Fireworks can turn holidays such as the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve into miserable nights for dogs. To some extent this fear is genetic, but it’s also learned. Dogs bred and trained to flush and retrieve game for a gunner cope well with these noises, as do police dogs. Some dogs aren’t capable of a comfort level with fireworks, but a lot can be done to make this fear less of a problem for any dog.
Unlike thunderstorms, fireworks are set off intentionally. You may choose not to go so far as to buy fireworks and have an assistant detonate them in a legal location while you train your dog—but you could, if you wanted. You can train your dog when you know other people will be shooting fireworks, and you can set up your training location at a distance from the location of the fireworks. This predictability is a powerful advantage in training.
As in dealing with other things that frighten some dogs, your best approach is to work with your dog before you see any signs of fear. Ideally, set up with your dog at a distance from the fireworks so the noise will not be loud, but the dog can see that a person is causing the noise. This connection helps many dogs by taking the mystery out of it.
Food treats work with greedy dogs, and games that your dog loves may be even more powerful in helping the dog mentally tune out the noise. When a dog acts out an instinctive behavior that has been built through training and experience, the mind and body are strongly immunized against fear and pain.
The more you and your dog train together to make your interactions satisfying and strongly focused, the more powerful these interactions will be in conditioning your dog not to worry about the distant noises. Retrieving, tossing a toy for the dog to catch, or (with the right dog and handler) tug-of-war are the kinds of person-and-dog interactions that work as powerful antidotes to fear.
Move the interaction between you and your dog a little closer to the fireworks action a bit at a time. Be careful not to progress quickly enough that the dog will be fearful. Judging the dog’s state of mind is a delicate process. If you misjudge and advance too rapidly, go back to a distance where the dog shows no fear. Work at that distance a long time before advancing again. Slower is faster in this type of training. Triggering fear is a major setback, so try very hard not to do so.
Unless you plan to set off fireworks where your dog will have to be at your side, it’s best to avoid working a dog next to detonation. The noise can damage the dog’s ears, and there are other dangers from fireworks, too.
Don’t leave a dog outdoors alone when someone is going to use fireworks. Besides the risk of a fear being created in the dog, many dogs will flee a fenced yard in panic and be lost.
If you aren’t able to have a full-focus training session, keep your interactions with your dog upbeat, happy and hearty. Don’t use a pitying voice or touch that gives a dog reason to be afraid. Act happy and confident, and reward your dog for confident behavior.
Ear infections can make noises more painful. Take good care of your dog’s ears. Pay special attention if the ears are not erect, or if the dog has ever had an ear infection. Dogs tend to conceal their pain as a survival instinct, so it’s important to make a real effort to know your dog’s physical condition.
Fears are often contagious from one dog to another as well as from people to dogs. If you have a dog who fears fireworks and you get another dog, working with the fearful one can help prevent the new dog from developing the same fear.
The same measures used for extreme thunderstorm phobia can help dogs who panic during fireworks. A veterinarian or veterinary behavior specialist can help with your behavior modification program and can decide whether or not medication is appropriate. A dog-appeasing pheromone diffuser may be beneficial.
The right confinement area is important during fireworks, especially when the family cannot supervise the dog. This is even more critical for the phobic dog. Dogs tend to like dark, quiet and enclosed areas to rest in.
With a little forethought, you have a good chance of preventing severe fireworks phobia in your dog. The dog can learn to look forward to more dog-friendly aspects of the Fourth of July, such as cookouts and family games.