Dealing with Firework Fear in Dogs

Firework phobia ?

Around New Year’s Eve or Bonfire Night, many dog owners worry about how their dogs will react to fireworks.  There’s a huge spectrum of how dogs react to fireworks; some happily watch them out of the window whilst others remain in their beds shaking due to fear.  In this blog, I will look the causes of firework phobia and different ways to help it.

Dog stood up
Dogs have sensitive ears, eyes and noses.
Dogs Ears and Nose are VERY Sensitive

People in the UK know the weeks surrounding bonfire night are filled with people setting off fireworks, sometimes from as early as mid-September.  Over the last two decades letting fireworks off at midnight (or before children go to bed) on New Years Eve has become very popular. People are aware of these traditions and every year we know it will happen.  Our dogs, on the other hand, aren’t aware of these patterns and don’t know what fireworks are.  To them, a bang is not supposed to be there, a sudden noise which is out of the ordinary which may be due to danger.  Their ears are more sensitive than ours and they can hear a much wider range of noises.  This means that to them fireworks will not only be much louder but they may also sound different as there may be pitches the dog can hear but a human can’t.  Dog’s can hear sounds that are four-times farther than with humans so they can hear fireworks that we can’t.

Fireworks also create a smell.  The smell of explosives and burning is unpleasant and one which dog’s, like people, do not enjoy.  To them, this is magnified as their noses are at least 1000 times more sensitive than our own.

Along with dogs smelling fireworks more clearly and hearing them louder and possibly different to us, they will hear ones which we cannot.  Therefore, if you dogs are terrified around bonfire night but you don’t hear any fireworks, that may still be the problem.

Farm Border Collie
Bring dogs inside when there are fireworks
Dogs Don’t Know What Fireworks Are

If something behind you made a loud bang or smashes, you’d jump and turn around.  You were startled and momentarily surprised so looked around to see what happened but relaxed when you found out you were safe.  If this were to start happening over and over again though you’d probably get a bit anxious.

 

Well, dogs are the same.  Loud bangs from fireworks, which are louder to them than us, do not make sense to them.  They don’t know what fireworks are or that they won’t hurt them so they become anxious or scared.  Dogs evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to react to loud bangs and horrible smells as they may be dangerous.  They believe this is the case with fireworks so their natural reaction is to become stressed and anxious with some developing phobias.

 

Multi-coloured firework
Fireworks look pretty but sound quite scary
Signs Your Dog is Scared of Fireworks
  1. Your dog is much quieter than usual and/ or they’re hidden.
  2. They’re shaking in their bed.
  3. They’re urinating when in the house when they wouldn’t normally.
  4. They are running around like mad rapidly looking around each time there is a bang, often panting and possibly shaking.
  5. They have stopped reacting to you when you’re shouting or looking at them.
  6. They are whining and crying.
  7. They have been scratching around a door as if they want to go out or chewing on something when they wouldn’t usually.
  8. They won’t settle, play or eat.
Firework distraction
You can put the TV to distract your dog from the fireworks
What can Help Your Dog Get Used to Fireworks
  1. Stay with them when there’s a lot of fireworks.
  2. Make sure all the windows and doors are shut; reduces the noise and smell.
  3. Closing the curtains reduces the flashing.
  4. Keeping the TV or radio on; the noise disguises the fireworks and helps them focus on something else.
  5. Keep an area where they can retreat and be undisturbed. Covering their bed to create a “fort” will give them space to relax.
  6. Provide at least one resting place/ bed per animal, plus an extra. They can all relax at the same time without any fighting to get into a quiet spot.
  7. Reassure and talk to your dogs to make sure they are OK.
  8. Do NOT act like overly concerned or fussy.  Though this may seem like it will help your pet will sense there’s something to fear.  They may become more
  9. anxious and this may continue into the future
  10. Don’t walk them when fireworks are set off; the noise will be louder and the area will smell more so your dog will be more likely to react.
  11. Keep children away from your dogs.  If a dog is messed with when they are scared they are more to bite whoever is messing with them.
  12. Stick to a Routine.  If your dog usually gets fed at six O’ clock then keep to that time even if there are fireworks.  Stable routines will help them relax even if the situation is otherwise stressful.  Leave their food dog; if your dog doesn’t eat they can come back for their food later.
  13. Socialise your puppies and expose them to different sounds when young; around eight to sixteen weeks.  This is the easiest time for them to adapt.  Sounds Scary (see later) may be used for this.
  14. Be Prepared.  Find out where and when local firework displays.  Talk to your
    neighbours and see if they will be setting any off and discuss with them whether they can use quiet ones.

These tips only help with dogs who do not have a phobia of fireworks. The information below explains how to help dogs who are fearful or phobic around fireworks.

Relaxed Tess in Bed
Only put Sounds Scary on when your dog is calm; see below

 

Firework Phobia CANNOT Be Solved Overnight

Over the years, hoards of people have brought their firework phobic dogs to me just before Bonfire Night or on 30th December.  These owners hoped I’d just give them something to stop their dogs being scared of the fireworks.  Many of these also want to go out to see the fireworks, leaving the dog alone.

In reality, this doesn’t work.  Yes, vets may be able to sedate dogs so they don’t react to fireworks but that’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem.  Dogs being sedated once will not stop them being scared of fireworks the next time.  Fears take a lot of time and work for both humans and animals to get over.  It can take weeks of training for dogs scared of fireworks to remain calm around them and it doesn’t work with all dogs.  Helping dogs requires the owner to spend their time helping and reassuring their dog and putting things in place to help them.  Also, dogs whose firework fear improves may still be scared of them and, over time, their phobia may come back.  Keeping their fear at bay is a long-term commitment where they may need training on and off forever.

Quite a few different ways of helping dogs with their firework phobia exist.  Not all methods work for all dogs or owners so if you try one and it doesn’t help then try another.

Speaker
You can play Sounds Scary through a Bluetooth speaker
Sounds Scary

Sounds Scary is a method of systematic desensitisation or habituation.  It is a number of soundtracks of firework noises to play when your dog is relaxed.  You should first play the tracks very quietly so they can hardly be heard, and with time you gradually increase the volume ONLY if your dog is calm.

The aim of “Sounds Scary” is for your dog to get used to the sound of fireworks and recognise that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Over time they shall remain relaxed with the soundtrack so will no longer fear real fireworks.

This process takes time and every dog reacts differently.  The soundtrack shouldn’t just be put on for five minutes at a time but for longer periods and the volume raised only when your dog is COMPLETELY relaxed.  If the volume is increased too quickly or when your dog is stressed it can overwhelm or scare them.  Developing a fear of the soundtrack will worsen their anxiety requiring you to start Sounds Scary from the beginning again. Sounds Scary should be used daily, often needing to be played for a number of weeks until your dog isn’t affected by loud firework sounds.  Even when your dog is unaffected by loud firework sounds it is still worthwhile to play the soundtracks every so often to ensure they still remain calm.  If your dog your dog appears anxious with the soundtrack or real fireworks at any point, restart the training.

Sounds Scary is available for download, along with a guide explaining the program, from the Dog’s Trust website.  I strongly recommend reading the guide before training with Sounds Scary.

Tess at the kitchen door
Scared or playing? Definitely not calm
ThunderShirt

A ThunderShirt is a dog coat which applies a constant pressure to the skin. This constant pressure affects the sensory receptors in the skin and calms your dog down.  This either works by giving your dog something else to upon or the release of endorphins (feel-good chemicals).

ThunderShirts work for a large variety of fears and behavioural issues.  They are similar to autistic people becoming calm when under weighted blankets.    ThunderShirts reduce stress in up to 80% of dogs without the use of medications/ supplements.  Though they don’t need to be worn for a specific time period, I’d recommend putting it on your dog before fireworks start.  I advise this as once your dog is stressed it may not be possible to put the ThunderShirt on safely and calmly.

Stereo
Sounds Scary can be played on a stereo or music/ radio can be played when fireworks are being lit elsewhere

 

Adaptil

Adaptil is a chemical similar to Dog Appeasing Pheromone.  Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is a pheromone (a chemical animals release to send messages to others through smell) produced between the teats of dogs when puppies are suckling. DAP calms the puppies down.  Adaptil is so similar to DAP it also calms dogs when it is released into the air.

Adaptil is sold either as a spray, a diffuser fitting into an electrical socket or a collar.  All forms work in the same way but some take longer to work than others.  The spray, for instance, when sprayed around a room spreads quicker than DAP released from a diffuser but it doesn’t last as long.  The collar is good if only one needs DAP.  The collar constantly releases DAP around that dog but it doesn’t diffuse around the room.  It, therefore, wouldn’t affect other dogs unless they are constantly next to each other.

Like all products, Adaptil doesn’t work on all dogs and doesn’t work instantly.  I’d recommend using it for a few days before fireworks are expected.  This will allow it to fully diffuse and affect your dog(s).

For DAP to be rapidly effective you could combine a spray and a diffuser.  It will cover a room quickly with spray and whilst lasting longer with a diffuser.  However, if you have only one dog, a DAP collar will also work rapidly.

Dog with toy
Rocky playing with his toy; toys can be a distraction from fireworks
Supplements

A number of supplements may be bought to calm your dog down.  Every dog’s body works differently so some supplements may work well on one dog and not affect others.  There are quite a few supplements available but I’ll only mention three here.

Zylkene appears to works very well on some dogs but doesn’t help others.  It is similar to a calming chemical in the mother’s milk and calms dogs when they take it.  Zylkene doesn’t work straight away. You should give it to your dog for 7+days before fireworks are expected and every day whilst fireworks are going on.  Zylkene, therefore, may have to be taken for over a month.  Whilst it is impossible to know whether it will work on your dog before using it, it is very safe and doesn’t cause side effects.

Nutracalm is only available from veterinary surgeries but doesn’t need a prescription.  Like Zylkene, this supplement is safe and effective for many dogs, but it doesn’t work with them all and it isn’t a sedative. Unlike Zylkene, it acts quickly, calming your dog within an hour and it doesn’t need to be given daily.  Whilst Zylkene contains one active ingredient, Nutracalm contains several including; L-Tryptophan causing sleepiness and GABA, a calming chemical in the brain.  These and other ingredients in it are naturally within the body.  Nutracalm containing several active ingredients means it doesn’t rely on a dog responding to just one.  Dogs only need to respond to one of the ingredients in it so it may help more dogs, however, it doesn’t help everyone.  It also isn’t a sedative.  Nutracalm should be given an hour before fireworks as it’s less effective if given whilst your dog is stressed.

YuCalm, like NutraCalm, helps calm dogs using several ingredients.  YuCalm contains L-theanine helping the body produce more Serotonin (a relaxing chemical in the brain), Lemon Balm to increase GABA in the brain (calms dogs) and finally fish proteins which alter GABA and dopamine levels (two brain chemicals which calm the dog).  However,  similar to Zylkene, YuCalm does not work immediately.  It needs to be fed to your dog this daily for 3-6weeks before your it helps to calm your dog.  Due to this, you would have to start giving this ideally six weeks before fireworks are expected.

Sedatives

If you’ve tried training, supplements and ThunderShirts but your dog is still very fearful of fireworks, the next step is trying sedatives.  These should NOT be the first thing option as they can be dangerous due to side effects.  Sedatives also don’t phobias, the just calm dogs down whilst they are effective and won’t help in the long term.

 

The main sedative prescribed is Diazepam.  Diazepam acts on the brain to calm your dog down but may slow the heart and breathing.  It can also cause dogs to be sleepy and wobbly.  Diazepam cannot be used all the time as it is no longer effective and can cause them a physical addiction.  Though Diazepam is very effective in a lot of dogs, they don’t work as well in some dogs.  It can also cause confusion potentially causing dogs to become aggressive around people.  Diazepam works very quickly, often within 20minutes and lasts between three and twelve hours depending on the dog.  If your dog is prescribed these you need to stay with your dog after they have eaten them, at least the first time.  This is to make sure that your dog doesn’t become ill and to check they help.  If diazepam causes bad side effects or is ineffective you need to speak to your vet about what to do.

ACP (AKA Acepromazine) used to be used for phobias though it is no longer recommended. ACP is purely a sedative and affects the heart, lungs and brain, causing dogs to seem calm and they no longer react as much.  However, ACP doesn’t reduce the fear dogs experience (whereas diazepam does).  This means when a dog is on ACP they will still be as scared of fireworks but won’t look concerned and so their owners will believe they are not scared.  Treating phobias with ACP, therefore, is a welfare concern and can worsen the phobia over time.  Finally, every dog acts differently to ACP; some dogs stop breathing whilst it causes Boxers to faint.

Other medications (eg Fluoxetine or Clomicalm) may be advised for anxiety.  Describing these in more detail isn’t necessary here.  They aren’t useful as sedatives as they must be used for several weeks before they help and they cause other side effects. I’ve mentioned these purely because they are great options for some dogs with severe anxiety/ phobias. So, if your dog is really fearful and nothing else will help discuss this with your vet to see if anything else may help.

 

If you don’t know where to turn and have problems with a pet and want further advice then feel free to check out the services I offer or contact me for further info.

 

Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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