4th of July PSA: This holiday is incredibly hard for some of our animals. It's not just dogs that are frightened, but dogs in particular seem to have a hard time with the loud fireworks and bright lights. Dogs have been known to break through windows, push open doors, or bolt and run while out for a walk when they hear fireworks or thunder -- another noise trigger found at this time of year.
Does your dog have a newly developed noise phobia? As dogs age, they are more likely to develop this issue. The cause for this isn't well understood but some researchers believe it's related to pain. Dogs that jump as they are startled by the noise wouldn't normally experience any ill-effects, but an older dog that has some joint pain from arthritis or other issues can be hurt when a sudden noise makes them tense up. Other potential factors include changes to their hearing, exposure over the years, a bad experience at some point, and cognitive function changes.
There are lots of things we can do to help our pets get through this noisy holiday.
First and foremost, please be careful when going in and out of your home, and keep your dog on leash outside. The Fourth of July is one of the biggest days of the year for dogs escaping and running away as they get startled by loud noises. Shelters are often overwhelmed in the following week or so with dogs who got lost in their panic -- but not all dogs are safely picked up, especially with such hot weather in the summer.
Because of their fear, dogs may be more likely to snap or bite defensively, so please let them have a quiet space and don't force them to interact with people if they're not interested, especially children.
Do not force your dog to be outside during fireworks. It will not help them "get over it." Even if it suddenly looks like they're doing okay they are probably just feeling helpless.
Do not punish your dog for his behavior. Though he may do something like try to dig at a door to try to get into a closet or knock over your favorite vase trying to climb under a piece of furniture, or something else that seems destructive, he is doing this because he is AFRAID. You cannot make him less afraid by yelling, only moreso, which means you could be exacerbating the problem. Simply move him to another area and give him something to distract him if possible, or make him a safe place.
You cannot REINFORCE fear through affection, petting, or love. Remember that this is an emotional response, not simply a behavior. The only way to make a fear worse is to do something unpleasant (see above re: punishment) so soothing and loving your dog will not increase the likelihood that he will be fearful next time. In fact, it might make it better. Think of it this way: if you are scared at the doctor's office and the doctor comes in and yells at you, you are more likely to feel more anxiety the next time. If the doctor treats you kindly, doesn't do anything painful or scary and works to ease your fears, you aren't more likely to react as strongly next time.
Many families leave to go view the fireworks, leaving the dog home alone during this scary time. This can be more stressful and lead to separation anxiety as well. You can use white noise or music, a TV, and lights to help mask the sound and sights of the fireworks, and provide the dog with something to do like a toy stuffed with yummy food. There are also products on the market designed to help reduce fear and stress that you can give your dog or put on him before you go. Many dogs do better with situational medication -- that is, an anti-anxiety drug given before the fireworks start. Do not give the medication for the first time on the day of the fireworks. It is better to make sure your dog tolerates the medication well and does not feel more anxious, as this can worsen their phobia.
Some dogs are so frightened that they won't take treats. But if your dog is only mildly afraid or concerned, or not yet fearful of them, he will most likely be able to eat. You can teach him to feel better about the noise by feeding him a treat soon after every boom. In our home we say, "yay!" and toss handfuls of kibble and treats on the floor after each boom and our dogs now look forward to the noises. It's not a bad idea to do this with any dog, with the hopes that later in life, they won't develop a strong fear of the sound.
After the holiday is over, a certified professional dog trainer or animal behavior consultant can help you work with your dog so that next year, they are less frightened. In the meantime, white noise, the TV turned up, lights on, calming supplements (or pharmaceuticals from your vet), a Thundershirt, Anxiety Wrap, body wrap (TTouch style), or other compression-style wrap, a nice stuffed Kong toy or long-lasting treat like a Himalayan chew: all these are excellent things to have on hand for fireworks. With your support and a little preparation, your dog can have a much safer and happier Fourth of July.