Imagine your hearing had a range about four times greater than it currently is. Imagine you had no exposure to history, patriotism, holidays or cultural rituals. Imagine one evening unpredictable loud booms, hisses, pops and whistles come out of nowhere accompanied by flashing lights, fire and sparks.
You might be close to imagining what the Fourth of July is like for your dog.
A survey by the makers of the Thundershirt shows that an estimated 13% of dogs have a significant fear of fireworks. If your dog begins panting heavily, paces, shakes or hides, he’s probably showing anxiety about fireworks. Here are some suggestions to your dog get through the frightening Fourth of July holiday.
- Know your neighborhood. If you live close to a school or college, park or arena where public displays of fireworks are held you need to be particularly careful about your dog’s welfare.
- Give your dog plenty of exercise in the days leading up to the Fourth of July. This helps them burn off energy and calms them down. Dog expert Cesar Millan believes that because dogs generally don’t get enough exercise they are frustrated and have pent up energy that makes them hypersensitive to fireworks.
- Don’t leave your dog unattended in a backyard. A frightened dog may jump over a fence or try to escape from a backyard to get away from the noise. If you plan to be away from home on the Fourth of July, bring your dog indoors. Being licensed, microchipped and tagged with contact information is essential in the event a dog does run away.
- Mask or cover the sounds. Play the radio, stereo or TV to cover the sounds. Close doors and windows. Turning on a fan or air conditioner to create a form of white noise can help.
- Read your dog. Dogs have a wide range of reactions to stresses like loud noises and startling lights. They may also become more sensitive over time. Just because a dog hasn’t reacted strongly to fireworks in the past doesn’t mean that she won’t be more sensitive this year. Pay attention to how your dog responds to your efforts to calm him. Some experts say that trying to comfort an anxious dog with petting or cuddling rewards fearful behavior. Others say that ignoring a dog who is terrified is like removing their support network. Let your dog’s behavior be your guide. If she tries to leave your side for a place she sees as safer, let her. Joey tends to cling to the side of my friend Karen when we visit her on the Fourth of July. He doesn’t stop trembling, but he stays glued to her side.
- Stay calm. The more anxious you become about your dog’s anxiety, the more you add to their anxiety.
- Don’t scold. Trying to discipline a dog out of his fear just creates anxiety and confusion. The best approach is to behave as if nothing unusual is happening. Being calm, confident and nonreactive to the noise can be reassuring to a dog even as she experiences the fear.
- Allow the dog to seek his own comfort spots. At home, Joey will hide in the master bedroom walk in closet or the bathroom, both of which are deeper inside the building and further away from the noise than other areas of the house. At our friend Karen’s, the dogs will hide in the bathroom. Trying to pull them back into the group doesn’t relieve their anxiety. Darkening the quietest room in the house, providing a crate, favorite toys or a dog bed or cushion can help the dog feel safer.
- Use a Thundershirt. This is a well-designed coat that wraps tightly around the dog and attaches with Velcro straps. The pressure around his body is comforting to some dogs. It also helps to slow their breathing down. Millan suggests that the shirt should not be used only when the dog is in a high state of panic. She will them begin to associate the shirt with fearful events and will become anxious at the sight of the shirt. The dog should be exposed to the shirt during play or when fed to create pleasant associations with the shirt. In situations where a dog is likely to become anxious, the shirt should be put on before he becomes fearful.
One final approach is systematically desensitize your dog. This requires consistent work and refreshment to be effective. Desensitization is done by exposing the dog to the fear-causing situation in a controlled way. For example, playing CDs or videos of fireworks at a low volume for several days while you feed, cuddle or play with the dog. If the dog doesn’t react with anxiety, the volume can be increased gradually as you play with or cuddle the dog. If the dog begins to show signs of fear, lower the volume until she’s no longer anxious. Repeat the process several times a day for as many days as it takes until you can play the sounds at a fairly high volume without the dog reacting.
You can learn more about protecting your dog this holiday season from Cesar Millan at “Keeping Your Dog Safe When the Fireworks Start.”