Fireworks are beatiful to see, but they can be very scary for dogs, so it’s important to do our best to help our four-legged friends deal with them. Even if your dog doesn’t fear them now, he may do so when he grows older, so I think it’s important to start the work as soon as possible. There are two areas for work: prevention of the fear and what to do on the day itself.
Below I will give an overview of what to do and how I would do it. Despite the fact that I try to be as informed as possible about dog behaviour, be aware that I’m not an ethologist (i.e. a dog behaviour expert), and I’d recommend consulting a professional if you need help.
Although I will mainly talk about fireworks in this post, the advice I give could also be applied to dogs who fear thunderstorms or loud noises.
Overview of What to Do
For prevention, what I’d recommend doing is trying to desensitize the dog to the sound of fireworks. What’s important is to find an intesity of the sound that your dog acknowledges but which he can more or less ignore, and then turn it into a very positive experience for him. Finding this balance is key.
This should be repeteated several time over a certain period. Once your dog can completely and reliably ignore the sound even when doing nothing special, it’s time to increase the intensity. This should be done until the dog can tolerate real fireworks.
Where to Start
For the firework sound, you can either look for recorded sounds or find some low-intesity firecrackers to start with. Bear in mind, however, that some dogs may react to the sound of actual fireworks but not recorded ones.
To turn it into a positive experience, you have to use what your dog loves. This may include food rewards or a doing a fun activity with him. For Nix, both food treats and playing with her frisbee or her ball would work. If you know your dog is very focused when doing a particular activity, then this would be a good choice.
What I would do, if you already know that your dog is afraid, is begin by using recorded sounds and start at a low volume. YouTube is a good place to look for firework sounds. If your dog doesn’t react to them, increase the volume progressively. If he still doesn’t react, then you’ll have to try the real thing.
If you know your dog is likely not to be afraid of the fireworks, then I would probably start with low-intensity firecrackers. Like in the previous case, the idea is to start at a low-intensity and increase it gradually.
On the Day itself
On the day of the fireworks themselves, the idea is to make the dog as comfortable as possible and to minimize any trauma from the experience. If you haven’t been able to work on desensitization in any way and you already know that your dog will be very stressed out, I’d recommend two things: going to the vet to get a medication to calm the dog down, and letting him access the part of the house where he either feels more comfortable when scared or where the fireworks can be heard less. Turning the TV or some music on may also help.
There are other options, such as doggy ear muffs or the thundershirt. The ear muffs, as you can image, basically soften the sound from the fireworks. On the other hand, the thundershirt creates, according to the website, a gentle pressure over the dog’s body which is similar to the swaddling of a baby. It comes in different sizes and various types. I cannot really vouch for any of these, as I haven’t tried them. However, I saw some people over at the GSD forums who mentioned using them.
If you plan to use any of these, you should first introduce them to the dog, by letting them smell them and associate the object with a positive experience. It would be a bad idea to use them for the first time on the day that they are needed, as dogs tend to dislike objects such as muzzles or pieces of cloth placed on top of them.
So far, we haven’t had any issues with Nix. From the very start she has been completely unfazed by thunderstorms and we were hopeful that she’d be okay with fireworks. As you may know, we live in Spain, so there is no 4th of July celebration for us; however, we have both revetlles of Sant Joan (June 23rd) and Sant Pere (June 29th). On both days people buy firecrackers and sparklers and some towns put on firework shows. The worse thing for the dogs is that some people start the revetlla earlier, so you can hear the firecrackers days before.
For Sant Joan we went to visit my parent’s and we didn’t buy any kind of firecrackers. Nix was a bit nervous during the night, but I don’t think it can be attributed to the firecrackers themselves, but rather a combination of being away from home and the loud noises. I should also point out that she may have been nervous, but not scared. She didn’t have any problem going outside as dogs normally do when they are afraid.
For Sant Pere we stayed home and there was quite a fireworks display on. Our initial idea was to take Nix out for a walk before the fireworks, but we lost track of time and we actually went out just as they were starting. Suffice to say, we were the only crazy people walking their dog at the time. However, as I’ll explain now, what seemed like a terrible idea might actually work in the future to our benefit (only time will tell).
When we got to the park Nix seemed more or less okay: she wasn’t scared, overall, although the fireworks with the loudest noises did seem to startle her. So we did something we never do at night: we brought her beloved frisbee out and we started playing with her. Our goal was to take advantge of how focused and intensely she plays with her frisbee and to make the whole thing a very positive experience (loud cracking noises = frisbee playing) for her. You can see the video below. You’ll have to excuse the darkness in the video. Thanks to Manel for shooting it.
As you can see, she completely ignored the fireworks and just focused on playing.
Honestly, I cannot be certain that she will act in the same way next year. I do feel, however, that playing with her in the park might have been a better option than staying home, as we wouldn’t have been able to achieve the degree of focus that we did while playing outside.
So, what is your experience with your dog? How does he/she deal with fireworks? Have you tried the thundershirt or doggy ear muffs?