch (and some high-value treats) in the car and park close enough to hear the fireworks. Make sure the windows are up and you’re playing your pup’s favorite music. Each time a firework BOOMS, click (or say “YES”) and treat your dog.

Step 3: Lower the volume of the music once your dog gets the hang of the BOOM=treat idea. Only proceed if your dog’s body language communicates they are ready.

Step 4: Once you and your dog are feeling comfortable, open the windows a bit to hear the booms a little louder. Your dog should be in a seatbelt harness or crate to keep him or her secured.

Step 5: Be consistent with BOOM=treat, and make sure that you use the highest-value treats for this (like grilled steak, salmon, or chicken).

Step 6: This routine should only last a few minutes – don’t hang out for the entire show. End the routine on a positive note (lots of “Good dog!”, treats, and scratches).

Step 7: Give your furry friend a Kong or their favorite food-stuffed toy to chew on during the ride home. This will help them decompress from the excitement.

Step 8: Ending on a positive note doesn’t just stop in the car. When you get home, play with and give your pup lots of love before bedtime.

All of our dogs are different. Please get to know your dog. Build trust in your relationship. And please do not expose them to fireworks unless they are emotionally prepared. If you’ve tried these training exercises and your dog is still afraid check out our article on managing your dog's fireworks fear.  

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