When the holidays approach, people may be preparing their fireworks for a New Year’s countdown or a spooky Halloween celebration. Although fireworks can be fun for humans and embedded in the holiday customs, they terrify our pets and the loud bursts can send some dogs and cats running.
Why are dogs afraid of fireworks, and what can we do to help them? Fortunately, there are plenty of simple strategies for dog owners and we’ve rounded up all the tips you need to help your pet feel better when the noises start.
1. Stay indoors or get away from it all
Experts from the Humane Society emphasize the importance of keeping your dog indoors on fireworks-heavy days, such as Halloween. This helps reduce their exposure to the sounds, plus prevent their running away. Turning on a radio or television helps provide white noise and distraction.
Also, consider leaving town for a quieter spot if you can. If you’re not able to get away, and you live in an area with lots of fireworks activity, try a pet sitter who doesn’t live as close to all that noise. A loving, local sitter or doggy day care provider can also help if your pup is going to be alone while you venture out for the celebrations.
2. Talk to your vet about possible medications
Talk to your veterinarian about medication if you know your pet is upset by the festivities. There are a variety of options that could help treat your dog’s firework phobia.
- Pheromones. Available via a diffuser, a spray, or a collar, pheromones can reduce your dog’s anxiety—whether it’s related to fireworks, storms, travelling, or separation.
- Melatonin. This over-the-counter supplement is widely available. When using melatonin for anxiety, pet parents report differing levels of relief. Talk to your veterinarian about appropriate doses for your dog.
- Prescription medications. Especially in severe cases, medication can be a lifesaver for a noise-phobic dog. Your veterinarian can guide you through the various choices.
3. Give your dog lots of snuggles
A common myth has it that if you pet your pup during an anxious episode, they’ll feel more afraid.
However, calmly soothing, and reassuring your dog is fine as long as you avoid loud exclamations or frantic movements. So cuddle away!
4. Prevent escapes
More dogs go missing over Halloween than at any other time of year. The reason? They get spooked. This can happen when you least expect it! To help:
- Make sure your dog has identification. Even indoor pets can panic and use drastic measures to escape when frightened. Microchipping your dog is a good protective step.
- Don’t leave your dog unattended at home. If you’re headed out to enjoy the holiday without them, find a sitter. Rover has short-term sitters for just such situations.
For more great tips—and a video—on securing your home and yard, check out this handy post. It also details just what to do if your dog does get out.
5. Distract your dog with treats or activities they enjoy
Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, prefers the following steps over anti-anxiety drugs. “Some meds take several weeks to build up,” he said. “You always have the behaviour techniques at hand.”
Coren’s top techniques for a fireworks-averse dog include:
- Act as though you do not recognize the behaviour. Walk him and talk to him as if you were back in puppy training, giving treats for sitting and staying.
- Get them involved with something else, or as he says, “jolly them up.”
Studies that point to nurture vs. nature
A 2013 study by the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences found fireworks were the most common trigger for fearful behaviour in dogs. Responses included: trembling, shaking, hiding, seeking comfort, destruction, urination, and salivation.
Until recently, most theories on this noise sensitivity in dogs suggested environmental factors as a cause. These could include a traumatic noise-related event early in a dog’s life, or a lack of exposure to loud noises as a puppy.
The way owners respond to a dog’s fearful behaviour and how other dogs in the pack react to the noise have also been offered as possible explanations.
“Our results suggest that the characteristics of dogs, their early environment, and exposure to specific loud noises are involved in the development of fear responses to noises,” Dr. Rachel Casey explained. “Interestingly, less than a third of owners sought professional advice about treatment for their pet’s response to noises.”
The Bristol research discovered a correlation between changes in a dog’s environment and fear. Dogs raised by the same owners who bred them were less likely to be afraid of noises later in life. The researchers noted that hunting breeds such as Labradors or springer spaniels were not as sensitive. And that cross-breeds were likely to be more fearful.
Recent research links to nature
A 2015 Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo study on noise sensitivity found that the answer to why certain dogs are fearful might have more to do with biology than the environment. The researchers looked at over 5000 dogs from 17 breed clubs across the country. The study looked at four types of loud sounds: fireworks, loud banging, thunder, and traffic. 23 percent of the dogs involved showed fearful responses in one or more categories.
The results showed a marked correlation between breeds and noise-sensitive fearfulness. Norwegian Buhunds, Shiba Inus, and soft-coated Wheaten Terriers were more fearful. Pointers, Great Danes, Boxers and Chinese Crested dogs showed the least amount of fear.
Dr. Stanley Coren wrote about the Oslo results in Psychology Today and spoke by phone about the conclusions. “There is a genetic predisposition,” Coren explained. “There might also be a hormonal factor.”
Female dogs were about 30 percent more likely to be afraid and neutered dogs were 72 percent more likely. The study also found a 3 percent increase in sensitivity in older dogs. Coren noted that loss of hearing offsets that increase somewhat. Though dogs can be afraid of both fireworks and thunder, Coren explained that those noises sound quite different to dogs. “Thunder has a reasonable explanation. The low rumble sounds like a throaty growl. Like a huge dog,” he said.
Most dogs have some level of fear when it comes to fireworks. You know your dog best, and will know how much to intervene during the festivities. When in doubt, remember that prevention, distraction, and lots of love are always a good idea!