Fear of Fireworks

Strategies for keeping your pet calm during the sound and light "storm."


© Kira_Yan | Bigstock

These are the times that try dogs’ souls — if they suffer from noise phobia, that is, which many dogs do. The booms of July 4th fireworks leave them panting, pacing, drooling, shaking, barking, and running for cover. What can you do about it?

Start by keeping them away from events with fireworks celebrations. Some people assume that if they expose their dog directly to the commotion it will be easier for them to get over their fear, but this strategy only makes a dog more fearful. Animal behaviorists call it “flooding.”

Instead, proceed gradually. One effective strategy is to use a tape with sounds of something exploding. Try something like Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (available on YouTube), playing it louder and louder over a period of days to weeks, while at the same time engaging your dog in play or a training activity she enjoys. The exercise will teach her that loud, sudden noises mean it’s time for fun. From music, you can move on to the sound of cars backfiring, gun shots, and even fireworks, always starting softly and then ramping it up bit by bit. You can also couple the increasingly louder sounds with a delectable food treat so that your pet learns to associate noise with something else she likes. She may never come to love the sound of fireworks, but if you stay home with her while fireworks are going off nearby, at least she won’t go into full panic mode.

Exposure to louder and louder noises followed up with food treats is how police dogs are desensitized to the sound of gunshots, by the way.

If the training doesn’t work

In some cases, getting your dog used to louder and louder noises of explosions is not going to create the change you seek. Some dogs are just too hard-wired in their fear. In such instances, it’s perfectly fine to resort to a short-acting medication to reduce anxiety. Some very good ones include the benzodiazepines alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and clonazepam (Klonopin). A newer one that just came on the market within the last year or two is called dexmedetomidine (Sileo). Labeled specifically for noise phobia in dogs, it decreases the brain’s outflow of norepinephrine — the fight-or-flight hormone.

You are not a failure if you have not been able to gradually coax your dog out of fear of fireworks and turn to a prescription drug. You are, rather, a good dog parent. Fireworks come along only once or twice a year. If your dog can’t learn to handle them, why put her (and yourself) through severe anxiety during those rare occasions? Taking a Valium every once in a while to get her over the hump is not going to turn her into a drug-addled pet.


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