- Diana Bogacs, CPDT-KA
How to deal with a sound sensitive dog during fireworks?
If you have a dog who hates fireworks or a puppy who never heard firework sound before, here are some tips to help them cope with it.
You can help the most if you think ahead and start desensitizing your dog well ahead. For us fireworks are fun and spectacular, but our dogs can’t rationalize what is going on, they can only hear big booms, whistles and pops.
Most noise sensitive dog will come up with a fear reducing strategy when they are afraid, like attempting to escape the place and go somewhere where the sounds are less intense, digging into carpets, looking for dark places in the house to hide, crawling behind or under furniture, pacing back and forth, unable to focus on anything. Common stress signals (body language) are: dilated pupils, sweating paws, raised heartbeat, no appetite, whimpering, trembling. Escaping or destructive behavior can be a problem, since it could lead to physical injury to your dog.
What you can do? You can create a safe place, distract your dog and work on desensitization.
Creating a safe place: The safe place can be any space where the noises are less loud and frightening. But keep in mind, this has to be a place that your dog finds safe, not what you think is safe for her. Remember where she usually goes when she is afraid and give her access to that place. This might be a closet, bathroom, basement, bedroom, attic, etc. What usually works best is a place with no windows and with a lot of artificial light. This can hide the flashes of the fireworks. You can play music in the safe place for her to mask the sounds. If your dog comes to you to seek comfort, spend time with her and soothe her. Your presence can help your dog to feel safer. Just remember to stay calm. This will not reinforce fearful behavior, but help your dog to cope with her fear.
Distract your dog: This works best if your dog just starting to become stressful. Encourage her to engage in other activities that she enjoys. Like playing with her favorite toy, give her treats, pet her, etc. You have to capture the moment when she first notices the sound, but doesn’t show any fearful behavior yet. Start distracting her as soon as you see this. If she begins acting fearful, and won't engage in any activity, stop the process and revert to the other techniques.
Desensitization: It means you are conditioning your dog to feel differently about something, in this case the sound of the fireworks. You have to start this process way ahead of the actual firework. In this technique you want to gradually expose your dog to the sound of the firework. You can find audio recordings of fireworks online. Start playing the recording on a low volume, while you give your dog treats, her favorite toy, pet her, play with her. We want her to be able to stay relaxed in the presence of the noise. Do this for a couple minutes, then take a break. You can practice this 3-5 times a day for 5-10 minutes per session. Next time you can slowly turn up the volume and see if your dog is able to be relaxed (eating, playing, sleeping, etc.), this gives her the opportunity to get used to the firework sound without a fear response. If your dog shows any sign of stress, go back to the previous level and build up the volume slowly. Going too fast may make your dog frightened, so make sure you do this in her own pace. For some dogs this technique works really well, while others will be still scared from the real fireworks. For those dogs use the other management strategies (safe place, masking sound and visual). Calming therapies can also help some fearful dogs, like thundershirts, DAP collars, bach flower essences, but some dogs do a lot better on anti-anxiety medication that you can give them right before the fireworks starts. You can talk to your veterinarian and ask her/him about these medications.
What not to do:
Do not put your dog in a crate, she will still be fearful and might injure herself while attempting to get out of the crate.
Do not punish your dog for being scared. This will only make her more fearful.
Do not try to force your dog to face her fears by putting her close to the sound that frightens her. It will only make her more afraid and probably create phobias.