Independence Day is upon us again. Time for barbecues, concerts in the park, baseball and fireworks. Ah yes, fireworks, in all their multicolored glory, loved by the whole family. Well, maybe not quite the WHOLE family. If your dog quakes at the first rumble of thunder or as the first firecracker explodes, you are not alone. Fear of fireworks and other loud noises is not uncommon in pets. In the animal world, fear is a normal response to a threatening situation or aversive stimulus and is designed to protect the animal from harm. However, with domesticated pets these fears can quickly turn into phobias.
Phobias in general can develop after a single frightening event, or they can arise gradually over time, and can be reinforced if the stimulus presentation is frequent. Dogs often become more fearful with each exposure, and the fear often generalizes to include other similar sounds. For example, dogs that start out with a fireworks phobia may eventually become fearful of thunder, rain, or wind.
A fearful dog may freeze, pace, pant, tremble, salivate, try to escape, hide, or bark at the fear-inducing noise. In severe cases, dogs may even injure themselves in their attempts to escape, scrabbling at doors till their paws bleed. We receive numerous claims at
Petplan pet insurance for injuries caused through noise phobias, as well as countless claims for visits to behaviorists to help address the issue.
A complete physical examination by a veterinarian is important, in order to rule out concurrent medical problems that may exacerbate your dog's fear. If their assessment does not reveal an underlying medical condition, they may refer you to an animal behaviorist.
Treatment may be as simple as bringing your dog indoors, creating “white noise” by turning on the radio or the television, or providing a comfortable hiding place or "safe place."
If your dog is showing more severe signs, a program using distractions coupled with counter-conditioning and desensitization may be helpful. Brush up on some obedience training and teach your dog a few tricks and games. It is difficult for a dog to be afraid when he is enjoying his favorite game of fetch. It is even harder for him to think about the thunderstorm outside when he is concentrating on a quick series of Come, Sit, Heel, Shake a Paw, Down, Roll Over, and so on. The idea is to distract the dog from the noise. The key is patience and practice. Do not wait until the night before the thunderstorm or the third of July (if he is afraid of fireworks) to begin teaching your dog a few tricks. Be sure he knows them well beforehand. He will probably have trouble concentrating at first, so the better he knows the games and tricks, the easier it will be for him to perform them under pressure.
Another method of helping your dog overcome his fear is to slowly and gradually accustom him to the noises that frighten him. You can buy soundtracks of fireworks, thunderstorms, and rain online or at music stores. Start by playing the soundtrack at such a low volume that you can barely hear it. Your dog should show no signs of fear at this volume. Gradually, over the course of a few weeks or even months, gradually increase the volume. The volume should be increased so slowly that the dog hardly notices the change. Eventually he will be used to hearing the sounds at full force. If at any time your dog shows signs of fear decrease the volume again and proceed a little more slowly. This procedure will work more quickly if you combine it with distraction training. Your dog's veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may also recommend anti-anxiety medication. Certain natural remedies such as Bach’s’ Rescue Remedy have also proven to be effective in soothing an anxious pet.
Try to anticipate your dog's possible exposure to noises and avoid such exposure if at all possible. Talk to your pet in a light, happy tone of voice that sends a message that the fireworks are no big deal. For most people, however, leaving their phobic dog at home while they attend the firework display is probably the best course of action. Until the dog is over his fears, it is best to confine him to a place where he can't hurt himself or completely destroy your property, such as a crate filled with comforting items. Accustom the dog to his special place so that he feels comfortable and secure there. Don't wait until the storm has arrived to introduce your dog to his 'safe haven.'
If you follow these simple steps you should be able to minimize, and eventually even eliminate your dog’s phobias so that next Independence Day maybe you can enjoy the fireworks with the WHOLE family!