It is common for dogs to be frightened of fireworks, thunder or other loud sounds. These types of fears may develop even though your dog has had no traumatic experiences associated with the sound. Many fear-related problems can be successfully resolved. However, if left untreated, your dog’s fearful behaviour will probably get worse.
The most common behaviour problems associated with fear of loud noises are destruction and escaping. When your dog becomes frightened, it tries to reduce its fear. Your dog may try to escape to a place where the sounds of thunder or firecrackers are less intense. If, by leaving the garden or going into a certain room or area of the house, it feels less afraid, then the escape or destructive behaviour is reinforced because it successfully lessens it’s fear. For some dogs, just the activity or physical exertion associated with one of these behaviours may be an outlet for their anxiety. Unfortunately, escape and/or destructive behaviour can be a problem for you and could result in physical injury to your dog.
Things that are present in the environment whenever your dog hears the startling noise can, from their viewpoint, become associated with the frightening sound. Over a period, it may become afraid of other things in the environment that it associates with the noise that it finds frightening. For example, dogs that are afraid of thunder may later become afraid of the wind, dark clouds and flashes of light that often precede the sound of thunder. Dogs that are afraid of firecrackers may become afraid of the children who have the firecrackers or may become afraid to go in the garden, if that is where they usually hear the noise.
What you can do to help.
Create a Safe Place: Try to create a safe place for your dog to go to when your dog hears the noises that frighten it. However, remember, this must be a safe location from your dog’s perspective, not yours. Notice where your dog goes, or tries to go, when frightened and if possible, give access to that place. If your dog is trying to get inside the house, consider installing a dog door. If it is trying to get under your bed, give access to your bedroom. You can also create a “hidey-hole” that is dark, small and shielded from the frightening sound as much as possible (a fan or radio playing will help block out the sound). Encourage your dog to go there when you are home and the thunder or other noise occurs. Feed your dog in that location and associate other “good things” happening there. Your dog must be able to come and go from this location freely. Confining your dog in the “hidey-hole” when it does not want to be there will only cause more problems. The “safe place” approach may work with some dogs, but not all. Some dogs are motivated to move and be active when frightened and “hiding out” will not help them feel less fearful.
Distract Your Dog: This method works best when your dog is just beginning to get anxious. Encourage your dog to engage in any activity that captures its attention and distracts your dog from behaving fearfully. Start when your dog first alerts you to the noise and is not yet showing a lot of fearful behaviour, but is only watchful. Immediately try to interest your dog in doing something that it really enjoys. Get out the tennis ball and play fetch (in an escape-proof area) or practice some commands that it knows. Give your dog a lot of praise and treats for paying attention to the game or the commands. As the storm or the noise builds, you may not be able to keep your dog’s attention on the activity, but it might delay the start of the fearful behaviour for longer and longer each time you do it. If you cannot keep your dog’s attention and it begins acting afraid, stop the process. If you continue, you may inadvertently reinforce the fearful behaviour.
Behaviour modification techniques are often successful in reducing fears and phobias. The appropriate techniques are called “counter-conditioning” and “desensitisation.” This means to condition or teach your dog to respond in non-fearful ways to sounds and other stimuli that previously frightened it. This must be done very gradually. Begin by exposing your dog to an intensity level of noise that does not frighten your dog and pair it with something pleasant, like a treat or a fun game. Gradually increase the volume as you continue to offer your dog something pleasant. Through this process, your dog will start to associate “good things” with the previously feared sound.
- Obtain a CD with firework noises on it. Clixs Sounds CD: Pet Fireworks & Noise Desensitisation
- Play the disc at such a low volume that your dog does not respond fearfully. While the tape is playing, feed dinner, give a treat or play a favourite game.
- In your next session, play the CD a little louder while you feed or play it’s favourite game.
- Continue increasing the volume through many sessions over a period of several weeks or months. If at any time while the noise is playing, your dog displays fearful behaviour, STOP. Begin your next session at a lower volume, one that does not produce anxiety and proceed more slowly.
If these techniques are not used correctly, they will not be successful and can even make the problem worse.
For some fears, it can be difficult to recreate the fear stimulus. For example, thunder is accompanied by changes in barometric pressure, lightening and rain your dog’s fearful response may be to the combination of these things and not just the thunder. You may need professional assistance to create and implement this kind of behaviour modification program.
Consult with your Veterinarian regarding conventional and holistic medication*.
Medication may be available which can make your dog less anxious for short time periods. Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog. Do not attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian. Animals do not respond to drugs the same way people do a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog. Drug therapy, alone, will not reduce fears and phobias permanently, but in extreme cases, behaviour modification and medication used together might be the best approach.
*Holistic medication: Calmex, Dorwest; Valerian and Scullcap in tablet and tincture form.
What not to do.
- Attempting to reassure your dog when your dog is afraid may reinforce the fearful behaviour. If you pet, soothe or give treats when it is behaving fearfully, your dog may interpret this as a reward for the fearful behaviour. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you do not notice the fearfulness.
- Putting your dog in a crate to prevent your dog from being destructive during a thunderstorm is not recommended. Your dog will still be afraid when it is in the crate and is likely to injure itself, perhaps even severely, while attempting to get out of the crate.
- Do not punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make it more fearful.
- Do not try to force your dog to confront, experience or be close to the sound that frightens it Making your dog stay close to a group of children who are lighting fireworks will only make your dog more afraid and could cause it to become aggressive in an attempt to escape from the situation.
- Obedience classes will not make your dog less afraid of thunder or other noises, but could help boost its general confidence.
These approaches do not work because they do not decrease your dog’s fear. Merely trying to prevent your dog from escaping or being destructive will not work. If your dog is still afraid, it will continue to show that fear in whatever way it can (digging, jumping, climbing, chewing, barking howling).