Every year, our shelters are overrun with dogs during the 4th of July holiday because of fireworks. Our beloved pups become terrified and flee their homes and many are picked up and brought to shelters. You will notice that shelters usually have major adoption events starting in June to make room for the influx. So, why do fireworks scare your dog? Why don’t dogs learn that these sounds won’t hurt them? This doesn’t happen for several reasons. A dog’s hearing is far more acute than ours. These sounds are much louder to them. Additionally, the booms are scary! They are supposed to mimic the sounds of war and they do that very well. Your dog has no idea what is happening but knows he should be fearful and retreat if possible. Also, the sounds are infrequent. They only happen for a week or two each year. When your dog is exposed to any scary stimulus infrequently, it only increases his fear the next time he hears it. For example, dogs who are trained to aid in war zones are first desensitized to the loud booms through special training. Now, I’m not suggesting that you lock your dog in a room alone with a skull-rattling fireworks soundtrack to desensitize him. Quite the contrary. That technique is called flooding and it will only make the situation worse. Instead, here are a few tools and techniques that you can try to help your dog manage his fear and hopefully get a bit better at dealing with America’s Independence.
1.) Thundershirts - These little wraps help some dogs to cope with loud noises by wrapping their midsection tightly. This can have a calming effect. Thundershirts don't work for every dog but some clients swear by them.
2.) Rescue Remedy - This is a nice calming spray that helps some dogs to relax. Again, it doesn't work with every dog but it is an option.
3.) Pheromone plug-in room diffuser - These mimic the pheromones released by nursing mother dogs and therefore create a calming effect. Most people can’t detect much scent from these diffusers but dogs can. All in all, my clients report improvement about 50% of the time with this.
4.) Slow desensitization - This is my favorite because it directly addresses the behavior itself. You don’t want to start this exercise right before the 4th of July. You will need a lot of repetition to do this effectively. Give yourself at least a month. Download a track or purchase a CD of recorded fireworks sounds. Play the track at the lowest volume possible while your dog is engaged in a rewarding activity such as eating dinner or playing fetch or hide-n-seek with you or working on his commands for treats. Simply it turn it on and leave it in a far corner of the room and have fun with your dog. If your dog shows any sign of fear or stress, turn it off and try again tomorrow. Once your dog has done one session at the quietest volume possible, the next day inch the volume just a tad and repeat your play or meal time. If he shows any sign of fear, turn it off. The following day, return to the previous volume where your dog showed no sign of fear and try again. Do a little bit everyday slowly increasing the volume. Eventually, he will become accustomed to the sound. Keep each dog training session short. No more than 10 minutes. You don't want to vary this as that may be too challenging. Once your dog has mastered this on the highest volume, you can start increasing the time.
Whatever you do, please be sure to keep your dog inside with the shades closed during the evening and when you need to take him outside for a bathroom break, please use a leash. Best of luck to you and yours!
Have a Happy 4th!