(Updated for 2020 with new ideas you can use!)
While most of us here in America are happily celebrating Independence Day with barbeques, parades and fireworks, many of our dogs are fearfully spending the holiday under the bed or cowering in the basement. If your dog is one of the millions who experience anxiety on the Fourth of July, keep reading…
And if you are one of the few dog owners blessed with a bomb-proof dog, read no further, you lucky duck! On second thought, read on – because you may learn something that could save you from problems down the road.
Chloe is one of those dogs who completely and utterly panics around fireworks.
Ohh, how I wished to have a dog I could take to the fireworks show with me each year. Sitting on a blanket with my best four-legged friend beside me, oohing and ahhing over the display above us… that’s what summers were made for!
On her first Independence Day at 4 months old, Chloe happily trotted on a walk around our neighborhood with me while neighbors lit firecrackers and sparkling fountains. No sign of distress. She was completely oblivious to the noise and lights.
But the second year…her absolute panic when she heard the first bottle rocket take off took me by surprise. If I hadn’t had a good hold of her leash, she would have bolted out-of-sight. And a runaway dog during fireworks? That’s like a ping pong ball, bouncing all over the place as the dog tries to escape from the noise that is everywhere. Even level-headed dogs could bolt into on-coming traffic.
Nowadays, as soon as our neighborhood decides it’s appropriate to start lighting fire crackers, Chloe is confined indoors during evening hours to keep her safe.
Did you know that a fear of fireworks or other loud noises can begin at any time in your dog’s life? It’s perplexing to understand what triggers this fear, but even previously calm dogs can develop anxiety over loud noises.
Fireworks, Thunder and Gunshots
Statistics and shelters confirm: more dogs go missing on July 4th than any other day of the year. And with no wonder. Summertime brings visitors, vacations and big displays of fireworks. All these combined can form a perfect storm for stressing your dog and for accidents to happen.
Any dog can react to loud, unexpected noises. Remember that our dogs have an exceptionally strong sense of hearing and smell. The most typical sounds that can induce fear in dogs (and let’s face it – some humans, too) are the sounds of fireworks, thunder and gunshots. We’re going to dive deep into fireworks anxiety but we’ll also touch on how you can help your dog with the other two.
But first, let’s take a closer look at how the stress response takes place in our dogs.
The Polyvagal Theory
I’ll try not to get too science-y here, but it’s important to have some background on the Polyvagal Theory, first proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.
Sue Mimm, a certified professional dog trainer from Austria, has taken the Polyvagal theory – the pathways of response to stress, anxiety and fearful situations – and correlated it to our dogs and how it presents for them.
I encourage you to listen to this Enlightened by Dogs podcast episode EBD055The Science of Safety with Sue Mimm that explains all this technical stuff in a way you can easily understand and totally makes sense.
When our dogs are sensing something that makes them feel unsafe, their bodies and minds have a reaction. Even though we may perceive the environment as safe, our dogs may not feel the same way.
There are three pathways of response.
- The first is a “freeze” response. You might have noticed this if your dog encounters something that makes him feel unsure of what to do. He may just freeze for a moment to evaluate the situation.
- The second response is shifting into mobilization. We all know of the “flight or fight” reaction. If something feels dangerous, our dogs prepare to either “fight” (growling, barking, prepare to bite) or take “flight” (run away and flee from the unsafe situation.) All this is simply their nervous system reacting to the environment.
- The third is a social engagement or connection response. When your dog feels calm and safe and secure, she can relax into connection with you and others.
So what does this look like for your dog?
The very first firecracker goes off. Your dog pauses; alert, listening and using his nose to locate and determine what the sound is and where it’s coming from (freeze.)
More fireworks begin exploding. Your dog feels unsafe. This situation is very concerning. He begins to bark and whine, running from window to window and glancing your way every few seconds. He is communicating to you he is feeling very threatened (fight.)
Now the fireworks begin in earnest. Pops and booms emanate from every corner of the neighborhood. Flashes of light are accompanied by high-pitched whistles. The smell of sulphur hangs in the air. Your dog has reached a threshold of panic. Now he is panting, whining, wide-eyed and ready to run –ANYWHERE to escape the barrage to his senses (flight.)
If you’ve ever been in a circumstance where your dog has completely panicked over a scary situation, you may feel she is no longer listening to you. Or that she doesn’t love you or trust you enough.
Don’t take it personally.
Look at it this way: imagine you are with a soldier who is smack-dab in the middle of a battlefield. Missiles are exploding all around and the sound of gunfire is everywhere. Do you think offering him a yummy snack would take his mind off the situation? How about suggesting you play a game of cards? Or what about just giving him a hug and telling him everything will be okay?
As you can imagine, the soldier will have no interest in anything you offer. He’s in danger and his senses are honed in on keeping himself safe. It’s not time for food or play or to be social. In fact, if you tried to give him a big bear hug, he’d probably push you away – he needs to be ready to move at any moment.
Fireworks anxiety can feel just like that to our dogs. Ask a combat veteran.
Our job is to provide a safe and secure area to let our dogs escape from the perceived danger.
Things That Can Help
So what are your options?
If your dog feels only mildly anxious about fireworks or loud sounds, trying one of these suggestions may solve your problem. But if your dog is over-the-top scared, you’ll want to start NOW to figure out what works best. Remember, not all dogs respond to these in the same way.
There may be Amazon Affiliate Links ahead. Plus links to products I recommend but don’t receive any compensation for – I just love them!
***IMPORTANT: If your dog reacts in an aggressive manner while under stress, always consult with a dog behavior professional and your veterinarian!!***
- Calming Spray or Pheromone diffuser can help reduce your dog’s stress. A calming spray made from select, dog-safe essential oils can be spritzed on your dog’s coat and around her safe space. Pheromones work by mimicking a mama dog’s stress-reducing hormones emitted while nursing her pups. Below you’ll find a DIY calming spray recipe you can use any time your dog feels anxious.
- Supplements such as melatonin, valerian, St. John’s wort or CBD oil. All of these have been shown to reduce anxiety in dogs when given at the optimum dosage. Ask your holistic vet for guidance. Sometimes it takes experimentation to find the right dosage. Choose a supplement and stick with it to observe the results. If it doesn’t help, then try the next one. Bach Rescue Remedy or homeopathic remedies can also be considered.
- Pressure Wraps, such as a Thundershirt or Storm Defender. These work by applying consistent, firm pressure on acupressure (nerve) points along the body that help reduce heart rate. Kind of like how moms swaddle their babies to help them feel more secure. Sometimes even putting on your dog’s harness will offer a bit of the same constant pressure and relieve symptoms of anxiety.
- Another DIY option is to wrap your dog with stretch bandage over the nerve points. Chloe and I decided to give this a test at home during a thunderstorm. I can report that for her, this ‘thunder wrap’ worked! No barking – just a bit of whining. That is a vast improvement for her.
If you use a DIY pressure wrap, keep an eye on your dog to make sure the wrap is over the pressure points. Pay particular attention to the chest area. You don’t want the wrap to slide up around the neck.
- Animal Lullaby Therapy and believe it or not, this isn’t the same as playing classical or any other type of music to try and mask the noise. Terry Woodford of Canine Lullabies provides songs that use the same relaxation principles for human music therapy such as repetition, consistent tempo and predictability. Combined with a human heartbeat, the music helps your dog focus their hearing.
I tested the sample song on Chloe during a thunderstorm and you can see her choosing what to listen to – the song or the thunder. Worth your consideration.
Listening to a sample song during a thunderstorm…
A Word About Desensitization…
You may have heard about programs designed to desensitize your dog to fireworks. While the protocol may work well for conditioning dogs to be comfortable around gunfire, studies have shown that counter-conditioning to fireworks is extremely difficult.
Dogs are not just responding to the noise of the explosions, but of the flashes of lights and the odors of the fireworks surrounding the area.
For test purposes, I played a soundtrack of what was termed “the most realistic fireworks sounds” for Chloe. She immediately went on alert. She didn’t bark or bolt, but she was also shifting her gaze towards to windows. She was looking for the flashes of light that accompany the sounds.
First Things First to Prepare for the Fourth…
- If your dog shows any sign of distress at fireworks, make sure he wears his collar with ID tags at all times. A harness is even better so it can’t slip or pull off. Microchipping is also a great option.
- If you have a fenced yard, make sure all gates latch securely and there are no holes or loose boards your pup could push through.
- Curtail all off-leash walks until firework season is over. This may mean from a few weeks before Independence Day up to a week afterward to make sure all you friends and neighbors have gotten fireworks out of their system.
- Take your long walks/hikes in the early hours of the day. Keep your dog inside after sunset. Make sure you take your dog out on a leash for potty breaks in the evening.
Prepare Your Dog’s Safe Space
Every dog is unique in how they handle anxiety. Some of them want nothing more than to hide in the furthest room from noise. Some want to hang with their owners. Some want to pace. Some find comfort in their crate.
Follow your dog’s lead. Wherever feels safe to them is where you should set up their safe space.
A room on the lowest floor of your house away from windows is a really good place to hang. Place their bed or a soft blanket and a spill proof bowl for water in their safe space. Spritz your calming spray on the blanket and a bit on your pup. You can even create a makeshift (pup)tent by placing a blanket over a table or a couple chairs. It’s a comfy cave that helps block out those scary fireworks.
Amazon sells some inexpensive sound deadening panels you can use to place over any nearby windows for added noise/light reduction.
Remember not to lock your dog in his crate! Instinct tells him to run away from the danger. Closing him in his crate without an escape hatch is a recipe for injury. Always give your dog a way out.
Going to be away from home on the Fourth? A mildly anxious dog will probably do fine with a stuffed Kong, the TV playing in the background and an anxiety reducing supplement. A severely anxious dog is a serious matter. Talk with your veterinarian for options which might include sedatives.
Everyone loves to celebrate the Fourth of July, even if you have an anxious dog. Do you have friends and family coming over for a cookout? Extra people in the house, especially strangers, can raise your dog’s stress levels even further. Be absolutely certain guests know to close gates and doors securely to prevent any accidental escapes. It might make sense to consider letting your dog stay at a trusted boarding facility.
If you are vacationing with your dog during Independence Day celebrations, use extra precautions. There is no worse feeling than losing your dog in an unfamiliar location. Keep local shelter information on hand and have all of your dog’s ID info with you.
What About Thunder and Gunshots?
Dogs that have phobias with fireworks will most likely show some anxiety over thunderstorms and gunfire. Even some people show anxiety over these things!
Thunderstorms are definitely different than fireworks. They are a naturally occurring event and (depending on where you live) one that your dog will experience many times in their life. Researchers are still puzzled by what causes dogs to be fearful of thunderstorms.
But remember – it’s not just a noise event. Dogs can sense an approaching storm long before we are aware one is on the way. Barometric pressure changes, electrical charges, and the smells wind and rain bring definitely come into play. Not to mention – if YOU are anxious during severe weather, your dog will pick up on it immediately.
All of the above suggestions can help with thunder anxiety.
If we are outside with Chloe and hear thunder, she will turn and head for home as fast as possible. For safety’s sake, she’s got the right idea.
In our experience, inside Chloe is more of the “intruder alert” type with storms. This is actually a good thing. Her alarm barking is her way of communicating to us that she finds something threatening and she’s not sure how to respond.
We channeled that uncertainty into a cue. Thunder = play ball. You can also work with your dog with clicker training during storms. Click for each thunder clap and reward with a high value treat.
If your dog is mildly to moderately anxious during storms, brain games are a good way to distract. Concentrating on food puzzles or snuffle mats give your dog a way to use up that anxious energy. They also form an association that storms equal good things.
Gunshots are in a category of their own. Unless you hunt frequently, live near a shooting range or have a working dog, gunfire is not something dogs hear every day. They are startling and panic-inducing for some canines.
If you hike, you’re likely to hear shots in the distance occasionally. The last thing you want is a panicked dog out on the trail. The tendency is for your dog to run away from the direction of the shots.
We’ve discovered that if we keep walking, it actually reinforces the anxiety for Chloe. Our continued walking sends the signal that yes, there is indeed danger and we must flee. So she pulls and lunges.
For us, simply stopping the hike and getting really interested in something nearby – a tree or some rocks or a flower – gives Chloe a moment to break the pattern. Take your time. Ignore your dog and talk calmly in a low pitched voice about how fascinating this rock formation is. Walk slowly or even backtrack a bit while you find something to focus on. Gun shots rarely last longer than a few minutes so give your dog time to regroup before you continue on.
If you really want to counter-condition for gunshots, contact a reputable local hunting dog trainer who can help.
It may be a pain, but the few days a year when fireworks are an issue is just a small portion of our dog’s lives. Being proactive and preparing makes it easier for your dog – and YOU – to survive the pops, booms and bangs getting ready to light up the night every July 4th.
Here’s how to make a Calming Spray for your dog. It’s super simple and effective.
- 1 1/4 cups distilled water
- 2 Tbsps vodka or witchhazel
- 5-10 drops Roman Chamomile essential oil (highly recommend Eden’s Garden)
- 5-10 drops Lavender essential oil
- Large amber or blue glass spray bottle
Measure distilled water and vodka and pour into spray bottle. Add essential oils, carefully counting drops. Attach lid and shake well. To use: spray around room (spot test any fabrics first.) Cover your dog’s eyes and spritz lightly on coat.
NOTE: this spray is NOT safe for cats.