It's no secret among dog owners that some dogs are terrified of fireworks. In fact, more pets go missing on the Fourth of July than any other day of the year. For us, fireworks are a much loved staple of this summertime holiday. Why do so many dogs get anxious around them?
Why Are Some Dogs Scared of Fireworks?
The reason some dogs are scared of fireworks can actually be due to several factors.
Fireworks are Loud
Fireworks, essentially being colorful explosions, are very loud. Even when we are expecting one, we can be startled by a loud noise. Dog's have a more acute sense of hearing than we do. In fact, dogs can not only hear a wider range of frequencies than we can, they can also hear sounds from further away. So fireworks may be sound even louder to your dog than they do to you. If your dog is not accustomed to loud noises, say from going hunting with you, the loud bangs of fireworks can be jarring.
Fireworks Can Be Unpredictable and May be Perceived as a Threat
Fireworks are also unpredictable. We can see where a display is being set off from, but our dogs don't know where these loud noises are coming from, and when or where the next loud noise will come from. This unpredictability can make fireworks even more startling. Because of their loudness and unpredictability, your dog may perceive fireworks as a threat. Thanks in part to their wolf ancestors, whenever there is something in the environment that is a perceived threat, dogs will instinctively err on the side of caution. As the saying goes, better to be safe than sorry. A wild animal that avoids a perceived threat that really isn't a threat at all will survive while another animal that ignores a perceived threat that turns out to be a real threat may not.
Fireworks Can Make Your Dog Feel Trapped
As fireworks continue to be set off, your dog may start to feel like they can't get away from them. As your dog gets more startled by the fireworks being set off, their sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your dog's fight, flight, and freeze response, will kick into gear. This can result in your dog destroying furniture, cowering under the bed, or even your dog jumping a fence in an attempt to get away from the loud noises.
What You Can Dog to Help Your Dog
There are several things you can do to both keep your dog safe while fireworks are going off as well as make them more comfortable.
Keeping Your Dog Safe at Home
If you know about fireworks ahead of time, you can plan ahead. Keep your dog indoors the night you know they will be set off. If you have a room that is more interior, or a finished basement, you can create a safe space that is insulated from the noises outside. In this safe space, give your dog bedding and blankets to comfortably rest on and provide toys that you and your dog can play with. You can even play calming music to help drown out the sound of the fireworks.
Finally, and probably most important of all, get your dog microchipped at their veterinarian. A microchip is not a GPS tracker (although there are products that you can clip to their collar that can track their GPS coordinates). Rather, it is a chip the size of a grain of rice that, when scanned with a microchip scanner, has a unique number. After your dog is microchipped at your veterinarian, be sure to register their information online. That way, should your dog ever get out, when their chip is scanned, that number can be looked up and your contact information can be found. Your veterinarian can tell you how to register your dog's microchip as well as how to update your contact information, should you ever move or change phone numbers.
Making Your Dog More Comfortable Around Fireworks
When it comes right down to it, firework and noise phobias in dogs are behavioral concerns. As with most behavioral issues, the problem is best resolved through both medication and something called behavior modification.
Medications for Firework Anxiety
Medications such as Trazodone may be prescribed by your veterinarian for fireworks. These medications will help calm your dog down without sedating them like a pain medication might. There are some medications that used to be prescribed to sedate pets during stressful situations, such as during fireworks. However, as veterinary professionals learn more about pet behavior, they have learned that giving a pet a sedative only for noise phobias can actually make the phobia worse. This is because your dog can still hear the fireworks and still knows they are there, but now they are too sedated to do anything about it. This can make them feel even more trapped and helpless. There are some products such as Thundershirts that may also help calm your dog down. The science behind this method is the same science behind deep pressure therapy and weighted blankets in people.
Your dog's fear of fireworks can be undone with a training method known as classical counter conditioning, sometimes called CCD. Basically, you are taking a previously negative stimulus, such as fireworks, and pairing it with something positive, like treats, play, or praise. This is why your dog's safe space should include toys that are interactive for your dog and allow you to interact with your dog. It is important to remember that you can never reinforce fear. By giving your dog treats and praise during a fearful event, you aren't reinforcing your dog's fear and anxiety, but rather you're showing your dog that there is nothing to be afraid of and, in fact, good things happen when fireworks are around.
As with most behavioral issues, the best treatment plan is multimodal. So your dog may respond better if they are treated with both medication and CCD than if they are treated with only one or the other.