Fireworks and Noise Phobias in Puppies and Dogs

Problem: My dog is frightened of fireworks - what can I do?

Firework season is upon us, and its time to consider our furry friends of all shapes and sizes. Every year I am asked to assess and treat dogs with noise fears and phobias just as the firework events are imminent but sadly I leave clients disappointed and worried as work for this problem should be undertaken 6 months prior to the event for a successful outcome.

Puppy fireworks and noise phobias

It is impossible to rehabilitate a dog when the trigger for the fear is occurring randomly during a training program. However, this problem is usually associated with other conditions, such as generalised noise phobias (reactions to other stimulus: gunshots/alarms/large vehicles) and also separation anxiety. This means lots of work can be started to balance the dog and re-set a dog-owner relationship, in preparation for the introduction of desensitisation and calming techniques in controlled situations at a later date.

To offer support to your pet it is important to understand the problem and take appropriate action to help manage the dog and control the fear response. You should recognise that if you have a suffering dog then you will only look to managing the problem during the firework season and help and support to improve the problem should be sought before the month of May of the following year.

In this article I will provide you with a complete picture of why the problem occurs, how things escalate and what we can do to manage the problem and ultimately modify the behaviour.

The Puppy’s Perspective

Let’s take our puppies into consideration - here is your blank canvas - they don’t have a clue about fireworks, have no reason to fear them or like them but I can guarantee they will hear them more acutely than we can ever appreciate. It is this auditory stimulation that can trigger the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response in any animal. Once the sound has been recognised, the puppy will deliver a variety of different responses depending on their character and personality. Here is where the fear can begin, the puppy will look for a source of the noise and when they don’t find one, concern may develop.

An owner can be responsible for developing a positive or negative learnt association, during this period of concern so, it is absolutely essential that an owner never sympathises, cuddles the puppy, vocally tries to pacify or highlights the event with anxiety. Likewise, it should also go without saying that punishing the dog is highly detrimental to the puppy’s welfare and will absolutely exacerbate the fear response.

You should ensure you follow these pointers:

Puppy safe zone during fireworks
Crate set up with a blanket to create a safe zone for the puppy to retreat to, the door should be left open.
  • Set up a quiet den area, to encourage the puppy to retreat to if they appear uncomfortable
  • Provide something to chew
  • Ensure you have background noise present, so TV or radio
  • Continue normal household activities
  • Don’t acknowledge the fireworks or try to encourage your puppy to see them
  • Never leave the puppy at home alone during this period
  • Never try to walk your puppy during this period

I always like to try and set up a training session if the puppy is still able to focus, distraction should always be your first means of setting the first association.

As your puppy grows it is possible that they may have developed a poor association, had a negative experience or are just overly sensitive. With this in mind let's look at our adult dog.

Considering the Adult Dog

Best practice would always be to avoid the problem developing but I am realistic, a huge percentage (around 50-60%) of the canine population suffers from some form of noise phobia, so clearly it is not easy to avoid.

Your dog has the same fear reaction as the human in response to a sudden unexplained stimulus. This is a primitive and normal impulse designed to remove the individual from potential physical harm. It is linked to a series of chemicals all responsible for keeping the body physically powerful and the mind focused and responsive. This reactive phase should be short-lived and these chemicals may do long term damage if the individual remains in this heightened state. In order for the state of mind to change the individual requires some sort of resolution. If this does not occur the process will continue to escalate. This basically means your dog’s behaviour can be likened to a human panic attack and all the distress reported by human sufferers.

To consider the severity of your dogs problem you should observe them for the following stress indicators:

  • Pacing
  • Trembling
  • Increased breathing
  • Panting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Urination / defecation
  • Lip licking
  • Self-trauma
  • Whining
  • Salivation / drooling
  • Scratching / digging corners of a room
  • Yawing
  • Aggression
  • Barking
  • Clinging to owners or running away
  • Refusal of food

Monitoring for any of the above will allow you to build a picture of the severity of your dogs problem.

Treatment or Management of the Adult Dog

Hogan hiding under a mat - fireworks
Hogan hiding!

Often many of the dogs affected will have a severe learnt association with the noise and a panic response will occur as soon as early associated cues are observed by the dog, such as weather conditions, time of day, and the behaviour of the owners. The dog may appear to become unsettled long before the fireworks actually begin.

In order for an owner to be in the powerful position of offering support, it is essential that they are viewed by the dog as someone they can follow and trust - ‘a leader’. This isn’t always the case and owners can be ineffective before they start purely as a result of a lack of balance in their relationship. You should give some thought to this as soon as you can.

Here is your guidance for managing a fearful dog:

  • Set up your home and personal attitude as directed for the puppy, above
  • Keep the dog to its normal routine
  • Never close a door on the dog
  • Never tell your dog off
  • Make sure your dog is wearing a collar and id tag and is identi-chipped in case they escape
  • Keep them on a lead if you need to walk them, but avoid if possible
  • Ignore and distract from any unbalanced behaviour
  • Never leave a distressed dog alone
  • Never take your dog to a fireworks display - ‘facing the fear’ is not an option!
  • Use the TV and/or a Radio to distract from the noise
  • Exercise them well in the daytime as exercise helps the dog produce ‘endorphins’ the happy hormone, this will help combat an anxiety response

Alternative Considerations

Drugs

Never sedate your dog during this period. Sedation removes the ability of the dog to physically react and is responsible for further psychological distress, this will absolutely ensure the fear deteriorates and behaviours will become more extreme over time.

Desensitisation CD’s/ Sound Therapy

I have had varied success with these. Basically the CD’s are designed to give you the ability to deliver the noises to your dog in a control format. Beginning with the sound very low and increasing it as you work with your dog and their tolerance improves. Some of my most fearful dogs haven’t responded well to this training, they seem to be able to tell the difference and the fear isn’t triggered, therefore you can’t recreate the trigger. I have also had dogs who improved dramatically, it requires immense patience, attention to detail and understanding from an owner to be successful. Regardless, it is worth trying, but you should do this well in advance of the fireworks season and Ideally with behaviour advice from a suitably experienced and qualified individual.

Here is a nice explanatory document for you to follow if you would like to attempt this treatment:

Thunder Shirts/Vests

A thunder shirt is a specially designed dog jacket, the concept is based on applying generlised pressure over the dog’s body in order to create calm. This has an effect on the peripheral tissue and works to provide the dog with the feeling of physical security. They don’t work for every individual and it would need to be used in conjunction with the other advice but it is a harmless treatment that’s always worth trying.

Pheromone Therapy (Adaptil)

A pheromone is a naturally occurring chemical, it is secreted by animals in order to communicate a variety of messages to others. A dam produces a pheromone called Dog Appeasing Hormone (DAP) in order to calm and comfort her young. The concept of this has been used to create a synthetic version of this hormone in the form of Adaptil. It has been trialed in a variety of different dogs and situations, and is clinically proven to offer support and appeasement to dogs suffering from some forms of anxiety. It is by no means exclusive as used alone I have had mixed results. However, I have found it works well alongside a behaviour modification program when the owners are offering leadership support and the correct level of calm to the dog. It certainly won’t do any harm and in most cases it will be beneficial to some degree. Make sure you start the treatment several days before an event for best results.

I hope this gives you a thorough picture of the motivation and control of noise phobias. Don’t forget to get help early next year if you have a severely embedded physical response from your dog. Wishing your dog’s well for this year’s firework night.