Why are dogs afraid of fireworks?

Not only on July 4th, but every time there is some fireworks announced, Paul gives his 12-year-old Vizsla, Nick, a mild sedative. He drives him as far from the local fireworks as possible, cranks up the radio, and makes a heroic attempt to keep him calm. Does this situation sound familiar to you too?

You can read below about why the dogs are scared of fireworks, and how can we help them to get through such occasions safely. Fortunately, there are a lot of simple strategies for dog parents. From distraction to anti-anxiety vests and more, we’ve rounded up all the tips you need to help your pet feel better when the noises start.

Studies that point to nurture

A 2013 study by the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences found fireworks were the most common trigger for fearful behavior in dogs. Responses included: trembling, shaking, hiding, seeking comfort, destruction, urination, and salivation.

Until recently, most theories on this noise sensitivity in dogs suggested environmental factors as a cause. These could include a traumatic noise-related event early in a dog’s life, or a lack of exposure to loud noises as a puppy. The way owners respond to a dog’s fearful behavior and how other dogs in the pack react to the noise have also been offered as possible explanations.

“Our results suggest that the characteristics of dogs, their early environment, and exposure to specific loud noises are involved in the development of fear responses to noises,” Dr. Rachel Casey explained. “Interestingly, less than a third of owners sought professional advice about treatment for their pet’s response to noises.”

The Bristol research discovered a correlation between changes in a dog’s environment and fear. Dogs raised by the same owners who bred them were less likely to be afraid of noises later in life. The researchers noted that hunting breeds such as Labradors or Springer Spaniels were not as sensitive. And that cross-breeds were likely to be more fearful.

Recent research links to nature

A 2015 Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo study on noise sensitivity found that the answer to why certain dogs are fearful might have more to do with biology than environment. In other words, it isn’t about the dog, it’s about his genes. The researchers looked at over 5000 dogs from 17 breed clubs across the country. The study looked at four types of loud sounds: fireworks, loud banging, thunder, and traffic. 23% of the dogs involved showed fearful responses in one or more categories.

The results showed a marked correlation between breeds and noise-sensitive fearfulness. Norwegian Buhunds, Shiba Inus, and Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers were more fearful. Pointers, Great Danes, Boxers and Chinese Cresteds showed the least amount of fear.

Dr. Stanley Coren wrote about the Oslo results in Psychology Today and spoke by phone about the conclusions. “There is a genetic predisposition,” Coren explained. “There might also be a hormonal factor.” Female dogs were about 30 percent more likely to be afraid and neutered dogs were 72 percent more likely. The study also found a 3 percent increase in sensitivity in older dogs. Coren noted that loss of hearing offsets that increase somewhat. Even though dogs can be afraid of both fireworks and thunder, Coren explained that those noises sound quite different to dogs.

“Thunder has a reasonable explanation. The low rumble sounds like a throaty growl. Like a huge dog,” he said. Fireworks are also loud, but have a sharp component as well. (Source: rover.com)

How to comfort your dog during fireworks?

1. Stay indoors or get away from it all

Keeping your pets indoors on fireworks-heavy days helps reduce their exposure to the sounds, plus prevents their running away. Turning on a radio or TV provides helpful white noise and distraction.

If you can, consider leaving town for a quieter spot if you can. A 3-day trip to a close National Park, perhaps? If you’re not able to get away, and you live in an area with lots of fireworks activity, look up for a friend or pet sitter who doesn’t live as close to all that noise.

Make sure your dog has his name tag on all the time and double check if you have the correct number on it.

2. Talk to your vet about possible medications

If you already know your pet gets very upset by the loud noises you can visit your vet and talk about other options that could help:

  • Pheromones. Available via a diffuser, a spray, or a collar, it can reduce your dog’s anxiety—whether it’s related to fireworks, storms, traveling, or separation. A research study published in the Journal of the British Veterinary Association specifically evaluated its use for storm phobia in dogs, and found it effective.
  • Melatonin. This natural over-the-counter supplement is widely available. Even though the effect on dogs differs, you can definitely give it a try. Make sure you know appropriate doses for your dog.
  • Prescription medications. Especially in severe cases, medication can be a lifesaver for a noise-phobic dog. Your veterinarian can guide you through the various choices.

3. Give your dog lots of snuggles

A common myth has it that if you pet your pup during an anxious episode, they’ll feel more afraid. However, a gentle hand or a yummy treat does not reinforce fear, it reduces it. 

So, cuddle away or use a pressure wrap or vest. These snug-fitting vests apply sustained, comforting pressure to your dog’s torso. It’s recommended to apply it for 20-30 minutes, then remove it for the same amount of time and apply it again.

5. Distract your dog with his favorite treats or activities he enjoys

Because some of the anti-anxiety meds recommended by vets take several weeks to build up, it’s maybe better to use some behavior techniques on your dog:

  • Act as though you do not recognize the behavior. Walk him and talk to him as if you were back in puppy training, giving treats for sitting and staying.
  • Get them involved with something else, try a new play game or teach them a new trick.

To remember…

Most dogs have some level of fear when it comes to fireworks. You know your dog best, and will know how much to intervene during the festivities. When in doubt, remember that prevention, distraction, and lots of love are always a good idea!

Have a happy & safe Fourth of July!

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