If you have an anxious dog, by now, you know the drill: As soon as the bright flashes and loud bangs start erupting on the evening of the Fourth of July, your dog alternates between cowering, howling, and looking at you as though to say, “Mom? Dad? Why have you forsaken me?”
But fireworks don’t have to put a halt to an otherwise enjoyable evening, even for the jumpiest of pups. We spoke with Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, DVM, medical director of Behavior Vets of NYC, about the best ways to keep your dog calm during every fireworks show—and thunderstorm—this year.
Why are dogs afraid of fireworks in the first place?
Dogs’ potential fear of fireworks is due, in large part, to the sound: A dog’s ears are significantly more sensitive than a human’s, so the booms of fireworks can be downright painful for them. What’s more, dogs can’t comprehend why or how this racket is happening repeatedly at random intervals.
“Fireworks and thunderstorms—they’re panic in a box,” Tu says. “These loud bangs, and sudden bursts of light... it’s one of those things that you can’t explain to a dog, and I think that’s what distresses them so much.”
Some dogs, according to Tu, can be diagnosed with things like noise phobia, noise sensitivity, and generalized anxiety disorder, so they might be more sensitive to fireworks than others. No breed has been proven to be more susceptible to anxiety than any other, though a study of dogs in 2015 found that Norwegian Buhunds, Wheaten terriers, and Lagotto Romagnolos had high noise sensitivity. However, anxiety in dogs can have a genetic link, Tu says. So, if you happen to know your dog’s parents suffered from it, your dog may as well. Aging dogs are also more likely to become nervous, according to the American Kennel Club.
Another factor that could contribute to dogs' fear of fireworks is if they simply haven’t experienced anything like them—say, if yours is a puppy, or you adopted an adult dog from a calmer, quieter place and where you live is rife with traffic noises, crowds... and fireworks shows on the Fourth of July. “A big component is socialization,” Tu says. “These dogs are so uniquely sensitive to sound because they weren’t exposed to this intensity of decibels.”
How do dogs show fear?
Dogs have many ways of showing they're afraid. But because, as Tu puts it, “[humans are] basically evolved monkeys and dogs are evolved wolves, and we speak different languages,” it’s easy to miss the initial signs.
At first, dogs may yawn, lick their nose, blink more frequently, and turn or walk away from the commotion. As fear intensifies, they may creep away with their ears tucked back, and stand in a crouched position with their tail between their legs. Finally, in what Tu refers to as the “red zone" of fear, dogs will stiffen up, stare, growl, and maybe even snap and bite.
You can also look at your dog’s face to identify fear—while their body language may not telegraph anxiety to you, some of their facial expressions may mirror your own when you get anxious. “Dogs that are anxious will show a lot of the same anxiety signs [as humans] on the face,” Tu says. “Their eyes get narrow, they furrow the brow, their lips may get thin, and the corners of the mouth curl up a little bit.”
How do you help your dog through a fireworks show?
One method is fairly simple: Don’t expose your pet to fireworks—and the crowds, noise, and smells that go along with them—in the first place.
But that, of course, is sometimes easier said than done. You may live near the town center where the official fireworks go off, or, perhaps, your neighbors like to light bottle rockets all day on the Fourth. In those cases, you’ll want to make a "sound bunker" for your dog (also useful for storm-phobic dogs), and look into some other calming accessories.
An ideal doggy sound bunker is a room in your house that’s as far from the sound as possible, like a basement, laundry room, or bathroom with blackout window shades and a good noise buffer, like a carpet and possibly some pillows and blankets in front of the windows. Tu also recommends adding in a white noise machine (we like the Sound + Sleep by Adaptive Sound), or a CD called “Through A Dog’s Ears,” a classical music collection engineered to a pitch and speed that’s calming for dogs. If you don’t have the space or time to create a full bunker, putting your pup in a room with fewer windows than the rest of the house and is as far away from sound as possible is a good alternative.
Other calming tools may be worth testing out with your dog. A ThunderShirt, a vest that applies gentle pressure to a dog’s chest to relieve anxiety, may work for some dogs.
Other dog owners, according to Tu, have found success with behavioral supplements like Solliquin, Zylkene, or Zentrol, or a probiotic with calming capabilities, like Calming Care or Progility Calming. Adaptil, an aerosolized pheromone that can be attached to a diffuser on a collar or plugged into an outlet, may also help keep dogs calm.
When is it time to get your vet involved?
If your home remedies aren’t as effective as you’d like, take your dog to the vet to discuss options for fear mitigation and possibly anxiety medication—ideally, as soon as you can.
“Medications should not be used [prior to] the first time the dog has a fireworks experience,” Tu says. She recommends coming in at least two weeks before an event for which you think your dog might need medication. As with humans, a medication that manages anxiety in one patient may not work as well—or even have adverse effects—on another. “That gives us a week to test a drug, and in case that drug fails, it gives us another week to test a different drug,” she says. “If you call a vet and you’re worried about fireworks that are happening in 12 hours, you’re kind of up a creek. We can give you something, but it may not work.”
If your dog ends up panicking to an extreme degree on the Fourth, a vet may be able to administer anxiety medications via injection, which work faster than oral ones—that is, if you can find a clinic that is open on the holiday. Therefore, if your dog really freaks out, your best bet is likely to get them away from the noise, set up a cozy sound bunker, and get an appointment with your vet as soon as possible to make plans to prevent it from happening again.
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