Dealing With Fireworks Anxiety

Here comes the big one!

As the 4th of July approaches in the US, I’ve been getting tons of emails from people asking how to deal with dogs (and cats) that are terrified of fireworks.  Like early November in the UK (Guy Fawkes Night) and New Year’s Eve everywhere, Independence Day can be a fantastic time for us humans, but while we gather with friends and family to celebrate and kick back, these times of year can be miserable for our pets.

A lot of your dog’s misery can be avoided (or at least reduced) if you think ahead and begin the desensitization process with her well ahead of the big day.  There are several steps you should take if you think your dog will have a bad reaction to the booms, whistles and pops that are the soundtrack to what the rest of us all consider a fun night.

Working with dogs that have a fear or phobia can be complex because even though some common fears can be successfully worked with, others are deeply ingrained and are therefore highly resistant to change.  Recent reports have shown that 93% of dogs with noise phobias involved fear of thunder and other loud noises, including fireworks.Whether fear of fireworks is elicited by a singular traumatic experience or prolonged exposure, the result is often highly distressing for dogs and owners.  Without extensive behavioural therapy and management strategies, phobias become deeply ingrained and even harder to change.

Unfortunately even one noisy celebration can turn a dog into a quivering wreck.  Some dogs are so badly affected that they have an inability to function during and after a fireworks show.  Many fireworks-phobic dogs adopt self-management strategies in order to cope.  These strategies include attempting to escape the home, digging into carpets, seeking out dark den-like spaces to hide in, or crawling behind a bathroom sink or toilet.  Others will pace back and forth during the episode, unable to focus on owners who are desperately attempting to calm them down.  Stress is also manifested through excessive panting, pupil dilation, sweating paws, raised heartbeat, loss of appetite, whimpering, trembling and an inability to settle.

One thing that can sometimes make behavioral modification in fireworks cases a bit easier than with thunderstorms is that thunderstorms are not easy to predict or control.  A dog usually knows that a storm is coming long before an owner and becomes increasingly panicked as the storm approaches.  Regardless, as with all training techniques, I have learned that treating every dog as an individual is of utmost importance and that modification and management is more likely to succeed if time is spent tailoring the training to each specific dog.

Conditioning a dog to feel differently about the sound of fireworks can be achieved by gradually exposing the dog to audio recordings of fireworks at low volume levels and, if the dog appears relaxed, playing his favorite game or feeding him his favorite food.  Allowing the dog to play and relax in the presence of the soft noise for a period of ten minutes, taking a break of five minutes and repeating the exercise ensures that the dog doesn’t become bored with the training. Introducing the audio at a low level again and slowly turning up the volume if the dog continues to be relaxed and able to concentrate on playing the game or eating the food allows the dog to habituate to the noise without a fear response.  If the dog shows signs of stress, going back to the previous level and building up the noise level again will take pressure off the dog.  The object of noise desensitization is to gradually expose the dog to louder and louder sounds over a period of time, progress being determined by the dog’s reactions.  Going too fast might make the dog even more frightened, so taking things slowly will ensure maximum benefit from the process.

Gradually exposing the dog to flashes of light that grow in intensity can be another part of therapy, but one that can be harder to implement.  I have found that these therapies are often not as effective as noise desensitization.  Some dogs will respond well to all of the above therapies, but will become panicked when the real fireworks start.  It is therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and by masking any audio and visual stimuli that elicit a fear response during an episode.

The most important thing an owner can do for their fireworks-phobic dog is to provide them with a bolt hole – a place where the dog can escape to when the festivities begin.  Providing the dog access to this safe place is essential at all times, particularly during an owner’s absence.  This might be a closet, bathroom or a basement, the best places usually being the ones that have no windows, but with plenty of artificial light (to mask flashes of fireworks).  Music can be played close to the safe haven so that sounds can be masked.  It is also essential that if an owner is present, time be spent with the dog in the safe haven or attention given to the dog if it comes to seek comfort from its owner.  Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times.

Some phobic dogs benefit from calming therapies such as t-touch, Thundershirts, DAP collars, and Bach Flower Essences, while others do much better on anti-anxiety medication that can be given just before the fireworks start.  It is vital, however,  that behavioral therapy and management are always given along with any medications in order to give the dog the best possible chance of rehabilitation.

I’m very excited about some pretty groundbreaking work that I’ve been doing lately on a project to help dogs with phobias like these, and I hope to be able to announce something about that soon.  In the meantime, fireworks phobia can be a tough condition to treat, but trying a variety of therapies and techniques can improve a dog’s ability to cope when the big ones come.

EDIT:  Since the publication of this post, Victoria and Through A Dog's Ear have released the groundbreaking new Canine Noise Phobia Series, which includes a product specifically designed to combat fireworks and thunderstorm phobias.


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  • Esmeralda Galvao

    Our dog Godo was terrified of thunder and fireworks. I got him used to Irish Dance videos and increased the sound gradually. He became so used to it that, whenever I put the videos on, he would go to his corner on the sofa and sleep. We put the videos well before the fireworks would start, the sound of Michael Flatley's troupe could be louder than anything and he was comfortable. I strongly recommend rock shows too.
    And THANK YOU SO MUCH, Victoria, for saying that the owner's presence can help. How can I leave my dear baby, suddenly turned into a nervous wreck and pretend I don't see it? How can someone look at a dear friend in distress and not try to help?

  • http://mynya219@gmail.com Dorothy Williams

    Thank you sooooo much for the info. I watch your show every day. I am a first time dog owner and I gotta say that I have learned so much from watching your show.

    Have a safe and blessed holiday,
    Dorothy Williams

  • http://www.fearfuldogs.com Debbie Jacobs

    Along with desensitization if pet owners add something that makes the dog feel good, food treat, a ball toss, etc., the process of changing a dog's association with scary or startling sounds can be even more successful. It's important that the sound or scary thing happens first and then the treat or play. This helps a dog learn that something they don't like very much makes something they DO like very much, happen. If the dog cannot play or eat treats then the intensity level of the scary thing is too high and the dog is not likely to be desensitized to it.

  • Nickie Devlin

    Thank you for the info. I have just come across your webvsite I appreciate the point about allowing your dog to come to you for comfort and giving it. One trainer we contacted said to ignore her completly which did not work for her. My Newfie's fear of sound really began to show itself 2 yrs ago.when she was 2 yrs old. She had always been nervous around trash trucks and as a pup we worked on desensitizing her withmoderate success. But then came sessory overload when we were out at a pet store. Within the time it took to walk from the car to the store she had to face military helicopters above , dump trucks unloading their dirt at a constructions site about 1/2 mile away but the sound echoed down a corridor, a rescue fire truck with sirens blazing needless to say she was so terrified she tried to jump into someone's car trunk. Fireworks and thunderstorms became a nitemare for us. She would try to go thru windows to escape. We now use the combination you mentioned . We started out with DAP spray on a scarf or the collar then added T-Touch and finaly the Thundershirt. We do the T-Touch daily. In mild storms she no longer needs the Thundershirt. I haven't tried to soundtrack of thunder and fireworks yet but I do use the CD that came with the book Through a Dog's Ear and play that throughout the month varying the time of day I also play it during thunderstorms.as well. Thank you again for your discussion on fireworks

  • Nancy Washell

    Victoria, is there anything that can be done about barking at loud noises? I have 7 chihuahuas and a shi-tzu that bark incessantly when they hear thunder or fireworks.

  • Ron

    thank you for information that sounds practical, free, reasonable and safe. it passes all the tests. Ron

  • Janet Stavrides

    I just wanted to write and tell you about what I've done that has really improved my dog 85-90%. Of course with the 4th of July right around the corner that will be a huge test. Trapper was a wreck with fireworks, gunshots, beeping ovens etc. Thundershirts, noise desensitization, distraction with food/treats or play with a favorite toy were all tried, and didn't help at all. He wouldn't engage in play and he wouldn't even sniff the food treats (some of his favorite stuff no less). I am a licensed Veterinary Technician and as such I have access to webcasts and had the opportunity to listen to one.... The World Can Be a Scary Place – Managing Noise Phobias in Dogs by Dr. Gary Landsberg. He mentioned a product called Harmonease in this talk. SInce I had tried everything, I decided to check it out. The website gave it just a 60% chance of working. I decided to give it a try. To my surprise and pleasure it worked so well, that he started taking treats and I could be distracted with a toy. I used that opportunity to continue training him to come to "grips" with the noises that bothered him. Now if I just sit with him and feed him a treat every 3-5 minutes or so he is just fine. So I noticed you gave Thundershirts a "plug" I thought you may not have heard about this medication (as it is relatively new (non prescription, available over the counter) and may want to suggest it to people who have just about given up. IT may not help, but it may! Thanks for reading. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions I didn't cover. Janet

  • Pat Cline

    Thank you so much for this very helpful information. We have a 5 year old Black Lab who just hates thunder and fireworks and trembles and hides and will not respond to anything, so we just go with her to where she feels comfortable and pat her, turn music on or the television, and close the blinds so she cannot see the lightening. But, she knows 1/2 hour or more before a storm is coming, and we know from her because her nose is up in the air smelling everything. I just bought her some sleepytime tonic with Bach flower extract in it and I will try that later this afternoon and also tomorrow to prepare her for the town's 4th of July celebration.

    Thank you again.

  • Lynne Van Luven

    I just went through 3 out of my four dogs being very scared of the fireworks - we all climbed on my bed and I tried to comfort them - I ended up with two Irish Setters and a mini doxie huddled all around and
    on me - didn t get much sleep but kept talking to them and petting them till late in the night when the
    fireworks finally stopped. So sad to see them go through this.

  • http://masterpeacedog.com Fran Masters

    I thought your article on fireworks anxiety was excellent. However, it said to start early working on the problem, and the article came out on July 1. I do wish it had come out a month earlier so I could have shared it with my students.

    Thanks.
    Fran Masters

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  • Kathy

    I've always been told not to comfort the animal as this actually unintentionally gives positive reinforcement for the behavior. My dog was not bothered by storms or fireworks until we took in a stray cat last year who IS afraid. The cat hides in the closet and we just leave him be, but my vet confirmed that the dog probably sensed the cat's fear and "learned" to be upset as well. If we are home, she will pace, pant, and ultimately come and sit very close to one of us as if to try to hide behind us. We certainly allow her to "hide" near us, but we don't try to calm her with a lot of attention, petting, and talking. My vet confirmed that this is the correct approach, and I noticed during the last storm, she really didn't seem too freaked out. I can certainly see how the desensitization therapy would be useful for animals who truly become terrified, but since my dog only seems mildly disturbed, I'm hoping that the "ignore it" approach will keep the fear from escalating. It seems to be working so far!

  • Pingback: It’s Okay to Comfort a Scared Dog | Puddin's Training Tips | a mySA.com blog

  • rich robbins

    Victoria, as a dog trainer and a lover of all animals, i would first like to thank you for all you do. All my dogs have been rescues, and if i adopt a puppy i use every possible moment to train them to become good canine citizens, and prepare them for the best possible life ahead of them. As soon as i know a thunderstorm is coming, i sit on my covered back porch and play or treat and in between i simply relax with my pup, soon to be joined by all my dogs. The puppy then treats thunderstorms as nothing to be overly concerned with. After a few episodes of this exposure it is no longer necessary, and they soon learn to accept thunderstorms as just another happening. Now, with fireworks, I always stay home w/my dogs on the 4th of July, I KNOW they are much better off, and comforted, when I am around. As w/the storms, with puppies, the very first July 4th they experience i work on de-sensitizing them to the madness. We make sure that we have lots of exercise early in the day, and at home I put on many fans ( and this is done on a regular basis, so they are used to the fan noise/wind) and I have the TV audio up louder than usual. I also draw the curtains, and sometimes I'll offer new stuffed animals to them to uplift them more. Obviously all dogs are different and will have varying reactions to the methods used. But I can tell you one thing, many years ago I adopted my first Great Pyrenees, he was about 6 months old. Both lightening and fireworks sent him into a horrific panic... it was hard to deal with, and I always felt sorry for my boy. My current Pyr was adopted when he was 10 weeks old, and I exposed him to storms and fireworks as previously mentioned, and ever since he can (and does) sleep o u t s i d e (his choice) under a covered awning both during thunderstorms and fireworks.

  • Jessica

    i tried all the things and i was really patient, but nothing worked on my scared little dog.. :(

  • Maggi

    Hi Victoria,
    Great post. I also think this may have been more helpful if posted earlier for people to be prepared..in fact in Canada our celebrations were on Friday past. I was prepared, somewhat, except for the young teen setting of fireworks last MONDAY near our puppy class...sigh. My dog Cracker, who was in the van while we took the young pups out (I'm an assistant trainer) was terrified.

    Cracker has always been an anxious dog (sounds, separation anxiety etc) and has been on anti anxiety meds (clomiprmaine longterm). The fireworks/gunshot noises have always been an issue but the thunder issue is new this year (she's five), so we have a thundershirt (it helps), I also use very high value food rewards and have diazepam (valium) on hand for pre treating when storms or firecrackers are on the way. I have made great progress with her and we will continue to work on it.

    Kathy, fear is an emotion, not a behaviour, so it cannot really be reinforced with calm reassurance.
    Janet, Harmonease has been a godsend for one of my client dogs, who is also a patient of Dr. Landsberg. He takes it for generalized anxiety and fear aggression. The difficulty is that it is not available in Canada and Dr.L has to get it in specially for his patients...hopefully it will be available here soon...

    Happy Fourth to all my American doglovers!
    Maggi

  • http://www.northwoodsdogtraining.com Patty L Crichton

    Hi Victoria- I am looking forward to hearing about the new development. I have been using emotional clearing techniques/energy healing with great success in my practice on many sorts of anxieties, aggression, fear, etc. Combined with training and behavior mod, I think it's the wave of the future.I wonder what you're up to??

    Thanks for all you do!

  • http://www.happyhoodie.com Toni Vernetti

    Also consider using the Happy Hoodie as a way to block out the loud sounds of fireworks. It is a soft, comfortable band that is put over the head to hold the ear flaps down over the ear canal creating a means of blocking sound. The pressure also acts as a comfort for your pet.

  • http://n/a John Simms

    Personally I dislike fireworks too. I don't blame animals for not liking them. Just think how loud they sound to a dog or cat. Both of which can hear so much better than us.

  • vivian

    When my dog hears thunder or fireworks show won't do anything. She doesn't play or take food, not even her favorite treats. She also doesn't pee. I worry about her bladder holding it for so long if we have a long storm or 4th of July weekend. I have tried using thunder and firework sounds, but she doesn't react to them. She goes into the bathroom to hide and I am ok with it, I just worry about her holding he pee for so long. I had to take hear out at 2 am after fireworks had stopped for her pee. She is a good dog and won't go in the house. I almost rather she did, so she didn't hold it for so long.

  • http://www.WholisticDogTraining.com Linda Michaels, MA Psych

    This is a terrific article Victoria! A real keeper. Well done and thank you!
    Linda and The Dogs

  • Angela

    Victoria,
    I appreciate the info on fireworks and anxiety that dogs experience. What do you do in the opposite situation? I have three shih tzus. The two older tzus completely ignore loud noises but the younger tzu just experienced his first Independence Day and it did not go well. He's not expressing fear but aggression. When the fireworks go off or even just the local neighbors setting off firecrackers gets going, he becomes very agitated. He growls and barks and paces back and forth in front of the door. We dealt with this all weekend. I tried to ignore it (since he wasn't fearful and didn't seem to want my comfort) and then I also tried to distract him with toys, games, treats.... and his behavior did not deviate. He remained focused on what he thought was a threat outside. Like the two older tzus, he doesn't react at all to other loud noises such as thunder, sirens, dump trucks or even the occasional gunshot during hunting season so I'm suprised he is so upset about the fireworks. Suggestions?!
    Thanks!!
    Angela

  • Hannah

    the day after we got our puppy, we brought him to go see fireworks. now, he has no problem with them as far as I know. so i guess it's good to introduce things at an early age.

  • http://WWW.SBCGLOBAL.NET LUCY B

    THIS SITE IS AMAZING TY SO MUCH VICTORIA HAVE MINI TOY JACK RUSSELL AN WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HOW DO YOU KEEP THE GIANT KING DOBERMAN FROM CHARGING HIM HE GETS SCARED DEATH WHEN APPROACHES HIM BUT WONT HURT HIM AN ALWAYS STEPPING ON HIM THEN HE HUNKERS AN PEES. WHEN OUTSIDE WILL LAY DOWN FOR HIM TO PLAY HE IS ONLY 3.8 POUNDS OLZ HELP HOW DO I GET THIS WERE NOT CHARING HIM IN HOUSE PLZ HELP THANK YOU LUCY

  • Ingrid

    Hi & thanks for the focus on being positive.

    We have two shepherds (ages 10 and 12) who get very distressed by fireworks and thunderstorms. The coping strategies you suggest work for all of us-- closed curtains, distracting noises (we have a very loud fan on our air conditioner!), "cozy" places (under a desk for one; pressed up against the couch for the other one) and staying home with the pups.

    Comforting them helps tremendously-- not babying them but sitting with them, remaining calm and letting them burrow into our arms if they want. It becomes something rather sweet, huddling with 2 big dogs.

    What else would a friend do?

    Thanks!

  • Nicole

    Victoria, where can I get CD's with fireworks sounds on them? My dogs anxiety has increased 100 fold from last year to this year to the point where she refuses to eat unless I am standing by her dish. She will not go outside at all and this is a dog that would normally choose to be outside all day and night if I let her. even when I walk her she is so hyper vigilant that she won't go to the bathroom. It takes her several hours to calm down even if only one "bang" goes off. She paces, she pants, she shakes so bad that her teeth chatter, she even tried to climb the curtains in my living room to get away from the noise. I tried used an herbal supplement from the Vet called "Happy Travelers" that has St. Johns Wort in it I would say it helped very minimaly if at all. I think I would need to wait a few months before starting training with her in hopes that she will calm down and get back to normal before exposing her to this kind of therapy.

    Thanks for your help.

  • Lesley

    I can confirm that I have been offered the same professional advice from an animal behavourist with respect to cats. Positive encouragement of negatvie behavour further encourages the negative behavour. IKve noted it with aggressive cats. Per Maggie's comment, I don't whether to or not to think the same thing about fear. What I do believe is that cats are very different and respond differently than dogs. As a result, I am careful of applying advice in handling dogs to handling cats.

  • Pingback: Dealing with Cat anxiety – part 2 | Animals

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  • http://Thepetmom.net Laurie

    My dog hates noises. For the most part I show her the noise and we work on gradual desensitizing. However fire works and thunder pose a different issue. I can't control when it occurs. My dog has decided that my shower is her place of safety and its fine with me. However during the 4th I generally keep her with me throughout the day and sometimes evening. I do this because my calm presence promotes more calmness in her. To leave her at home alone I wouldn't be able to help. See crazy people set off fireworks days ahead and in crazy amounts which would turn her into a nurrotic mess if I wasn't there. I've had the fireworks land in my back yard. So not cool.

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  • caroline curran

    Please can you help me my german shephard has started to refuse to go on her walks, she is petrified of little boy racers car exhaust, and fireworks and shooting , where can i get a cd with these noises so i can play them to her and try to get her use to them, she tremblems with fear and gets into an awful state

  • Beth

    This article was quite helpful. I have a 5 year old Corgi, who hasn't always been fearful of fireworks. But my brother doesn't like fireworks and gets all antsy about them, so I think my dog feeds off him. So tonight I decided to look it up because the neighbors were setting off bottle rockets and my Corgi is restless, nervously scratching the carpet. I might try using recordings to desensitize him, because he seems to get worried, even when I try to act like everythings alright.

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