Coping with Fireworks

 The Fourth of July - a day that most dog guardians dread, when people decide that a great way to celebrate a bunch of old white guys signing a piece of paper is to detonate explosives. I’m not a fan, and neither is Jack, but it still comes around every year. To make matters worse, gratuitous firework use is on the rise all around the country this year. We prepare the best we can and brace ourselves. Here’s what we have found to work best, mixed in with some suggestions that others have had success with. As I am writing this blog, the dreaded day is just a week away, so it’s in your best interest and your dog’s to get started with these preparations now. 

A Note About Puppies 

The recommendations below are mostly geared toward adult dogs who already have a fear of fireworks. If you have a puppy (or a newly adopted adult dog) for whom this will be their first 4th of July with you, here are some special considerations. Assume that they will be afraid of the fireworks. It’s better to over prepare than not. While I don’t use food much during the traumatic event for an adult dog, I would consider it for a puppy. Set up Puppy Dreamland with all the snuffle mats, food-dispensing toys, and peanut butter Kongs imaginable. When the worst of it starts, bring your puppy to this amazing place so that they associate the booms with all these good things. Lastly, don’t allow your adult dog to teach your puppy to panic during this time. Keep them separate, assign one family member to each dog. Puppies are very impressionable and that learning can happen fast. Don’t let it! (Credit to Sarah Stremming for bringing this last point to my attention. She did an in-depth discussion about this topic that can be found here.)

Far in advance

  • Talk to your vet about pharmaceutical interventions. There are quite a few drugs out there that can help our dogs cope with stressful events, and a select few that are designed to work specifically for noise phobias. Ask your veterinarian which ones would be appropriate for your dog and safe to give with other medications your dog may be on. We tend to be too reluctant to reach for pharmaceuticals for our dogs. If you know that your dog is going to be afraid of fireworks, you owe it to them as their guardian to get them all the help you can. Call your veterinarian today, as you may have to wait a few days to get an appointment. 

  • Consider a desensitization protocol. Desensitization is a process that lowers responsiveness to a stimulus through repeated exposure to it. When we think about desensitizing a noise like fireworks, we work with a recording of the sound so that we can control the intensity. You can find these on Youtube. Start at a very low volume, so low that you can barely hear it. Gradually, over many days, increase the volume of the sound. Keep a close eye on your dog’s response. Hint: no response is the best response. In order for desensitization to work, you have to keep the dog under their threshold of tolerance. The goal of the process is to increase that threshold, again, gradually over time. If you hook up the Youtube video to your surround sound system and blast it on full volume right away, you are probably not desensitizing your dog and may do more harm than good. It’s important to note that this isn’t a perfect protocol. Real fireworks aren’t just sounds, but also vibrations and smells that your dog picks up on. Your dog will be able to tell the difference between the recording and the real thing. But, by making one aspect of the experience less traumatic, you may be able to decrease the overall horribleness.

The day before

  • Make sure your dog is wearing identification. More dogs go missing on this day than any other day of the year. Even if your dog would never dream of leaving your side, a surprise explosion may trigger their flight response. You can increase your chances of a speedy and successful reunion if your pup is wearing your phone number.

  • If your dog has a microchip, make sure the database is up to date. For the same reasons as above. A microchip adds another level of safety in case your dog’s collar or tag falls off. Most microchip databases are housed online. Dig out that login info and make sure your phone number is accurate.

  • Meet all your dog’s needs. Take them for a nice long walk in nature. Provide them with lots of enrichment activities. Do some fun trick training with them. If your dog’s needs are met, they will be more prone to relaxing and feel less stressed. 

The day of

  • Medicate your dog. See above. Make sure to give the medication enough time to fully kick in before the explosions really start. 

  • Take them out to potty on a leash. I recommend this even if you have a fenced yard. A frightened dog can burst through a weak spot, push open a gate, or bolt over a tall fence. 

  • Provide a safe space for your dog and hunker down. Where does your dog naturally go when they are frightened or distressed? For Jack, it’s either the bathroom or the bedroom. Make this spot their safe space. Close the windows and blinds to block out sound and flashes of light. Turn on some soothing music, loud, so that it drowns out the explosions. Use fans to create more background noise. Be there with your dog, and provide affection if they request it. Your best friend is going through a traumatic experience. Don’t leave them to suffer alone! You won’t make the problem worse by comforting them.

  • Boom = treat? Some people suggest giving your dog a piece of hotdog or steak every time there’s an explosion. This idea is based on principles of counterconditioning, an attempt to change the dog’s association with the stimulus from negative to positive. I personally have found this ineffective and hard to carry out for a few reasons. One, dogs have much better hearing than we do. It’s very likely that there are more distant explosions that my dog can hear, but because I can’t hear them I’m not following them with a treat. Two, if your dog is already very noise phobic, they’re probably too afraid to eat. Three, if I’m making their favorite food a part of this traumatic experience, those icky feelings about the explosives may transfer to the food itself. This is a process that we in the dog training world call “poisoning.” To me, it’s not worth the risk and it’s probably going to be ineffective. For these same reasons, I tend not to incorporate food puzzles or food-stuffed toys either. 

The day after

  • Decompress! Take your dog on a nice long walk in nature. Use a long line or find an appropriate space to be off-leash so that they can freely move their body. Allow them enrichment opportunities to sniff, chew, and shred. Help them recover from the traumatic experience. And if you're unlucky like us, get ready for the next round to start up.

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