How to Help a Dog Who's Afraid of Fireworks

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The Fourth of July is just around the corner, and if you have a dog it's time to start preparing for the big night. Many dogs are somewhat afraid of fireworks, and others are truly terrified. Fireworks are loud, scary and confusing to most dogs. Even the most confident dogs can become spooked or upset by fireworks.

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Studies show that each year, more pets go missing over the July fourth holiday than any other time a year. Nationwide, shelters experience a 30% increase in lost pets between July 4th and July 6th. If you have a dog who you know is upset by fireworks or if you have adopted a dog in the last year and aren't sure what your dog's reaction to fireworks will be, it's important to plan ahead, for how you will support your dog during the holiday.

Avoid fireworks (to the extent possible)

The Fourth of July is a great time to spend time with your family, including your dog, but avoid bringing your dog to any fireworks displays. This includes professional firework shows your local community is putting on, and fireworks displays organized by your family, friends, or neighbors. Unfortunately, if your neighbors want to set off fireworks there's very little you can do to prevent them from doing so, but one option to help inspire kindness in your community is to put signs in your yard asking your neighbors to avoid setting off fireworks on or near your property. You can print these off on your printer, put them in sheet protectors to protect them from rain, tape them to wooden kitchen skewers to stick them into your front yard. You can say something like: "No fireworks, sensitive creatures live here." The goal is to ideally inspire neighbors to think more critically about the impact of their firework choices, and maybe consider not setting fireworks off directly in front of your home.

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Prepare ahead of time

In preparation for the Fourth of July, make sure that your dog is wearing a well-fitted collar and that your contact information is clearly attached to that collar on a tag or collar plaque just in case. If your dog isn't already microchipped, this would be a good time to schedule an appointment with your vet to get that done. If your dog is microchipped, make sure that your contact information on file with the microchip company is updated and accurate. In the absolute worst-case scenario that your dog did get scared, bolt and somehow get out of your house or yard, it's essential that they are easily identifiable so you can be reunited as quickly as possible.

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To keep your dog occupied during the fireworks, it can help to give your dog high value items to play with or chew on. Chewing is not only fun for dogs, but it's also mentally stimulating and can help them to relax. The same goes for sniffing, which has been proven to help calm dogs down. Leading up to July 4th,you can stuff and then freeze hard rubber toys like Kongs, so you'll have them ready to pull out as the fireworks are getting started. Soaked dry food/kibble works well to stuff into Kongs before freezing, as does (dog-safe) peanut butter. It's also a good idea to purchase some long-lasting chews or bones to have on hand as part of preparation for the big night. In addition, if you don't already have one, buying a snuffle mat to have on hand is a good idea for a sniffing activity on July 4th.

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Counterconditioning

Something you can work on in advance of July 4th is to get your dog or puppy used to the sound of fireworks by counterconditioning them to the loud noises. By pairing the sound of fireworks with highly rewarding treats and chews you can help your dog to develop a neutral or even positive relationship with fireworks. Counterconditioning to fireworks is something you can work on year round by playing recordings of firework sounds from the internet while giving your dog treats, a safe chew, or a sturdy toy designed to be stuffed with food. If your dog is very toy motivated, you can also play games of tug or fetch while the recorded fireworks sounds are played to help your dog build positive associations and become desensitized to the fireworks. If your dog isn't bothered by the recorded sounds of fireworks you can continue to turn the volume higher continuing to pair the sound with treats and/or games. This is a great activity to do with new puppies to help them develop positive associations with firework sounds right away, and a good activity to practice through the year, not just leading up to the July 4th holiday with dogs of all ages.

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On July 4th: distract, muffle, and play it safe

When you are making your plans for the Fourth of July, plan to have someone responsible who can be home with your dog on 4th itself as well as any other nights you know are likely to have fireworks going off in your neighborhood. The key to help your dog cope with fireworks is to supervise, and counter-condition by providing your dog with highly rewarding alternate activities to keep them distracted from the sounds of fireworks.

Just to be safe, it's best on firework nights to take your dog outside on leash even if your yard is fenced. On July 4th and the surrounding nights, it's important to not leave your dog alone in your yard even if it is securely fenced as scared dogs are known to react unpredictably including jumping/climbing or digging under fences. To help muffle some of the sounds of fireworks it can help dogs to play music, TV, a movie, or a white noise machine all evening in the background. If possible, depending on the layout of your home it can also help to create a safe haven for you and your dog by spending the evening with your dog in areas of your house farther away from windows as it will generally be quieter. If your dog has a bed or crate, they take comfort in bringing that to the area of the home where you will be. During fireworks keep your dog away from doors that may be opened to prevent your dog from getting spooked and accidentally darting out. If you are getting takeout or expect deliveries during the evening it can help to keep your dog leashed to you or separated from the front door by a baby gate or behind a door in another room of your house.

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Try to keep your dog happy and distracted during the business fireworks times with toys, treats, games as well as chews and/or food stuffed toys to keep your dog occupied. Especially because anxiety and anxious behaviors can intensify as dog's age it's a good idea to prepare. Even if your dog has not historically been bothered by fireworks it's a good practice to give your dog high value chews and treats to continue to help your dog make or maintain positive associations with the sounds of fireworks.

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Getting help

It can be scary and overwhelming to have a dog who is unable to settle or be redirected from the sounds of fireworks. If your dog is showing signs of fear, such as: inability to settle, panting, pacing, shaking, trying to hide, inability to eat, excessive drooling (that is uncommon for your dog), panting, or attempting to hide, it's a good time to have a conversation with your vet for other ways to support your dog. There is no shame with getting help to support your dog's mental health. Your vet may be able to recommend over the counter products that could work for your dog, or in some cases, an as-needed anti-anxiety medication.

Good luck and happy 4th of July!

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