It’s almost here. The 4th of July. For many people, it is a day of picnics, social gatherings, food, and fun, culminating in a brilliant display of fireworks against a dark sky. For many dogs, however, it’s a day of stress and terror, especially for those with noise phobias and sound sensitivities. It’s also the day when many, many pets flee from open doors and open gates, startled, frightened, only to become lost in the world as well. So what can you do to ensure that the day is as fun (or at the very least safe) for your pet as it is for you? Consider the points below:
Leave your dog home. No, seriously. Leave the dog at home. As tempting as it is to bring your dog to that all-afternoon party which is bound to become the all-afternoon-into-the-evening-oh-I-don’t-want-to-miss-the-fireworks-so-let’s-just-stay-out party, resist and leave your dog at home. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, the vast majority of dogs would be at the very least stressed (and for many, fully panicked) to be in a crowd in the dark as something incredibly loud cracked and exploded overhead. The last thing you or your dog need is for your dog to panic in the dark (did I mention in a crowd??) and bolt away from you. The second reason? Sustained, high-intensity, high-stimulation social engagement isn’t a good idea with most dogs. Even the most social and happy-go-lucky dogs become overtired, or hit an emotional wall where they are “done” with social interaction and need a break. It is very, very common to hear stories about a dog who was having a “great time” at a large social gathering only to bite someone “out of nowhere” at the end of the party. As much fun as it can be to bring your dog, it will be far less stressful for you (and your dog) if you can focus on the people at your party rather than having to supervise your dog with other adults or children or worry about where your dog is or what they are doing throughout the event. Your dog will appreciate it, too.
Make sure they are wearing ID tags. ID tags, microchips, whatever. Having your dogs (and other pets) properly identified is critical. It’s also an excellent idea to have current, clearly identifiable photos of your pet (face, body, identifying markings) readily available. You certainly want to do everything you can to keep your pets safely in your home, however accidents do happen, pets do bolt and get lost, and it’s important to be prepared should that occur.
Management. We don’t actually want those ID tags or photos to be necessary. To help with this, it’s a good idea to double-up on management on a night like this one. Consider what your home will be like: will you be home? Gone? Will there be guests over? The answers to questions like these will largely dictate your management choices. In particular if you have guests over (or even if you have family members who tend to leave doors/gates open), it’s a good idea to have multiple layers of protection. You can consider things such as a sign on the gate or door, an ex-pen surrounding a gate or door, baby gates, crates, etc. In general, it’s an excellent idea to make sure animals are indoors with doors and windows closed well before the sun sets and fireworks begin. For fearful and sound sensitive/phobic dogs, it is particularly important to create a safe space or room that is as sound-proofed as possible (windows and doors shut, white noise or music playing, a ThunderShirt and/or DAP diffuser, etc.).
Create a safe space. As mentioned above, establishing a safe zone for your dog is critical, especially for those dogs who suffer from fear or panic with fireworks. It is helpful to dampen the sound as much as possible through closed doors/windows, the use of white noise or music, even the use of pillows or blankets to dampen sound at windows or door cracks. Also consider your dog’s preferences. Do they need a crate or dark space to hide under? Do they do better curled up next to you? Arrange the house environment to help them feel as safe as possible.
Play and train. It is possible to reduce or potentially overcome noise phobias. Depending on the severity of the issue, it might take a considerable amount of work with a skilled professional to do so. It’s important to note here that a sense of safety and the ability to work sub-threshold is critical to the success of any training plan. If your dog doesn’t feel safe, you can throw as many treats as you want at the dog and you won’t see change. For dogs with a less extreme fear response, you may be able to create a great deal of positive change through play, trick training, scent activities or other games your dog loves. Think about it. If every time fireworks begin your dog gets to do his favorite activities, he will soon be thrilled to hear them (again, this is assuming your dog doesn’t have an extreme fear response, which may require additional layers of support).
Talk to your vet. For many dogs, the stress factor is very high with fireworks. If you anticipate this being a problem, or if you already know your dog panics, speak with a veterinarian to discuss appropriate medication options to help your dog navigate the evening. You may be using medication in conjunction with play or training, but should do so under the guidance of skilled professionals who can guide you appropriately.
Comfort your dog. Please, please comfort your dog. You don’t have to fawn over your dog or get hyped and nervous yourself. But sit with them, pet them, play with them. Just be there if all they want is your company. Speak quietly and soothingly. Massage gently if your dog enjoys that. You will not reinforce the fear. Fear isn’t a conscious choice — it’s a visceral, fight-or-flight response from an animal who feels they are in danger. Your dog is not trying to manipulate you through their fear. Be there.
I sincerely hope you have a happy, safe holiday weekend, and that your dogs (pets!) do as well. I’m half convinced I’ll never see fireworks again given my house full of animals and a sound-sensitive toddler. Ah, well.
Stay safe, all. And may the Fourth be with you. (I have ALWAYS wanted a chance to say that. Sorry not sorry).