Is Your Dog Ready for Fireworks?
At the time I'm writing this, Independence Day weekend is just over one week away. This is a stressful time of year for pets, wildlife, and veterans struggling with PTSD. Unfortunately, one week isn't enough time to change how a dog will feel when fireworks start. Here are some suggestions to get you through:
Talk to your veterinarian now about medication options. There are medications that can help your dog cope with the stress of fireworks. If you don't know how they'll react, it's okay to ask for a couple of doses, just in case you need them. There are two over-the-counter supplements you can give your dog which are recommended by veterinarians. Composure and Zylkene may be helpful for mild to moderate levels of fear. For dogs that panic or show signs of severe distress, I recommend talking to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication, instead. There are some medications that should be avoided. This video from veterinary behaviorist, Karen Overall, explains why. And here's an article you can share with your vet, if needed.
Walk or exercise in the morning. Exercise, alone, won't be enough to alleviate your dog's fireworks fears, but it will help. If you usually walk your dog in the morning and evening for exercise, I recommend doubling your morning walk and skipping the evening walk. Decompression walks - off-leash or walks on long lines in nature (learn how to safely use a long line) - are hugely beneficial for our dogs' mental health. This podcast episode from Cog-Dog Radio talks about the how and why:
If you have a new dog or puppy, stay home with them. This is your only chance to minimize or prevent firework fears. It's better to skip the parties this year than to find out the hard way that your dog has a severe fireworks phobia. After this holiday is over, you can start their preparation for next year.
Cut up a whole lot of small bites (pencil eraser or smaller) of chicken, hot dogs, cheese, and other goodies. Give your dog a bite for every boom, pop, whistle! "Yayyy! Fireworks!" If they show increasing signs of stress or refuse the food, focus your efforts to reducing their stress as quickly as possible using suggestions below.
You can also avoid the fireworks completely. Go for a hike, drive, or camping trip. You can escape the stress altogether by going somewhere that fireworks aren't allowed. My mom drives her dog to the airport and reads a book in her car until it's over.
Check your equipment. Can you pull their collar over at least one ear? If so, they can slip out if they panic. Tighten it so you can fit only two fingers or purchase a martingale collar, which is designed to tighten when a dog pulls, but not enough to restrict airways. Double up on security with a back-up collar or harness if you have to walk your dog outside at night. Use a second leash or attach a caribiner clip to the leash handle to make a double-clip leash.
Prepare 2-3 long-lasting treats. Kong and Toppl are both good options. Stuff them and freeze in advance and give one to your dog when the first firework goes off. My go-to recipe is one banana smashed with one tablespoon peanut butter and one tablespoon plain yogurt. Mix in a small handful of their dry dog food, crunchy treats, or the crumbs at the bottom of their treat bag (I save mine in a jar for this purpose).
Give your dog a quiet place to hide. If they are already comfortable staying in a crate, make sure they have access to it. Cover wire crates with a blanket for a more den-like hiding space. If they don't have/like a crate, make a fort! Put blankets over a desk or table and put their bed inside.
Turn on white noise or water sounds. TVs and radios drown out some noise, but the volume isn't consistent enough to consistently mask fireworks outside. Plus, these sounds can be played fairly loudly without disturbing neighbors, unlike music or TV.
Respect your dog's choice to hide. This is the place they have chosen where they feel most secure.
Comfort your dog IF they seek it. If they come to you and solicit petting, cuddling, or other comfort, it's okay to provide it. You won't "reinforce their fear."
WHAT NOT TO DO
Don't put your dog in a crate, garage, or other confined area if they aren't already comfortable staying there. Sudden confinement on top of fireworks noise runs a very high risk of increasing their distress, leading to more barking, destruction, and/or escape efforts.
Don't rely on calming shirts/vests, CBD, essential oils, or other products that aren't listed here. While these may be beneficial for SOME dogs in SOME situations, they don't have a consistent enough track record to trust their effectiveness on the 4th.
Don't coax, command, or force your dog to leave a hiding space. A scared dog is much more likely to bite to avoid or escape a scary situation. Close off areas that are unsafe for your dog to hide to prevent problems.
Don't pet your dog if they aren't seeking it out. If they are hiding under the bed, don't reach under to pet them. Instead, turn off the lights, turn up the white noise, and leave them alone. If you want to sit next to their hiding space and do your own thing, that's okay. It may or may not bring them comfort, but it won't do any harm.
Don't punish your dog for barking or other unwanted behavior when fireworks start. They aren't being disobedient. Scolding or other attempts to punish the behavior won't help and will only add more stress. Instead, follow the DO'S to see if anything there can provide relief.
My hope is that your dog tolerates the fireworks well and doesn't need all these measures! But it's better to be well-prepared and not need to use all of these tools and strategies than to find yourself unprepared with a panicked dog.
Lisa Mullinax, CDBC Serenity Canine Behavior
Get help for your dog's fearful, reactive, or aggressive behavior
A NOTE ON DS/CC TO FIREWORKS RECORDINGS
There are numerous online articles recommending pet owners play recorded fireworks sounds at low levels and pair with food (counterconditioning), gradually increasing the volume (desensitization), referred to as DS/CC. While scientifically sound in principle, research on the effectiveness is not convincing that this is the best approach. There may be several reasons for this. First, To be most effective, the dog should not be exposed to the noise except when practicing DS/CC. For anyone who lives in a community where fireworks displays are common for 4th of July, New Years' Eve, sporting events, high school graduations, and more, it's not realistic to avoid exposure.
Next, while it sounds simple, gradual desensitization is easy to mess up. If done too quickly, progress can be set back or not made at all. If the speakers used to play the sounds aren't able to reach the volume of live fireworks, it won't be effective.
Finally, recordings are the same every time. Live fireworks are not. There are also 25 different types of fireworks. If the recordings used don't include all of those sounds, it is less likely to be effective.
Regardless of what triggers a dog's fear, providing them with the fastest, most effective relief is essential. For now, the information we have says that this approach to fireworks phobias is neither. I'm not saying it's wrong or never effective. It's just not as easy as it looks on paper and other strategies for relief should be a priority.