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Dogs and Fireworks: Tips for Relieving Anxiety

By Laura Nativo

Summer holidays are here, and there’s nothing like an impressive 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.

Fear of fireworks (and other loud noises) is common for pets. Many people seek to calm their dog’s fear of fireworks or to get them over their aversion to loud noises. How is it that I’ve managed to teach my dogs to not only endure, but to, dare I say, enjoy fireworks? To my dogs, 4th of July is the one night where steak and chicken rain down from the sky. How did we get here?

Story of Delilah: How I Prepared My Dog for Fireworks

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.

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.

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. This will help relieve their anxiety.

Begin with counter-conditioning 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.

Practice Exercises

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 soothing 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 that 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). 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 7: 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 your pet, like many other pets, is still anxious no matter what you do – there’s still hope! By thoughtfully considering your dog's needs during frightening times, you can help alleviate some of their anxiety.

Don't Be Discouraged

There are some dogs who have extreme fear, anxiety, and hypersensitivity to sound. These dogs may become destructive when fear turns to panic. If your dog shows signs of extreme stress (shaking, heavily panting, scratching at their crate or door, etc.), your dog may benefit from holistic or prescription medicines to help ease their stress levels. Please talk to a qualified general practice vet or veterinary behaviorist well in advance. Regardless of whether you use a holistic method or a prescription drug, do a trial run to make sure that your dog doesn’t have a negative reaction to the medicine.

How to Calm Your Dog During Fireworks

Offer a Safe Space

During thunderstorms or fireworks shows, create a safe environment for your pup. This space could even be in their crate if they’re most comfortable there. Try to put them in a room with no windows, or darken the windows with a curtain, and have the air conditioner running instead of having windows open. Maybe put on some low music or leave the TV on for some background noise. Try running the dishwasher or washing machine if your pet is used to that sound.

Do not leave your dog unattended in the backyard. Many dogs will find a way to escape the noise

Soothing Embrace

Give your dog all the snuggles and love that you can the day of. Play their favorite game, do training exercises listed above, do anything that will make them happy. Comforting your dog will not make their fear any worse – make sure to leave them feeling content. If your dog is nervous around fireworks and you absolutely can’t stay home with them, consider hiring a pet sitter to watch a movie with them and keep them company.

If you’re going out for the 4th of July without your pup, make sure to check that your dog is secured and that their ID tags are on and up-to-date. Confirm their microchip records are up to date. Put them in their safe space with music, TV, A/C, the washer – any familiar sound for them turned up to a reasonable volume. Consider using a calming collar or ThunderShirt® if your dog is exceptionally fearful.

Did you know holistic methods are even reimbursable under Embrace’s Wellness Rewards plan? Please consider your dogs’ well-being, and make considerations for them well in advance. Never expose your dog to fireworks unless you trust that they are emotionally prepared. And always reach out to your veterinarian if you have questions about best practices for coping with pet fear.

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Pet health insurance is administered by Embrace Pet Insurance Agency, LLC and underwritten by one of the licensed insurers of American Modern Insurance Group, Inc., including American Modern Home Insurance Company d/b/a in CA as American Modern Insurance Company (Lic. No 2222-8), and American Southern Home Insurance Company. Coverage is subject to policy terms, conditions, limitations, exclusions, underwriting review, and approval, and may not be available for all risks or in all states. Rates and discounts vary, are determined by many factors, and are subject to change. Wellness Rewards is offered as a supplementary, non-insurance benefit administered by Embrace Pet Insurance Agency in the United States. © 2020 American Modern Insurance Group, Inc.  Wellness Rewards not available in Rhode Island.