It’s that time of year again! Summer is here and for most people, the 4th of July represents fun, celebration and dazzling fireworks displays. For dogs, the 4th of July often represents something not so fun: the unexpected and terrifying sound of explosions associated with fireworks. Fireworks can be really frightening for a lot of dogs, causing some to experience full blown panic.
If this is your puppy’s first 4th of July, here are some tips to help prepare them for a lifetime of safe and happy summer holidays!
New Experiences Matter
For families with new puppies, prevention of sound phobias is important and should start as early as possible. Between 3 and 18 weeks, puppies are highly sensitive to their environment. Scary experiences make a huge impact on their behavior as they grow into adult dogs. The wealth of scientific research on this topic tells us that it is very easy for dogs to acquire fear through genetics, bad experiences, failing to provide early socialization or any combination of the three. The jury is still out on whether it is possible to completely reverse fear in animals, but decades-long research suggests that it is not. This is why creating positive early experiences for puppies is such a big deal.
Noise Phobia - - What Is It?
Dogs who suffer from sound sensitivity can have reactions that range from severe panic to mild distress when exposed to unexpected sounds. A normal dog will alert to a sound then move on, while noise phobic dogs might cower, hide, pant or drool excessively, shake, panic or try to escape. These dogs typically remain in a fearful state for a longer period of time and may take hours to recover after the noise has stopped. Owners of noise phobic dogs can attest to how heartbreaking it is to witness this state of overwhelming panic. If you’ve ever experienced the uncontrollable fear of flying, public speaking, heights or being physically threatened then you can empathize with these dogs.
Socializing Your Puppy to New Sounds
Very young puppies who are exposed to a variety of sounds will often get used to them. Some dogs, however, get worse at each exposure to certain sounds and become more panicked every time. The tricky part is that we just can’t definitively predict how a particular dog will react. Our best bet is to expose puppies to various sounds starting at low volumes while we engage in fun play and offer tasty treats after each occurrence of the sound. Pairing the new sound (FIRST) with a high value food item (SECOND) is a proven way to help puppies form positive associations.
There are a variety of audio CDs on the market geared towards socializing puppies to the sounds of fireworks. I use the Canine Noise Phobia Series from the folks at Through A Dog’s Ear. This CD can be used in conjunction with a formal treatment plan for noise phobic dogs and as a socializing tool for young puppies. These CDs feature dog-specific psychoacoustic music and random occurrences of fireworks that get progressively louder with each of the 5 tracks. For socializing new pups, the idea is that you play the first two tracks while the puppy is busy with a stuffed chew toy, engaging in play or just hanging out with you.
(This plan is for puppies between the ages of 3-18 weeks and is not meant to be used for dogs who are already experiencing noise phobias.)
- Set your puppy up with toys, chew items and a comfy resting spot in the room with you.
- Play the first two tracks at a low/medium volume randomly throughout the day. Be sure to play the tracks in the evening after dark when the real fireworks will be happening.
- After each fireworks sound toss a few high value treats to your pup - - small pieces of chicken breast or freeze dried beef liver are good options.
- Your puppy might jump up and look around when they first hear the fireworks. Use happy talk and toss treats to them - - make it a party!
- We’re looking for our pups to remain relaxed and engaged in their chew items before adding the next track to the routine. This may take a couple of days, so be patient. There's no need to rush this plan!
- Repeat the steps above when adding track 3 and then repeat again when adding track 4.
- The 4th track features the most intense fireworks and includes the ‘finale’. Be prepared to toss those high value treats!
*Remember, if your pup shows signs of fear or anxiety at any time during the CD - - hiding, panting, shaking, trying to escape - - it’s time to back off! Stop the CD and engage your puppy in play, cuddle time or anything else they really like. Don’t worry about ‘reinforcing’ your dog’s fear, this is a myth and is not supported by animal behavior science. Next time, reduce the volume and monitor for any signs of distress.
What If Your Dog Is Already Afraid?
If your adult dog or puppy is showing signs of anxiety or fear around loud noises, please contact a force-free training professional. Look for trainers who can provide proof of a formal education in animal behavior, client references, continuing education, certifications and memberships with professional organizations. The Pet Professional Guild and the IAABC are great resources for finding a trainer in your area. Your Veterinarian may also recommend medication to help your dog get through the holiday.