The following is a free subchapter of my book ‘Dog Training & Behaviour: A guide for everyone’; in the hope that it will help as many people and their dogs as possible.
Fear of fireworks and thunderstorms is probably the most common fear-based problem I hear about. A very common misconception has persisted in which people are encouraged not to comfort their dog when the dog shows fearfulness. The thinking is that your comforting will act as reinforcement for the fear and so make it more likely to occur. However, fear cannot be reinforced! This seemed illogical to me when I first heard it, so I’m not surprised if it seems illogical to others too. Remember that reinforcement means to make a behaviour more likely to occur in the future. Fear isn’t a behaviour; fear is an emotion.
Imagine, as a child, being afraid of the dark. You’re sitting watching the TV one evening when there’s a power cut and you’re suddenly flung into darkness. Your heart fills with dread and, scared to move a muscle, you begin to cry. Your mum, knowing of your fear, gives you a hug and tells you that everything’s okay; she is sure the power will soon come back on and when it does, she’ll get you some ice cream for being so brave. Would that make you more likely to be afraid next time the lights go out? Of course it wouldn’t. This is because being afraid isn’t an operant behaviour. A dog can choose to sit in order to get a treat but they cannot choose to be afraid in order to get that treat.
It’s perfectly normal for dogs to be afraid of fireworks. A sudden loud noise would startle most mammals. The 4th July celebrations in the US and 5th November celebrations in the UK are extremely stressful times, not only for dogs but for many species. It’s more remarkable that some dogs seem unbothered by them. But this leaves us trying to fix a dog who isn’t broken. As with many problems, it’s really about helping the dog to live in our human world and with our, sometimes bizarre, rituals.
Fear of fireworks may present itself in the form of whining, barking, trembling, hiding or pacing. The best way to prevent noise phobias is to prepare for them before they become a problem. If we’re lucky enough to have a young puppy, we should introduce bangs and clangs at a very low level, so low that they do not cause the dog much concern. We can increase these noises incrementally over time, always keeping them at a level that doesn’t affect the puppy. Cooking pots can be useful for lightly clanging. There are also phone apps and recordings which we can use to slowly introduce a puppy to this type of noise. Pots and pans don’t exactly sound like fireworks and recordings played via phones or stereos will have a different frequency to real fireworks. But it is far better that the dog gets accustomed to some similar noises than it is to wait for the dog’s first full-on fireworks experience to see how they respond.
Often, we don’t give it much thought when the dog is young. We could have adopted a rescue who has this fear or maybe our dog developed it later in life. There are many reasons that we might find ourselves caring for an adult dog who has a fear of fireworks or storms. A note of caution here: if the fear has suddenly appeared in a dog which was previously okay with loud noises, it is vital that we consult a veterinarian for a health check. Underlying pain or discomfort will affect a dog’s response to further stress. This may explain the sudden change. We have a few options for helping dogs with noise phobias. These include systematic desensitisation, counterconditioning, medication, environmental stimulation and management. These options are not mutually exclusive and it may require a blend of some or all of them.
Ideally, desensitisation would be performed by having an assistant let off fireworks 2 miles away. Assuming the dog was unaffected at this distance, they might let them off from 1.9 miles away the next day, then 1.8, 1.7, and so on. Each day they might get closer and closer. Because each step makes negligible difference to the noise level, the dog may learn that fireworks are of no consequence. This isn’t much use to us in the real world. We could hardly set off fireworks every day in this way. It would be almost logistically impossible and we’d be frightening all the dogs close by. This leaves us with the option of using a recording of firework noises, which we can start by playing very low and incrementally increase the volume over two or three weeks. For some dogs it doesn’t work because they perceive the actual firework noise differently to the recording. It is, however, simple to try and I have had some success with the method, but not with all dogs.
1: Play the firework recording on a very low volume for 15 minutes. So low that you can barely hear it when standing next to the speaker. You could also give the dog some of their daily food in a way which will prolong the eating time (perhaps in a snuffle mat) while the sounds are playing.
2: Play the recording again but after 5 minutes, turn the volume up by a very small amount which is almost unnoticeable. Each day you may start the recording at the volume you finished on previously. If at any point the dog shows any signs of stress, take a few steps back and build up more gradually.
3: Once you reach a reasonable volume (not so loud that it will annoy the neighbours) you may increase the duration of the playing time in increments of 5 minutes per day. I would aim to finish up playing the soundtrack for approximately 40 minutes.
4: Maintain the dog’s desensitisation by playing the soundtrack once per week.
I rarely choose counterconditioning as a stand-alone method. This is because the dog must experience the stress of the aversive stimuli (the thing they don’t like) as part of the process. It’s usually better to combine counterconditioning with systematic desensitisation. But with fireworks, that would take more control over the environment than we have. Counterconditioning fireworks or storm noise isn’t creating any extra stress for the dog because the noise will be there anyway. However, counterconditioning is unlikely to be of benefit as a stand-alone method if the dog has a high level of fear towards the noise. When stress becomes too great, dogs are very unlikely to accept food. Counterconditioning may be successful with dogs who suffer a lower level of firework anxiety, perhaps reactively barking at the noise rather than trembling and hiding.
Ensure that you have a good supply of the dog’s favourite food treats. You should choose something which can be cut into tiny pieces to allow for lots of treats without overfeeding. If you’re working with a small dog, the treats might be as small as a pea. For larger dogs we still want to keep the treat very small, no larger than the fingernail of your little finger. Each time you hear the noise (fireworks or thunder) give the dog a couple of treats. Don’t wait for the dog to react, they are not earning the treat by barking or not barking. The treat comes as a consequence of the noise that you are pairing it with, not as a consequence of any particular behaviour from the dog. We are teaching the dog that fireworks predict nice treats. Over time, this association may alter the dog’s emotional response to fireworks.
If you’re unable to help the dog with the other methods, you may need to discuss the situation with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may prescribe medication such as Sileo or Pexion. Pexion has the effect of increasing the function of GAMA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which decreases electrical activity in the brain, helping the dog to relax. Sileo is an oromucosal gel administered between the dog’s gums and cheeks. It activates alpha-2 receptors which then suppresses neural firing by reducing the release of noradrenaline. Only veterinarians may advise on the use of veterinary medicines or give medical diagnoses requiring such medication. Medication and training methods are not mutually exclusive. Depending on the medication and dose prescribed, it may still be prudent to make good associations with the fireworks or storms but please discuss this with your veterinarian.
Management & Environmental Stimulation
It will largely depend on the individual dog; some will take great comfort in sitting with you and being gently stroked. Others may prefer a hiding place; it’s common for dogs to hide underneath beds when they are afraid. Try building a hiding place close to the rest of the family so that the dog doesn’t feel so isolated. Perhaps a dog crate with a blanket draped over the top. Leave the crate door open so that the dog can make choices and doesn’t feel trapped. Background noise may also be beneficial.
There is some evidence which suggests that playing classical music may reduce canine stress, so this may be a good option for background noise. Prepare food enrichment activities, for example, placing some of the dog’s food in a Kong or spreading it on a lick mat. If you feed kibble, this can be soaked and then spread over the lick mat or used to fill the Kong. Many people freeze the Kong, before giving it to the dog, to prolong the activity. However, I usually just refrigerate them so getting the food out isn’t too difficult.
Food distractions are not likely to be beneficial if the fear is too great. If we heard burglars breaking into our home during the night, we wouldn’t be too impressed if our partner’s only reaction was to offer us a piece of chocolate cake. On the other hand, if we were just a little stressed by a busy day at work, we might take great joy in eating our cake in the evening.