Fireworks can be beautiful and exciting for some people. However, they are a cause of significant distress for a large percentage of pets; with an estimated 45% of dogs showing signs of fear when they hear fireworks.

Stress responses to sounds can vary from mild reactions such as panting, hiding, hyperactivity or escape attempts to more extreme reactions, such as destructiveness and self-trauma. But is there really a long term solution?

What are the signs of noise fear?

Clear signs of fear can easily be recognised by the majority of dog owners. They include shaking, panting, tense muscles or frequent urination. However, dogs may show a subtle build up from a calm state to a stressed state. If you pay attention to these signs, you may be able to intervene sooner and prevent it from becoming a major problem. Mild signs of discomfort include turning the head away, licking the lips, yawning and superficial sniffing. If you notice your dog displaying any signs in response to noise, you should attempt to remove them from the situation when possible, to avoid further build up.

How can I prevent my dog from becoming fearful of noises?

If you have a puppy in their essential socialisation period, from 3 to 16 weeks of age, you can gradually and safely expose them to loud noises (and many other different experiences). This will increase the chances they will cope efficiently with these experiences in adult life.

What is the principle behind the use of “scary sounds” for dogs with noise fear?

“Scary sounds” are recorded noises (you can record it yourself, access them online or buy them) which mimic the sound of fireworks and other common noises dogs are afraid of, such as gunshots or thunderstorm. The advantage of these recordings is that we can control the volume, speed and environment in which they are played. Allowing a slow adjustment from the dog to the sound until they realise nothing negative happens when they play and become desensitised to it.

These sounds should be played on minimum volume for several minutes and then be turned higher. So gradually, over many weeks or months, the dog barely notices it. The point is not to see how quickly you can turn it up loud, quite the contrary! It should be a boring process until you can eventually turn it on pretty loud without a fearful response, or at least with a milder response when compared to what the dog displayed before initiating treatment.

My dog is already afraid of fireworks, when can I start playing desensitisation therapy with exposure to “scary sounds”?

Although desensitisation therapy has been shown to work, behaviour disorders are complex and often multifactorial. For this reason, exposure to “scary sounds” alone is unlikely to give your dog the best chance of recovery.

Before starting any behavioural programme, alone or with a behaviourist, a veterinary health check is essential to rule out medical conditions that might be contributing to the problem. The dog’s lifestyle, general physiological and psychological balance of the dog and your own response to your pet’s demonstration of fear are all factors that should be considered and can be modulated to increase chances of successful treatment.

It’s also important to remember that it takes a very long time to successfully desensitise a dog to fireworks: so although they are very useful in the long term, if you’re reading this in October or early November, it’s probably too late for this year. Talk to your vet for advice on managing the problem this year, and about starting a management programme once we’re out of fireworks season.

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References:

R Williams, L Dormer, L Lowen, C McParland, L Hens, H. Barber. Fireworks and animal welfare. 2018. Reports prepared for the RSPCA.

Harper, S. (2011). ‘Noise-related anxiety in dogs: improving management’. The Veterinary Nurse, 2, 7, pp. 378–386.

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