How to Keep Your Dog Happy When Fireworks Go Off -- Using Science!

Illustration for article titled How to Keep Your Dog Happy When Fireworks Go Off -- Using Science!

Dogs are terrified of fireworks. How can you enjoy the Fourth of July while also being sensitive to your canine companions' needs? We reached out to a group of dog scientists to get some answers. Here's what they had to say.


A More Intense Form of Terror

Dr. Gregory Berns is a neurobiologist at Emory University and author of the book How Dogs Love Us. He's been putting fully conscious, unrestrained dogs into fMRI machines for the last few years in an effort to understand the complex relationship between man and man's best friend. I asked him to speculate on why fireworks are so tough on dogs.

My guess is that these reactions are most like PTSD in humans – and that is notoriously difficult to treat! In humans, at least one has the possibility of some type of cognitive-behavioral therapy in which the person mentally tries to override automatic anxiety responses. But this takes a lot of work. Dogs do not have that level of cognitive control, and without an ability to rationalize, or think through their anxiety, may experience a rawer, more intense form of terror.

"I wish I had something on the neurobiology of this in dogs," he adds, "but we're not about to induce panic in any of the MRI dogs in the project."

Fear of Fireworks is "Noise Phobia"

Veterinarian and veterinary genomics researcher (and blogger) Jessica Perry Hekman is particularly interested in the stress response in animals. She provided some more insight into the psychiatry that underlies the fear of loud noises in dogs, and has a unique perspective since her own dog suffers from noise phobia.

We don't fully understand noise phobia in dogs. Thunderstorm phobia is a bigger problem than fireworks phobia (because thunderstorms happen more often) and is better studied. We do know that noise phobia is often comorbid with separation anxiety, suggesting that there's some underlying anxiety disorder. We also know that some breeds, such as border collies, have a predisposition to noise phobia. A breed disposition suggests that it's heritable and therefore to some extent genetic. But we don't think there's a single gene that determines noise phobia vs. lack of noise phobia. It would be more likely to be some combination of a variety of personality traits coming together to make a dog at higher risk for developing this problem.

I have never heard of a way of completely preventing it before it starts. However, a noise phobia is liable to start around a year of age and ramp up quickly. So if your dog is anxious about fireworks this year for the first time, be prepared for the problem to return and probably be worse next year. Don't just wait and see if it's worse next year, but be prepared to take steps.


What sort of steps can you proactively take to make the Fourth of July experience as easy as possible for your dog? Well, one thing is to celebrate in a place where there are no fireworks. But assuming that's not an option, canine scientist (and blogger) Julie Hecht points out a perhaps obvious solution:

Most owners of dogs showing fear behaviors in relation to loud noises reported that they were unaware that professional help (from animal behaviorists or veterinarians) was available to help. And owners had not pursued such help.


Give Fido a Hug

There are other interventions as well. Some owners have found success with products that maintain a tight hug on the animal, like the Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap. The idea is that the tight grip reduces fear in the dog by maintaining constant pressure. That's at least theoretically possible. Hecht explains:

Research has suggested that tactile pressure can have a calming effect on a number of species (ourselves included), but there are two other elements to consider: how much pressure should be applied for the desired effect, and should the pressure be constant or changing so as to avoid habituation? For example, Temple Grandin found that she habituated to steady tactile pressure after about 15 minutes and would need to vary the intensity of the pressure.


Still, the data are mixed. A study on dogs wearing the Anxiety Wrap found that they had less shaking and pacing, but it did not reduce or eliminate panting, performing inappropriate elimination, seeking attention, vocalizing, not eating, salivating or hiding. It could be that the wrap doesn't actually decrease anxiety; instead, it makes dogs less ambulatory. Still, the reduction in shaking is promising, since shaking is not related to locomotion.

If you're going to try one of those products, you'd do well to habituate your dog to wearing it well before the fireworks start (so it might be a bit too late, this year). You want your dog to retain a positive association with the product; it would be all too easy for the dog to learn the association between the wrap and the fireworks, making the wrap itself an anxiety-inducing object! While the results have been mixed, Hecht says, "I'd say it's certainly worth a shot."


Fight Phobia with Pheromones

Hekman offers yet another possible solution:

Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) also helps some dogs. This product can be put in a nebulizer in a room or comes in a time-release collar. It is made from pheromones released by a lactating female dog, so supposedly gives dogs a feeling of security. It has been used on anxious dogs in various situations with varied success.


On the other hand, if your dog is still a puppy, you might actually consider letting them hear the fireworks. Mia Cobb is an Animal Welfare Consultant and graduate student studying how enrichment benefits shelter dogs. She's also a blogger. She says:

Interestingly, [one] study suggested a link between the time of year dogs were born and fearful behaviour to loud noises (i.e. if they were likely to have heard fireworks when puppies, they were reportedly less likely to show a fearful response).


Taken together, while there are some products explicitly designed to reduce anxiety in dogs, their actual effectiveness is at best mixed. No doubt some of the products are more effective and relieving the anxiety of the owners than of the dogs for which they're intended.

Talk to Your Vet

There's at least one more possible solution for a dog that has a diagnosed noise phobia, which is psychiatric medication. Hekman, again:

For dogs with known fireworks phobia, medicating with a situational anxiolytic just before the fireworks start is a great approach. Alprazolam is a commonly used medication which provides anxiety reduction for several hours and can be used situationally, meaning just in the situations when it is necessary and not daily. With medications like this is important to test them out at a time when there is no anxiety-producing situation, in case the dog has a bad reaction to them. (Writing this paragraph reminded me that I meant to test out alprazolam on my thunderstorm-phobic dog today so that I can give it to her during the next storm so she doesn't keep me up all night.) If you're interested in medication, talk to your veterinarian to get a prescription.


Basic Preparation

If your dog simply experiences a more run-of-the-mill variety of fireworks-related stress, rather than a full-blown diagnosable noise phobia, you can still take some steps to keep him or her safe:


1. Leave your dog at home. Taking them to a fireworks display is a bad idea.

2. If you're home with your dog during fireworks time, calm reassurance is a good idea. Studies have found that reassuring a dog (without becoming anxious yourself) does not reinforce the dog's own fear response.


3. Lock your doors and windows. Some pets have been known to escape as a result of their anxiety.

4. Be sure your dog has on the appropriate tags and microchips so that if he or she does manage to escape your house or yard, you can increase your chances of a happy reunion.


5. Don't punish your dog. Some dogs react to stress with digging or scratching behaviors, and punishing your dog for them will not help. As Julie Hecht says, "Remember that those behaviors are part of an emotional response. Change the underlying emotional state and you can change the resulting behavior."

Header image: Jessie Greger, used with permission; Kurume-Shimin/Wikimedia Commons.