Fear of Fireworks in Dogs
As the first bottle rocket goes off, your dog is suddenly missing in action, and you’re likely to find him in the far corner of the darkest closet or under the bed. Even if your dog is one of the so-called meanest breeds, he may sit trembling on your lap or at your feet when fireworks are around.
Fear of fireworks and other loud noises is not uncommon in pets. In the animal world, fear is a normal response to a threatening situation or aversive stimulus and is designed to protect the animal from harm. A phobia is a persistent excessive and irrational fear response. Fears and phobias can develop at any age and in any breed.
Fears, in general, can develop after a single frightening event or they can arise gradually over time. They are reinforced if the stimulus presentation is frequent. Dogs that are afraid of noise usually do not learn to tolerate the fear-inducing sounds. In fact, they often become more fearful with each exposure and the fear often generalizes to include other similar sounds. For example, dogs that start out with thunder phobia may eventually become fearful of rain or wind.
A fearful dog may freeze, pace, pant, tremble, salivate, try to escape, hide, or bark at the fear-inducing noise. In severe cases, dogs may even injure themselves in their attempts to escape.
Diagnosis of Fear of Fireworks in Dogs
A complete physical examination by a veterinarian is important, not only to rule out concurrent medical problems that may exacerbate your dog’s fear, but also to verify that your dog is healthy. You may also consider consulting with a behaviorist.
In many cases of noise phobia the diagnosis is obvious. However, if the noises occur when you are away, you may come home to discover destruction, urination, or defecation. Audio or videotape recordings can be useful in these situations to determine what triggers the behavior problems.
Treatment for Dogs with a Fear of Fireworks
Treatment may be as simple as bringing your dog indoors, turning on the radio/television/fan/air conditioner (“white noise”), or providing a comfortable hiding place or “safe place.”
If your dog’s signs are more severe, a program using counter-conditioning and desensitization may be helpful. This technique involves replicating the noise by means of a tape recording and then exposing your relaxed dog to the noise at low volume. You can then increase the volume gradually, taking care not to cause your dog to become fearful at any stage. A veterinarian or behaviorist can help you design an appropriate program.
Your dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may also recommend anti-anxiety medication.
Home Care for Dogs with a Fear of Fireworks
If your dog’s fear is mild and the noise is infrequent, these simple techniques may be sufficient. However, don’t try to reassure your dog with petting or soothing words and extra attention, as this approach can sometimes exacerbate the problem by reinforcing your dog’s fearful response. Also, dogs are sensitive to the moods of the people in their lives and may be influenced by the way you react to the noise.
Try to anticipate your dog’s possible exposure to noises and avoid such exposure, if at all possible. Talk to your pet in a light, happy tone of voice that sends a message that the fireworks are no big deal. For most people, however, leaving their phobic dog at home while they attend the firework display is probably the best course of action.