Summer holidays are here, and there’s nothing like a fireworks show to end the night. It’s a beautiful display for us, but many dogs are afraid of the noise of fireworks. 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 have I 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?
How to Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks
The Story of Delilah
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 food that was safe for dogs. 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 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.
Begin Training Before Fireworks
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 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.
Exercise 1: Play fireworks sounds at a low volume while your dog is gnawing a safe chew in their crate. If your dog seems undisturbed, raise the volume slowly. Always turn the sound off before your dog finishes their bone or chew toy and always monitor your dog when they are chewing in their crate!
Exercise 2: Play the sounds while playing your dog’s favorite game. Turn up the volume as your dog becomes more at ease with the noise. Your dog will begin to make a connection that good things happen when firework sounds play in the background.
Exercise 3: Always keep high value treats with you to give to them whenever there’s a loud random noise. 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: Only play sounds when 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!
Now it’s time to put what you and your pal have learned to the ultimate test: a real fireworks show.
Step 1: Take your pooch (and some high-value treats) to a show, and park close enough to hear the fireworks but far enough away that you can leave quickly if you need to. Keep the windows up and play soothing music. Each time a firework BOOMS, click (or say “YES”) and treat your dog.
Step 2: Lower the volume of the music once your dog gets the hang of “BOOM = treat.” Only proceed if your dog’s body language communicates that they are ready.
Step 3: Once you and your dog are comfortable, open the windows a bit to hear the booms louder. Your dog should be in a seatbelt harness or crate to keep them secured.
Step 4: Be consistent with BOOM = treat, and make sure that you use the highest-value treats for this (like grilled steak, salmon, or chicken).
Step 5: This routine should only last a few minutes – don’t hang out for the entire show. End on a positive note (lots of praise, treats, and scratches). Give them a Kong or their favorite food-stuffed toy to chew on during the ride home. This will help them decompress from the excitement.
Step 6: 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.
Every dog is different, get to know yours. Build trust in your relationship. And please do not expose them to fireworks unless they are emotionally prepared.
Dealing with Extreme Fireworks Anxiety
If your pet is still anxious no matter what you do – there’s still hope! There are some dogs who have extreme fear, anxiety, and hypersensitivity to sound and 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.
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 or fan running instead of having windows open. Maybe put on some low music or leave the TV on for 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
Give your dog all the snuggles and love that you can the day of. Play their favorite game, do training exercises, 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 keep them company. If a pet sitter isn’t available, make sure to check that your dog is secured in their safe space and that their ID tags and microchip information are on and up to date. 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. Always reach out to your veterinarian if you have questions about best practices for coping with pet fear.