Fear of Fireworks and Other Sounds - Dog and Puppy Training
The season comes around every year, and whether it’s New Years Eve or a specific holiday, fireworks are a common way to celebrate and have fun. However, if you are one of the unfortunate people that have a fearful dog in your home (or cat etc) fireworks can quickly become a dreaded nightmare!
Our canine and furry companions have very sensitive hearing, much more sensitive than ours, and they can become easily spooked by the sudden bangs, whirls, screams, and pops that fireworks produce. It’s unpredictable, and that means it’s even scarier! In addition to this, if your dog fears fireworks, there’s a good chance they may also be afraid of other sudden noises such as thunder or even loud helicopters, etc. This article focuses on fireworks, but the methods can be used for all sounds that affect your dog’s confidence!
First Things First!
It’s best to start fireworks (and noise) training as young as possible, ideally within the first 16 weeks of your puppy’s life as this is the socialisation age. A reputable breeder would be starting this before the puppy even leaves the home! However, if your dog is older and afraid, there are a few considerations you can take:
Is your dog in pain? A recent study found that up to 80% of dogs with noise sensitivity have some level of pain or discomfort, and more research is showing just how strong that link is! If your dog is showing extreme fear, the first place to go it to your vet or vet behaviourist that is familiar with the link between pain and fear.
Walk your dog earlier in the day so that there is no risk of fireworks being set off while your dog is outside (and having an even louder experience).
Does your dog have a safe space they can go to when worried? A safe space can be a crate or under your bed – usually a smaller, darker area where the dog can go to at their will.
If your dog feels comfortable wearing them, there are ear protectors/snoods that your dog can wear to reduce the sound. (Note: These work for some dogs, but not all dogs, and so should be used as an aid with training only if your dog feels safe with this type of headwear.)
Would your (fit and healthy) dog benefit from anti-anxiety medication? This is a conversation to have with your vet after a thorough health evaluation, but there are medications that may be available to your dog.
Things such as closing curtains/blinds and turning the TV/radio up can help some dogs feel less afraid of fireworks and sudden noises.
All these considerations can be used to aid training, but it’s important that we do not rely on them alone. Fear will still be present, so it’s vital that we work on the fear directly with the below method to help our dog’s confidence grow!
The techniques below can be used for puppies or adult dogs. We focus on changing the emotional response from fear to confident and calm, this means that we always remain below our dog’s threshold (the point before they feel stressed) so that they never need to feel afraid of the sounds they hear.
Start by playing the firework sound (or thunder, plane, etc) on a phone or other device. There are plenty of sounds on Youtube you can use. Make sure you play the sound very quiet to begin with. Remember, the aim is that our dogs are not reacting.
While you play the sound, have your dog or puppy do something they enjoy. This could be snuffling for treats using the "find it" game, using a licki mat, playing with a favourite toy, or even doing some ACE Freework! Make sure that while that sound is playing, your dog or puppy is having a great time!
As soon as your puppy/dog stops what they are doing, the sound stops, too. We want them to build a direct relationship between sound and enjoyable things.
Over time, slowly increase the volume. If your dog becomes afraid at any point by showing behaviours such as the ones here, stop and turn the volume down back to what it was before they responded negatively. Make sure that you are using high value rewards, especially as the sound gets louder. Chicken, hot dog and cheese are usually winners!
Ensure that you continue this the first time your dog ever hears the scary sound in a real situation – fireworks can be much louder in real life, so keep to the training! Keep the tone upbeat – the more excited you are to throw treats on the floor or pull out their favourite toy, the more relaxed your dog will be.
Start training before the event! Don’t wait for a week before the fireworks (storm, etc) season. Start 4 months before! You can never practice too much.
Ensure you have a plan. Look through the options above and test some things out beforehand e.g., is that really a safe space? How comfortable is your dog in a snood? Will your vet be happy to prescribe medication?
If you have an extremely fearful dog, get a force free behaviourist involved! We can help our dogs, sometimes we just need the help of a professional – there’s nothing wrong with that!