This time of year is challenging for dogs with nervous dispositions. There’s one seasonal hazard in particular that can play havoc on the nerves of sensitive dogs: fireworks.
In the same way as some animals get upset by the sounds of wind and storms, the crash, banks and squeals of fireworks can cause extreme anxiety to some dogs.
Why do some dogs get so upset?
There are several reasons for this heightened nervous reaction in some dogs
- Dogs have far more sensitive hearing than humans, picking up sounds that are inaudible to us, and being overwhelmed by sounds that are just “very loud” to humans
- The random flashes of bright light that accompany fireworks add a strong visual stimulus to the auditory sensory overload being experienced by the animal
- Dogs cannot understand the reason for fireworks: as far as they are concerned, these strange and frightening sounds could herald the beginning of the end of the world
- If dogs have a severe episode of distress (e.g. the first time fireworks are heard), they have a strong emotional memory which means that even a small stimulus (e.g. one firework in the distance) on a later date can be enough to provoke a severe and hysterical emotional reaction linked to the memory of the previous incident.
Why do some dogs remain unfazed by fireworks?
Not all dogs are badly affected by fireworks: if they have learned over time that fireworks noises are harmless, they remain calm and relaxed. There is a theory that dogs born at certain times of year may be less likely to become phobic about fireworks.
If they hear their first fireworks during the critical socialisation period of three weeks to three months of age, they’re more likely to remain calm and relaxed, learning a lifelong lesson that these sounds are a normal type of background noise. Furthermore, if an older dog has positive experiences around fireworks (e.g. the noises are muffled and distant), then they gradually learn that there is nothing to fear.
What should be done to help dogs around times when fireworks are being set off nearby
A patchwork of measures should be put into place to help all dogs deal with loud noises happening outside.
- Take the dog for a long walk earlier in the day, so that they’re tired
- Never expose dogs to direct close witnessing of fireworks going off
- Set up a cosy den that the dog can use as a refuge
- Use sweatshirts and other clothing that you have worn as bedding to bring a sense of your presence to the den
- Turn on a radio with classical music playing, to help to drown out the noise of fireworks
- Use calming plug in diffusers – either pheromones or herb-based – to create a chilled out atmosphere in the den
- Offer food-stuffed toys (e.g. deep frozen Kongs or K9Connectable chew toys) to give the dog something to focus on other than the noise
- Avoid over-comforting pets. You may inadvertently reward them for displaying anxious behaviour, which may make them worse. Instead, praise and reward your pet if they stay calm. Try to act normally, in a relaxed, unfussy way, reassuring them without over-pampering them, if they are upset.
How to calm down a hyper-anxious dog
If your dog is prone to having a severe fear-filled reaction to fireworks noises, you may need to do more than simply setting up a den.
- A tightly fitting jacket known as the Thundershirt is a new concept that uses Tellington T Touch principles to calm the animal by applying constant, firm pressure to the body. The jacket is worn like a normal dog coat, but it’s then tightened with Velcro strips so that it has a squeezing, hugging effect.
- Sedatives and anti-anxiety medication may be needed for extreme cases: you need to obtain these on prescription from your vet. A cocktail of drugs may be used, depending on the specifics of the animal, and the dose may need to be varied depending on the severity of the reaction and the response to the medication.
The long term cure for noise-sensitive dogs
The ideal answer to noise-phobic dogs is to use a system of desensitisation and counter-conditioning to allow affected animals to gradually get used to the sound of fireworks over many months. Specially designed soundtracks of fireworks noises can be downloaded free of charge, then used in conjunction with advice from qualified behaviourists. This process needs to be started many months in advance, but when it’s done properly, it’s the most effective long term answer to this distressing and common problem in dogs.