- Fireworks can be unpleasant or downright dangerous for dogs. Make sure you keep them inside during fireworks displays.
- A new study shows that counter-conditioning is most effective at reducing noise stress—offer treats, play and other positive experiences during fireworks episodes.
- If you have a chance, desensitize your dog to noise by playing recordings of fireworks or other upsetting noises at low volume while giving treats.
- During the fireworks: provide a safe space for your dog to go, play calming music, and have favorite toys and treats on hand. Be sure to model calm behavior.
You may ooh and ahh at the patriotic glory, but most dogs don’t share humans’ enthusiasm for fireworks. That means if you have a dog, you should have a plan for 4th of July celebrations that takes their safety and comfort into account.
It’s important to keep in mind that fireworks may not just be unpleasant for dogs, but potentially dangerous. You may have heard that more dogs run away on the 4th of July than on other days, and animal control officials do report a 30% increase in lost pets each year between July 4th and 6th.
Dogs who don’t like fireworks “may flinch, cower, pant, pace, drool, show the whites of their eyes, urinate or defecate, whine or bark, dig or scratch floors, doors, walls or furniture, hide, run away, or even aggress toward people or other animals who are near them, or who try to restrain them” says Chicago trainer Kiki Yablon of the canine fireworks response. To avoid or alleviate such reactions, experts advise taking the following steps before, during, and after pyrotechnics.
Understand your dog’s behavior
First, remember that your dog senses the world differently than you do, and that includes how they hear and interpret noise. Dogs’ ears can hear more frequencies and up to four times further than our ears can.
While it’s thought that some dogs may pick up their fear of loud noise from negative experiences earlier in life, there’s as much evidence to suggest the response is linked to factors including genetics, and physiology (for example one study suggested that older dogs are more likely to show fear of fireworks).
As a baseline, owners should observe and learn how their pet shows fun or fear. “Our dogs are constantly communicating with us through their body language and behavior,” says Anthony De Marinis, a trainer based in New York. Not all are freaked out by loud noises and bright lights, so don’t create a panic if there isn’t an issue. “Some dogs, if they are not noise sensitive, not exceptionally nervous, and are well socialized, will be fine during fireworks.” Last year, De Marinis’ puppy perked up at the sound of fireworks—and went back to sleep.
If you’re interested in really digging into how your dog responds to sounds, veterinary scientists at the University of Lincoln in England (the team responsible for a recent study on separation anxiety), created the Lincoln Sound Sensitivity Scale for Dogs, which allows you to assess your dog’s noise reactivity.
No matter your dog’s reaction though, keep your dog inside during any fireworks display near you.
Counter-condition to manage, and prevent the fear
A new study from the University of Bern’s Companion Animal Behavior Group in Switzerland shows that counter-conditioning, or introducing treats and play and other positive experiences during a noise episode, was the most effective method of reducing the negative reaction.
The study of 1,225 dog owners looked at a range of management strategies including “environmental modification” (providing a hiding place, keeping windows and blinds closed, playing music), “feed/play” (providing the dog with positive inputs like chews, play, and food during fireworks), as well as use of natural remedies, pressure garments, and interaction like petting. Feed/play, or counter-conditioning, was shown to be most effective—dogs who received this treatment were 70% less scared during fireworks, on average, than dogs who did not. One of the study’s authors notes that this strategy is especially effective with a new puppy or dog, to prevent fear of noise from developing.
If possible, get your dog used to loud sounds
If you’re unsure how your dog reacts, and if you have enough lead time, you can try some desensitization work. This can be used in conjunction with counter-conditioning. Consider playing fireworks sounds at low volume and following up with a treat. “When you see a happy, food-anticipating response to the fireworks sounds, you may be able to increase the volume a little bit and repeat,” Yablon says.
Set a low-stress routine and retreat
On the day of a fireworks display within earshot, complete your dog’s activities such as walks and playtime while things are still quiet. Go for a final potty walk at dusk. Then stay home with your dog, who, once again, should never go to a fireworks show. Provide access to a safe space, perhaps the dog’s crate, a quiet room, or the basement. Draw the blinds and play calming music, the radio or TV on low, or a white noise machine, and have at hand a favorite toy or treat. “If your neighborhood has unexpected fireworks all day,” Yablon says, “limit outdoor exercise and do more fun stuff indoors.” Just in case, ensure exterior doors are secure, the yard is enclosed, and tags and microchips are up to date.
Everybody chill out
When the fireworks start popping, pet owners should model a low-key reaction. You’re the animal who understands that the fireworks won’t hurt, so remain cool and collected, lest you contribute to your dog’s distress. If your dog retreats or hides, let them chill. Do not try to remove them from their refuge or smother them with attention. “A dog who’s fleeing or hiding isn’t seeking those things,” Yablon says, “and they could be perceived as restraint, which the dog may struggle against.”
On the flip side, if your pet comes or clings to you, some experts advise against reinforcing fearful behavior by being overly lovey. One alternative is to engage in an everyday, distracting behavior, like running through some training exercises (see counter-conditioning above).
But many trainers say it’s fine to comfort your dog if it seems to help, as long as you are calm and modeling the behavior you want. “It’s OK to pet your dog during fireworks if they actively solicit it,” Yablon says, “because I think that if your dog wants to curl up tightly or sit right next to you when she’s scared, that is worth reinforcing.”
If your dog has an ongoing, extreme phobia, or a reaction to even low-volume sounds, you may wish to consult your vet. They might prescribe medication, or recommend CBD supplements or compression garments.
Take time to recover
Once the fireworks have ended, take your dog out for a bathroom break, but avoid the temptation to immediately return to life as usual. “Sometimes an event like this can be very stressful to our pets,” De Marinis says. Give your dog space and understand that what they usually consider fun might not be fun right now. “It might take a few hours or even a couple of days for them to really get back to being themselves,” he says. Be patient with your pet.” If issues linger or you would like help better preparing for the next fireworks, consult a trainer or veterinarian.
Related: Read about preventing heat stroke.