Fireworks!

Stop bemoaning your dog’s firework phobia…
and start fixing it instead.

It’s that time of year. People in the US have been celebrating Independence Day in a big way, and my Facebook news feed is flooded with angry posts from the owners of terrified dogs complaining about their neighbors and cities. Nothing inspires quite so much helplessness and rage as watching your dog squeeze himself under the toilet or bed, trembling and drooling, for the fifth day in a row.

Photo by Travis Estell

Photo by Travis Estell

Advice on these threads mainly focuses on management: thundershirts, pheromone therapy, aromatherapy, exercise, melatonin, and white noise are all common suggestions. And these things have their place in any good treatment plan for noise-phobic dogs.

Most of the best-intentioned advice continues to miss the point, though. Here’s the thing: noise phobias are treatable. Your dog does not have to continue to suffer.

Take a moment to truly think about this. With just a little bit of training and preparation, your dog could spend next year’s 4th of July celebration hanging out on his dog bed, napping or chewing on a bone. He could be okay. Neither you nor your dog need go through this ever again.

So, how can you help your dog get through fireworks? The key is to change how he feels about the loud noises. Behavior experts use the term “conditioned emotional response,” or CER for short, to describe the first knee-jerk reaction to a stimulus. Right now, your dog’s CER to noises is probably pretty awful. (“Oh no!,” he thinks, “I’m about to die!”) We need to change his CER to a happy one (“Oh boy, it’s that sound again! I wonder what wonderful thing is going to happen this time?”).

There are many different ways to do this, and this is where bringing an experienced, certified trainer in on your case can prove invaluable. Some dogs adore roasted chicken or blue cheese. Some really light up for tennis balls or Frisbees. Some think that training or find-it games are the best thing in the world. Whatever your dog absolutely loves will be the key to changing his association.

This is straightforward Pavlov stuff. Pavlov’s dogs started to drool when they heard him ring the bell because the bell always predicted dinner. They had a positive response to the sound of the bell because it had become associated with pleasant things. You can do the same thing with thunder, fireworks, whistles, or any other noise that freaks your dog out.

The steps are simple. First of all, figure out your dog’s absolute favorite thing. Pull out all the stops. If your dog is most motivated by food, don’t try to get by with dry commercial dog treats. Pull out tuna fish or peanut butter. If your dog likes balls, get a special new Cuz or Air Kong ball that only comes out for this training. The more powerful a punch your chosen motivator packs, the faster you can change your dog’s opinion about the scary stuff. Go big or go home.

Once you know what makes your dog tick, you could just wait for it to thunder or for a firework to boom. Or you can make this much easier by buying a special CD that has these noises recorded, which you can play at low volume at first (so quietly that you can barely hear it). After the scary noise starts but within 1-2 seconds of it beginning, present your dog’s favorite thing. Throw his new, special ball. Hand him a big hunk of roasted chicken. Whatever floats his boat.

The key here is the order in which these things happen. The scary noise has to predict something good. If they happen simultaneously (or worse yet, if you present the good thing before the noise), this won’t work. We need the scariness to be predictive of wonderful things.

Over time, you should notice your dog’s reaction to the noise change. Instead of cringing or looking worried, he’ll begin to perk up when he hears the noise, looking around for his food or toy. When this happens, you can begin turning the volume on your CD up, until eventually even the loudest crashes cause your dog to get wiggly and happy in anticipation of something wonderful. You can do the same thing during actual thunderstorms or fireworks. Wait for the thunder to boom or the firework to crackle, then present your dog with his special prize.

Once your dog is pretty happy about even noisy booms, you can begin to fade the treats or toy. Instead of presenting it after every crash, begin presenting it more occasionally (perhaps skipping the 3am thunderstorms at first and concentrating on those that happen at more reasonable hours, for example). Don’t stop giving special prizes altogether, but decrease their frequency.  You can also do this same exercise with new puppies or adult dogs to prevent them from developing noise issues in the first place.

Of course, this assumes that your dog isn’t so far gone that he refuses his favorite things. Some dogs are so terrified that they can no longer eat or play. If this is the case for your dog, there’s still hope. First of all, it’s absolutely vital that you work with both a trainer and your veterinarian. Fear this intense can be fatal! Don’t hesitate to get your dog relief. Modern short-acting anxiety medications (never acepromazine), can be given as needed to cut through your dog’s anxiety without knocking him out or inhibiting his ability to learn. This is important, because it means that we can use them to start changing your dog’s associations. In many cases of noise phobia, these medications are used temporarily, then phased out once the dog is no longer showing any concern over the noise.

The take-home message is simple. Stop managing your dog’s terror, and work with a good trainer to solve it instead. If you’re in the Rochester or Twin Cities area, contact us about getting started right away. You and your dog will both be much happier, and maybe you can even start to enjoy the fireworks instead of cursing them on Facebook!

7 responses to “Fireworks!

  1. We actually owned a Vizsla who loved fireworks. She would sit on a lawn chair with us on every 4th of July admiring the fireworks in the neighborhood. She came from a great line of hunters. Working on developing this love in our current hound as well.

  2. Sharon Kroker

    Can you recommend a good “thunderstorm” cd? Thanks! Sharon

    On Mon, Jul 8, 2013 at 7:01 AM, Paws Abilities

  3. Oh, yes, the annual bemoaning and blaming re: fireworks. The night of July 4, I went in extra to work with 19 dogs at home. All stayed in the house, some in crates; a volunteer came early the next morning to let them out. They were safe. Preparation, extinction of undesirable habits, does us and our dogs well. Thank you for the thoughtful, thorough post.

  4. An additional factor for fireworks is the smell.

    My dogs are unfazed by thunderstorms in general. Of course, if they are jarred out of a sound sleep at 2 am by a KA BOOOOOM window shaker they might jump. Then again, so do I. ;-)

    My dogs did an excellent job of keeping themselves calm this 4th of July. they had to work at it. But I did notice that the smell was bothering them.

    So in addition to the CDs, I would suggest any counter conditioning include burning some easily controlled fireworks — for example the “worms” that burn out on the sidewalk — in order to take the smell into account as well.

  5. My lab who is 8 gets so scared he shakes all night. My vet gave me some antianxiety meds and he slept after being scared only 30 minutes. A HUGE difference from last year when he did not even sleep. It is weired how my other dog is not even phased and my lab is, but your article makes sense. I think the association is big. Thanks

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