Bonfire night can be great fun for humans but it’s probably the most stressful day of the year for pets. Dogs can hear four times the distance of a human and can hear higher pitched sounds, at a frequency range of 67-45,000 Hz—so it’s no wonder a lot of them are terrified come Guy Fawkes Night.
According to the RSPCA, the loud bangs and bright flashes that come along with Bonfire Night frighten an estimated 45 percent of dogs in the UK. 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:
- seeking comfort
So, why are dogs afraid of fireworks, and what can we do to help them? Fortunately, there are plenty of simple strategies for dog owners. From distraction to anti-anxiety vests to hotlines, we’ve rounded up all the tips you need to help your pet feel better when the fireworks kick off.
Find out where and when fireworks displays are taking place in your local area and ask your neighbours if they are holding any fireworks-themed gatherings so that you can plan ahead.
If your dog really hates the loud noises 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 Rover.com pet sitter who doesn’t live as close to all that noise. A loving, local sitter who provides dog boarding can also help if your pup is going to be alone during the evening.
Experts from the RSPCA emphasise the importance of keeping your dog indoors on Bonfire Night. This helps reduce their exposure to loud sounds, plus it prevents them from running away. Close windows and curtains to minimise noise and turn on a radio or television—the louder the better—to help block out the noise. If you’re playing music opt for upbeat tracks so that the bass masks the loud bangs.
The RSPCA also recommends creating a quiet space that your dog can retreat to, as well as some hiding spaces around your home. This little den could simply be a table or a chair with a sheet placed over it if it all gets a bit much for them. Add some of their favourite toys, treats, and an item or two of your clothing as the familiar smell helps them feel safe.
Ensure your dog gets enough exercise during the day. This simple, tried-and-tested tip is key to your dog’s happiness. Take a walk, throw a ball around with them, or otherwise get your dog moving before the fireworks start. Expending some energy will help your dog feel more relaxed during the evening. You should also, ideally, feed your dog before it gets dark, a while before any fireworks are set off. If your dog becomes stressed later he could become too anxious to eat.
Dogs who get spooked by loud noises often try to run away. This can happen when you least expect it! In the unlikely event that your little buddy does manage to make a run for it you’ll want to have followed the following steps to get him back safe and sound.
- Make sure your dog has ID tags which are clearly visible and your information, including phone number, is on there and easy to read.
- Even indoor pets can panic and use drastic measures to escape when frightened. Microchipping your dog is a good protective step.
- Keep all windows and doors shut and block the cat flap or doggy door.
- Do not leave your dog unattended at home. If you are headed out to enjoy the fireworks without them, find a sitter. Rover has short-term sitters for just such situations.
Talk to your vet about medication if you know your pet gets upset by the fireworks. There are a variety of options that could help treat your dog’s firework phobia, but never give your dog any form of medication without consulting your vet first.
- Pheromones. DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) products mimic the calming scent of a nursing mother dog. DAP products are available as a collar, plug-in diffuser, or room spray and they can reduce your dog’s anxiety—whether it’s related to fireworks, storms, travelling, or separation. A research study published in the Journal of the British Veterinary Association specifically evaluated their use for storm phobia in dogs and found them to be effective.
- Melatonin. This over-the-counter supplement is widely available. When using melatonin for anxiety, pet parents report differing levels of relief. In his book, The Well-Adjusted Dog, Dr. Dodman states that while he’s seen some success stories, melatonin isn’t always effective—”but it never hurts to try.” Talk to your vet about appropriate doses for your dog.
- Prescription medications. Especially in severe cases, medication can be a lifesaver for a noise-phobic dog. Your vet can guide you through the various choices.
These snug-fitting vests apply sustained, comforting pressure to your dog’s torso. Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences, has researched this method and discusses it in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dr. Grandin advises putting on the wrap for 20-30 minutes, removing it for a similar period, and then reapplying it. Some dogs respond well to the ThunderShirt, which swaddles dogs so that it feels like they’re being hugged.
Dogs communicate with energy, and will look to their pack leader (you) for clues on how they should behave so if you’re not making a big deal or acting excited about the fireworks, then he’ll learn to be less concerned as well.
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 acting as though you do not recognise the behaviour. Walk him and talk to him as if you were back in puppy training, giving treats for sitting and staying.
A common myth has it that if you stroke your dog 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!
You can keep your dog stimulated by playing with them with their favourite toys. Choose a few new chews or toys to give your dog on the day. The novelty will keep your dog more interested. Make sure you have lots of dog-friendly treats on hand to reward your buddy for being so brave.
If the loud noises become too much for your little darling, this year all-natural dog food company, Edgard & Cooper, is launching an anxiety hotline for pet owners. From 6 pm to 11:30 pm on Bonfire Night, a team of specialists will be on hand to offer free advice on how to keep your dog calm and limit anxiety.
Studies that point to nurture
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, European Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine and Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Bristol University explained. “Interestingly, less than a third of owners sought professional advice about treatment for their pet’s response to noises.”
The University’s researchers 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
In a 2015 study on noise sensitivity by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo, it was found that the answer to why certain dogs are fearful might have more to do with biology than 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 cresteds 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. Fireworks are also loud but have a sharp component as well.
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 Guy Fawkes Night. When in doubt, remember that prevention, distraction, and lots of love are always a good idea!