When you think of celebrating Independence Day, grilling, playing games and spending time with family and friends may come to mind, and of course, the sparklers and fireworks.
This may be a fun-filled day for you, but for a nervous dog, the 4th of July could be a day he dreads the most. Unfortunately, your dog has no way of understanding what all the commotion is about. He only knows there are flashes of light, things flying through the air and loud bangs, pops and booms. It is new, frightening and unescapable.
Let’s stop the clock! With a little preparation, we can create a much better scenario.
Devising a Game Plan
Very well-socialized, confident dogs may find the stimulation of fireworks interesting and may be able to accept this 4th of July celebration without fear. But some dogs, just like people, tend to show varying levels of anxiety in response to new sounds and sights.
Fireworks are meant to create excitement and surprise us humans with their beauty and bombastic sounds. The general population of dogs are not prepared for this kind of event.
To ensure your dog doesn’t have a lifelong fear of the 4th of July, you should consider his personality and plan accordingly.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your dog nervous around crowds?
- Is your dog highly startled by new noises?
- Is your dog frightened by unexpected events?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you will need to plan how you can best shield him from the situation. Not sure how to calm an anxious dog? Read on!
Consider Your Circumstances
If you are new to your area, ask friends and neighbors what usually happens for 4th of July activities.
Do you live in an urban area where a city-wide extended fireworks display will be heard and felt inside your home? If so, you may choose to take your dog away with you to a less stimulating place for the night. Or you could start early to desensitize him to the kinds of things he will hear that evening, which we will discuss later.
Do you live in a neighborhood that runs its own, more modest fireworks display? Depending on your home’s proximity to the display and the chance that some neighbors may set off additional fireworks nearby, your job of desensitization may be a bit easier.
Do you live in a rural setting? Good news is, you might be able to enjoy the day with little care. Or your dog might be exposed to random and unpredictable spurts of fireworks or other small explosions. Be prepared for either.
How to Calm an Anxious Dog on the 4th of July
The key to reducing dog anxiety is getting your dog nice and tired and keeping him occupied.
The day of the firework show, take your nervous dog for an extra-long walk. Never underestimate the power of an extra-long walk, complete with lot of permission to sniff and investigate, to burn off excess energy and help your dog sleep better. Other special exercise events could include swimming, lure coursing, agility, chasing balls or free play with a favorite pal in a special play date.
Even if your dog is great with people, happy in a crowd and normally unphased by loud noises, I would encourage you to provide him with an extended walk or play period during the day to tire him out.
When nighttime comes around, give him a calming dog treat, like SmartBones Calming Care dog chews, or a KONG Classic dog toy filled and frozen with peanut butter and other delectable yummies. As far as location goes, first things first—get your dog away from the fireworks display and bring him inside, preferably in a dark room with white noise (a fan or a “wind machine”). You should also create a calm, tranquil environment by turning on some soothing music.
There are several products that can also provide some comfort for your dog on a day filled with anxiety. Body wraps like the Thundershirt provide a calming feeling by compressing the torso. Thundershirts work in a similar way to swaddling a baby in a snug wrap. You can also try a diffuser, like the Adaptil dog diffuser, which emits a pheromone similar to a new mother dog, which could produce happy and safe memories in your dog.
Desensitizing Your Dog to Loud Sounds
If you move near a highway, airport, or subway stop, you may notice every sight and sound associated with the transportation at first. You might dislike it, or even feel a little bit uneasy about it. But, little by little, as you learn that the arrival of this kind of machinery doesn’t really require your attention and causes no threat to your safety, you will begin to ignore it. This is called desensitization.
Now, imagine that each time this kind of transportation noise starts up, someone hands you something you really like. It could be a cookie, a bite of a cheeseburger, a beer or a $5 bill. In this situation, you will actually begin to look forward to the experience that you might have previously disliked. This is called counter-conditioning.
I call it the “wine & cheese effect.” You know—even a boring meeting or social event you aren’t thrilled about becomes more pleasant with a little nosh and drink.
You can use this same effect to help reduce dog anxiety. IF we can keep the sights and sounds at a level that is annoying or unwanted but not panic-inducing, and IF the goodie we are pairing with the stimulation is valuable enough to the dog, we can “change his mind” about the stimulus.
This is the kind of work you want to start early, well before 4th of July, to help him cope with our celebration of independence.
Create a Manageable Level of Exposure
Turn on a movie that has loud sounds, like fireworks or explosions, and adjust the volume to a level that he notices but doesn’t panic about. Give your dog a reward during the loud parts. You probably know the kinds of dog treats your pupper will consider important enough to enjoy even while that section of the movie is playing.
If the sight and sound together in a movie is too much at once, there are sound effect recordings available, or you can create some noises with pots and pans or drums.
Slowly Increase Training Sessions
Start your sessions with just a minute or two, and constantly check your dog’s demeanor to see if he is worried about the noise. This is a balancing act. Too much noise might mean he won’t take the treat. Stop everything and let him calm down. Then, try again at a lower volume and an even more valuable treat he can’t resist (like peanut butter!).
You can start increasing the volume or the length of the session when he can stay relatively calm for a 2- to 3-minute session.
Timing Is Everything
The “scary thing” should be evident first (just be sure you start it at a low level). Then you produce the good thing. The “good thing” should continue throughout the duration of the “scary thing.” When the scary thing stops, the goodies stop, and you should pretty much ignore your dog for a few minutes. That way, all your attention and all the good stuff happens in parallel to the scary thing. Before long, the scary thing predicts when the good stuff will happen. It’s almost magic, but really—it’s science!
Let your dog know you are not scared. Avoid saying “It’s OK” or cuddling him. If you have the sound at the right level, he won’t be cowering or hiding. If he is willing to play with a toy or chase you around during some of the noise, that’s great!
Use a happy voice and silly, relaxed movements to show him there is nothing to worry about. Smile, make relaxed eye contact with him.
If he is too quiet, not willing to take treats, shaking or avoiding you, he’s probably too scared. Stop immediately and reset everything. Lower the sound, put him a distance away, and increase the value of the treats.
Once these sessions are happy occasions for him, you can increase the sound level or the distance away from it. There is no advantage in rushing this process. You must take your cue from your dog. If he’s not happy, you are moving ahead too quickly. “Inch by inch, it’s a cinch! But it can be hard if you jump ahead by a yard.”
These same tactics can work for most any “scary thing,” including thunderstorms. At my house, unexpected thunderclaps make me jump up and say “Woo-hoo! Treat Time!” I grab a handful of goodies and make treats rain from the sky. If practical, a play session with balls and toys comes next. Think this way: Loud noises equals party!
Be Generous with the Goodies
Remember, this isn’t about obedience or your dog doing something because you asked him to. This is about changing his opinion of that loud, nerve-racking noise. He doesn’t have to sit or stay while this is happening. (Would you want to sit and stay while scary things happened around you?) Give him a choice in what he does and where he wants to be, and keep the treats coming as long as the “scary thing” is happening.
Janet Velenovsky is a past president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and Associate Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) with IAABC. She is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA, “knowledge assessed”) and owns Kaizen Pet Training & Behavior in Virginia.