Independence Day is less than a month away and people are already lighting off fireworks in my neighborhood, so I guess it's time to start preparing the pups. If you have pets that are reactive to fireworks, or if you don't know how they will react, there are things you can do to help lessen the stress of the holiday. Some dogs could even benefit from months of training in advance. Dogs react in different ways - some may not even notice, some may want to hide, some will seek comfort in their person or a favorite toy, others may try to run, and some may want to hunt the fireworks down and kill them. That was Kona...
I have put together some suggestions, from my experiences and research, to help make the Fourth of July an enjoyable experience for you and your pets. My services are also available if you would like help with a training program to help your dog(s) better handle fireworks (and thunderstorms). It's so worth it and you both deserve it!
Desensitize to Fireworks Sounds (START NOW)
I am sure there are many audio and video files you can use, but I've inserted one below that I use often. Start playing it well in advance of the fireworks, like today! Start at a low volume and just have it playing in the background while you go about your day. Play it while eating, doing dishes, reading my blog, watching TV - everything. Slowly increase the volume as much as your dog can handle without reacting. If nothing else, the video can be useful to help muffle the real fireworks once your pets get used to it playing at a high volume, with the bass turned way up. You can just blast it when fireworks are going crazy and it may work better than TV/radio/fan background noise. Victoria Stilwell also has a set of four desensitization CD's to help with fireworks and other noise phobias. Click here for more info. There are also many smartphone apps that play various sounds; including fireworks, thunder, doorbells, etc.
When you start to notice fireworks beginning in your neighborhood, start to carry treats around and give one to your dog whenever a firework goes off. This will help her build a positive association with the event. As the fireworks get more intense, it may be necessary to raise the value of the treats. I typically end up with steak as the 4th gets closer. As your dog learns to accept fireworks more, you can work on rewarding her for more appropriate responses, or training her to do a specific behavior when she hears a firework, like lie down and look at you whenever she hears a firework, or touch your hand, or go to her mat, or rings a bell, etc.
07/02/2014: Listening to a barrage of fireworks in the backyard, Kona on his mat, offering a little Aloha in exchange for steak. I apologize for the poor quality photo!
You hear it all the time, but it really does play a part in many problem behaviors.. A tired dog will, at the very least, react a little less to things than one that has pent up energy to burn. Make sure to exercise early in the day, when it is still light out and before the fireworks begin. If your dog is a candidate for daycare, that would be a great option as well.
Keep Your Dogs Safe & Give Them a "Place" to Be
Too many animals end up at local shelters on the Fourth of July after getting spooked and running away. Keep your pets indoors as much as possible. When outside, keep them on a leash or in a securely fenced yard, under your supervision! Close up the house - keep windows and doors closed and windows covered to keep lights and sounds out. Provide a safe space, like a crate, or a comfy room in the middle of the house.
07/05/2012: The mere sight of a crate sent Kona cowering, so we worked on crate training enough that he would willingly go in when needed, but he never really saw the crate as his safe place. He did go in a couple times that first Fourth of July though.
Having other noises going on to help muffle the fireworks can also be helpful, as long as they aren't so loud and booming that it feels like your house is about to crumble to the ground, like it does at my place. Keep a fan going, play the radio and TV loudly and/or play the fireworks video your dog is now comfortable with. There is also a collection of CD's called Through a Dog's Ear that are designed to reduce anxiety. I have always wanted to try them, so if you do, please let me know what you think! I believe there are samples of the music on the website.
Some dogs are comforted by Thundershirts or Anxiety Wraps. Make sure you properly introduce them to your dog and use them as intended. You can also utilize Ace bandages for a TTouch wrap, or even use a T-Shirt.
07/13/2014: Kona rockin' a recycled soda bottle T-shirt through a thunderstorm. He's not super excited this very second, because it had just started, but he quickly remembered his training and relaxed.
Another thing that can help your dog build a positive association with fireworks is to play games or do something they enjoy while fireworks are going off. Don't force them to engage, but offer distractions if they are interested. Try to pick something interactive to keep them busy & focused. Fetch or other games work great to keep dogs occupied, as do puzzle toys, like Kongs. Just make sure you don't inadvertently create a negative association with the games, instead of a positive association with fireworks!
Calming Agents & Medications
There are various supplements, sprays, botanicals & medications available that can provide anxiety relief on a long-term, or as-needed basis. With all the options out there, it is important to do your research and consult with a veterinarian to find the best and safest option for your dogs. Some may be better for extended use, while others are more for situational anxieties. A few of the products to consider are: DAP, Rescue Remedy, Canine Calm, or natural supplements containing ingredients like tryptophan, casein, B vitamins and others. Zylkene is one that I was just introduced to (thanks Mom). I think it originated in the UK, but is becoming more popular in the US. There are also prescription anti-anxiety medications that should only be used under the care of a veterinarian, or veterinary behaviorist.
Get Out of Town
This is my favorite option of course. Using the techniques listed above, I was able to get great results up to a point, but the actual day of the 4th in my neighborhood is unbearable.* If you live in an area that gets a little crazy with fireworks, I would recommend getting out of town, or at least staying with friends or family in a quieter area for the night. I had reserved the same house we stayed at last year, but in light of Kona's passing, I couldn't bring myself to go. It's a great place and it's now available! Check it out: VRBO #320133
*Fireworks are only legal in the city limits of Vancouver on July 4th from 9am to midnight, but that doesn't stop people from using them for weeks. In 2017, they will be banned altogether in the city, but I have a feeling that's not going to make a difference.
Fourth of July with Kona
My first Fourth of July in this house, and with Kona, was pretty traumatic. Kona had been with me for almost 6 months and I knew he was reactive, but for some reason I didn't consider how bad the holiday might be. By the time the fireworks started, it was too late to work with him much. I closed up the house, made him a den, turned everything on that made noise and tried to distract him, but all to no avail. I was cowering on the couch, with him on top of me, barking violently, inches from my face. He didn't act afraid of them, really, but he certainly acted like he wanted to find them and rip them apart. Since he couldn't find them, I think I felt like I might be his alternative. He had a muzzle on a few nights that week. We were under the care of a veterinary behaviorist at the time and decided to try meds, because I didn't know what else to do at that point. We tried Trazadone, but I felt like it made him feel scared, or confused and I didn't like that for him, so I didn't use it again. On the 4th I seriously felt like my house might crumble to the ground. We spent that evening in my car, in a detached garage, with the music blaring. This kept him safely confined, helped drown out a lot of the sound, and perhaps the tires even helped insulate us from the booms. Needless to say, I started working on fireworks desensitization as soon as we recovered from that night! After all, I only had a few months to prepare for New Year's ;). We used treats, training and the fireworks video A LOT. I started to look forward to fireworks and thunderstorms because I got to experience Proud Momma Momments, Those moments when you get to see the results of all the time and energy you invested in training, when your dog actually does in real life, what they have been trained to do! He would hear the sounds and lie on his mat, looking at me expectantly, awaiting a yummy piece of steak and I was gleaming, He got to where he could handle the gunshots, thunderstorms and most firework days with only an occasional bark, but the actual evening of the 4th was too much. I wouldn't expect any animal to deal with that! The next year we rented a cabin on Mt. Hood and that became our tradition. We had enough exposure to fireworks there to work on training, but not so much that we were both over threshold and unable to cope.
How do you get through the fireworks with your pets? Share your tips and personal stories in the comments section below. If you'd like help getting your pets through the holiday, contact me today for personalized training assistance!