Firework fears are one of the commonest behavioural issues we see in practice – unsurprisingly, a lot of dogs spend the week on either side of Bonfire Night terrified.
In almost every case, this is because of the noise – a sudden, sharp and loud sound, with no obvious warning (from the dog’s point of view). Although a few dogs are afraid of the light show, it’s pretty rare – it’s usually about the sound. The dog’s natural dislike of loud noises is worsened because we get really excited about fireworks, and tend to jump around, shout and exclaim loudly. We know that’s because we’re enjoying the display – but dogs often get the wrong end of the stick and think we’re alarmed, or scared ourselves. Therefore, in their mind, it must be something truly terrifying if humans are afraid of it too.
There are a number of different options to manage firework fear in dogs (behavioural techniques, Adaptil pheromones, various calming products, and if necessary, anti-anxiety medication from your vet). However, there’s one really effective option that is rarely used to its maximum extent. This is Sound Desensitisation. The principle is to help your dog to learn that the scary bangs and crashes aren’t anything to worry about. Part of the problem is that fireworks are a rare and special event – a couple of weeks in the autumn, and again over the New Year, and that’s about it for most people (OK, if you’re in the US, or have American neighbours, maybe in the early summer too – but that’s still only three times a year). As a result, firstly the dogs never get used to it, and secondly, we’re perhaps a little bit too inclined just to manage our pets’ anxiety, rather than try to treat it at the source.
Sound desensitisation is a essentially a process of habituation – the noise becomes a normal part of the background to daily life, and the dog learns to ignore it. This is how it works:
1) As early as possible, start exposing your dog to very, very quiet firework sounds – ideally, a mixture of rockets, bangs and multiple explosions. There are a number of excellent commercial CDs and mp3 downloads – but you could use any suitable soundtrack, such as the video link here: Fireworks in action.
2) To begin with, play it at the minimum volume your computer, tablet, or phone can manage.
3) Act completely normally while it’s playing through – get on with your normal day, and leave it playing as background (the embedded video is about 13 minutes long, and you’ll want to run it through completely once if not two or three times each session). This may be difficult, especially if your dog is suspicious, but if you start it on the very lowest volume settings, they may jump, but they’re not likely to have a meltdown. Even if they do, however, as far as possible act normally. Don’t lavish them with extra fuss, or give them special treats – it is very important that they see this as just a normal part of the day. Of course, they should have a safe den to hide in, if necessary, but hopefully it won’t be needed.
4) Every day or two, increase the volume by one or two clicks – but continue to behave normally yourself. The aim is to build it up to a noise level similar to the actual display before Bonfire Night – but very, very gradually.
5) If you reach a volume where your dog is showing signs of genuine fear, reduce the volume a little, and keep it there for a few more days. Then start to increase it again.
6) Eventually, the vast majority of dogs will learn that firework noises are a normal part of life, and nothing to get too upset about.
A few dogs have such deep-rooted phobias that desensitisation on its own isn’t enough – in these cases, have a chat with your vet, as some anti-anxiety medication may be useful as an adjunct; or speak to a good canine behaviourist – your vet will be able to recommend one.
However, for the vast majority of dogs, this is an effective way to treat and prevent noise phobias – but you need to start as early as possible – ideally several months before Bonfire Night.
David Harris BVSc MRCVS