Why Are Dogs Scared of Fireworks?
Fireworks can be a dazzling spectacle for humans. But for our canine companions, they can be a source of great distress.
My older dog Oscar wasn’t bothered by fireworks until one afternoon. We were outdoors, and someone unexpectedly set off a huge firework almost on top of us. It terrified the poor little guy. Now, seven years later, he’s still utterly petrified of anything that sounds even remotely like a firework.
My young whippet Phoebe, on the other hand, isn’t remotely interested in them. She just sleeps through.
Why Are Dogs Scared of Fireworks?
Firework phobia is a complex issue. The reasons behind it involve more than just a dislike of loud bangs.
Loud noise and sensitive ears
Dogs have a much more acute sense of hearing than humans. The loud booms and cracks of fireworks can be overwhelming and even painful for them.
Dogs experience sounds differently than humans. They can hear higher frequencies and sounds at much lower volumes than we can. So the noise from fireworks can be far more intense for them.
Unpredictability and instincts
Fireworks are unpredictable, with sudden bursts of noise and light that can startle dogs and trigger their natural flight response. This can cause dogs to feel stressed and anxious, because they can’t anticipate when the next loud noise will occur.
The may not be behavioral. A 2018 study showed dogs who were sensitive to loud noises often had underlying musculoskeletal conditions.
The theory: Loud noise makes the dog jump or tense in unusual and unpredictable ways, putting more stress on already painful or compromised joints and limbs. So the dog learns to associate the noise with increased pain.
The whole experience
For dogs, it’s more than just noise, although that’s obviously part of it. If your dog has a firework phobia, they’re often stressed and tense for a while before you hear any noise. This is mostly due to scent.
Fireworks and the chemicals in them give off a strong scent, which can trigger a dog’s anxiety. Plus, other scents are often associated with fireworks, like cookouts and bonfires. Over time, your dog may make the connection.
And in some situations, dogs can feel the vibrations from big blasts. That’s also scary and threatening when they don’t understand what’s happening.
Are All Dogs Afraid of Fireworks?
No. Some, like my Phoebe, can calmly watch fireworks without any signs of fear. Factors like early exposure to loud noises, temperament, breed and individual personality can influence a dog’s reaction to fireworks.
We did all the right things with both of our dogs, like early exposure to low-level noise, gradually increasing volume, and so on. We even took them to gun dog training to get used to being around the bangs and associated scents, since they’re similar. And it worked. At first.
But for Oscar, that one unpredictable incident years ago left him traumatized. No matter what I do, I’ll never fully resolve that fear. So we use all kinds of calming techniques coupled with medication.
How To Calm a Dog During Fireworks
I can’t bear watching Oscar so completely terrified. It’s heartbreaking. And scary.
For your dog, you’ll likely need several of these techniques to soothe them. But above all, be kind and patient. And don’t be afraid to see your veterinarian and get medication to help your dog through these traumatic times.
Creating a safe space
Designate a quiet, comforting area in your home where your dog can retreat to. This could be a crate or a cozy corner filled with their favorite toys, blankets and treats.
Make sure the space is away from windows to minimize the noise and visual stimulation from the fireworks. I use our main bathroom. Oscar naturally migrates to it when he’s afraid anyway. This bathroom has no windows and a thick door, so there’s less noise, and he can settle.
Using noise-canceling products
Invest in noise-canceling products for your dog, like earmuffs specifically for canines, a white noise machine or calming music. Interestingly, our dog trainer recommends dance music instead of classical because the heavy rhythmic beats disguises the firework noise.
If you choose earmuffs, desensitize your dog to them first. Prepare them by practicing some cooperative care and build up to placing the earmuffs on them.
Counter-conditioning and desensitization
Gradually expose your dog to fireworks sounds to reduce their anxiety over time. Start by playing recordings of fireworks at a low volume, rewarding them with a yummy treat and praise at every blast, crackle, whiz and pop. Have it barely audible at first, then turn it up in small increments over a few weeks.
You can also do fun training games, DIY brain training games and puzzle toys that help them ignore the noise and focus on the task at hand.
Natural remedies and medications
Consider calming supplements, pheromone diffusers or prescription medications to ease your dog’s fireworks anxiety.
With Oscar, his symptoms just weren’t manageable with natural remedies alone. But with the advice of our veterinarian, we use anti-anxiety medication for general daily use during peak firework periods. We’ve also got an emergency oromucosal gel we can pop onto his gums to calm him if things get really bad.
How can pet parents tell they need to see their veterinarian for help with firework phobia?
“Look for signs of distress such as panic, hiding, pacing, panting, dribbling and the passage of urine or feces inside,” says Dr. Rhiannon Jones, a veterinarian with the Northvet Veterinary Group in Scotland. “Medication should offer the dog a sense of relaxation and amnesia, not just sedation alone, as no one wants to be aware of the terror but unable to move!”
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