Understanding Phobias in Dogs: How to Get Your Dog to Stay Calm During a Fireworks Show
The Fourth of July is full of fun, activities and of course, fireworks. If you have problems with your dog during fireworks shows, there are several things you can do to help him or her.
"Why does my dog freak out during the Fourth of July?"
Dogs have no concept of fireworks. They don't understand what they're seeing, they don't understand that they are safe and they certainly don't hear that kind of loud boom often. Add all of this to a dog's sensitive hearing and you can see how a dog might feel afraid. To them, a firework going off is like one of us hearing gunfire from an automatic weapon going off near our homes (assuming that we don't live on a gun range, of course). They feel threatened and afraid for their lives.
What can I do to help my dog see that fireworks are harmless?
- Try to figure out what it is that scares your dog about fireworks. The noise, the lights, the reactions of his owner, etc. can all be culprit.
- If possible, start desensitizing earlier than the actual fireworks event. Play realistic sounds (there are lots of free fireworks sounds on youtube). Start softly and give your dog lots of treats. Only increase the volume if your dog seems capable of dealing with it.
- Don't react, jump or freak out when you hear the fireworks. Just act like it's no big deal. Your dog will be looking to you for guidance.
- Don't ignore your pet when he needs comfort. Sit on the floor with him and encourage him to come over to you. Reward him for walking around and being brave.
- Give your dog a treat every time a firework booms. Do this consistently and over time you'll see results.
If you have a young puppy that has never experienced fireworks...
- Don't leave the puppy alone in the house or in a crate. Keep the puppy with you while the fireworks start and begin preventative measures. How you handle your puppy's first experience with fireworks will effect how she views them the rest of her life.
- Play with your puppy, give your puppy lots of praise and distract her with a new bone or toy. Give your puppy a special treat every time a firework booms. She will quickly associate the fireworks with the treats.
- Do not force your puppy to go outside or to go closer to the fireworks if she's upset. Only do so in baby steps and if there is any sign of fear, go back inside immediately. If you push your puppy you could actually create a phobia.
- Do not get upset yourself. Stay calm. Don't shout and try not to get stressed out. You may be spending more time with your puppy than with your family, but handling it right can mean a problem free 4th of July for 10+ years to come.
- Do not allow other people to crowd your puppy, pet her roughly or allow her to have a bad experience while there are fireworks going off. Be weary and protective. Keep her away from commotion, noise and stress. Pair the noise of the fireworks with good things instead.
If you have an adult dog that is already weary of fireworks...
- If your dog has an extreme phobia, consider consulting with a qualified animal behaviorist.
- There is no *magical* solution you can buy to make your pet okay. If any thing is being advertised as such, don't buy it.
- Start slow. Play long, realistic video clips in the background on very low volume for several days before the show. While this is happening, give your dog treats. Turn up the volume if he can handle it, continuing to give your dog a treat every time he hears a firework.
On the Fourth of July
- Take your dog out to potty before the fireworks begin and don't force him to go out side while they're in full swing. Never yell at your dog while he's afraid- it will only make the phobia worse. When he sees you freaking out he will think you are angry about the fireworks.
- Tire your dog out earlier in the day so that he has less energy to draw from when he's afraid.
- Keep your dog inside. Fearful dogs can slip out of their collars or pull away from their owners and be gone for days.
- Don't leave your dog alone if he is afraid. He will find much more comfort with you there. Being there and acting as though the fireworks are no big deal can go a long way toward making your dog less anxious.
During the Show:
- Distract your dog with a kong filled with high value treats, a new bone, or a new toy while fireworks are starting. Try to delay him noticing they have begun.
- Give your dog his favorite treats while the fireworks go off for as long as he allows it.
If he gets to a point where he no longer accepts the treats, this means he is severely anxious. Don't be frustrated with your dog. It does not mean that the treats aren't working. It means that he has reached his threshold and the fireworks have gotten too loud, bright, etc for him to handle before he is ready.
At this point you will need to play damage control to stop the overwhelming stimulus of the fireworks from making his phobia worse.
- Watch your dog when he begins to get severely anxious and stops taking treats. When does he seem most afraid? Does he shiver during the loud booms? Is he looking out the window to see the lights?
- Take away the stimuli that bother him by closing the window shades, turning on a fan to drown out the noise, turning on the television, etc. Do this in increasing increments. Set the fan to low at first and see if that helps, then go to a higher setting if it doesn't and so on.
- When your dog starts to calm down, offer him a treat. If he takes it, this means he is okay again. If he still will not take a treat, continue reducing the noise of the fireworks outside, wait a little while and try again.
How can I tell that my dog is afraid?
Here is a video of a dog with a mild-moderate phobia of fireworks. Notice the signs of fear: barking, pacing, whining, nervous tail wagging, panting, a large-eyed stare, trembling.
Dog Mild Phobia
What not to do: Do not antagonize your dog!
This next video is an example of someone that has antagonized their dog with fireworks, creating both an unsafe situation for the dog and a severe phobia.
It is difficult to believe that anyone would intentionally encourage their dog to be afraid when so many people want their dogs to enjoy fireworks with them and act normally. I am showing you this video to help you understand both what not to do, and to show that fear can be learned (and thankfully unlearned)
Notice the way that Brock responds negatively to just the word "fireworks." He cannot speak English and the only way he could have learned this association is through his owner. There's no way for him to know what that word means unless his owner thought his phobia was funny and actively encouraged it by giving it a name/association.