Like many dogs these days, Jackson has spent plenty of evenings with his tail between his legs, trembling in fear. It’s natural for fireworks to cause anxiety. Fireworks are loud, bright, and unpredictable. For a dog, they often feel like a threat.
“Poor Jackson’s so terrified that he won’t go to the bathroom, and so he ends up holding it all night,” says Northern Liberties resident Maddie Roxandich of her 3-year-old Lab-basset-hound mix.
Since the end of May, the city has been filled with the sound of fireworks. Philadelphia police have received thousands of related calls. It’s driving pets across the region crazy, and their owners, too. One rat terrier owner in Mount Airy became so frustrated she started a Fireworks Task Force, lobbying to make consumer fireworks illegal in the city. Others are holding out hope that the raucous soundtrack stops soon.
“Dogs have more sensitive ears, and they feel different vibrations than we can feel,” says Rachel Golub, behavior and adoptions manager at the Pennsylvania SPCA. “It’s not pleasant for us, so I can only imagine how jarring it is for them.”
There are ways to help ease your pup’s anxiety. Experts encourage you to be patient, and use trial and error. It may require combining multiple tactics.
There are obvious signs that your dog is scared, like barking and shaking. But sometimes dogs react in other ways.
“Fear doesn’t always look like you imagine. Sometimes fear can look like what we call displacement behaviors,” says Dr. Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare and director of Small Animal Behavior Service at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
In humans, displacement behaviors are actions like biting your lip or nails — they don’t make a lot of sense but allow us to feel better. For dogs, this may mean chewing on their tail or paws, or nonstop pacing or jumping. Some dogs will freeze in place, and others will crouch low to the ground.
“There are dogs who get aggressive,” says Siracusa. “If they’re jumping on you, they’re not trying to be unruly, they’re just trying to show you that they’re scared.”
It’s important that you recognize fear so that you don’t punish your dog for behavior that simply demonstrates they’re afraid.
Dogs are programmed to stay away from loud noises. Yelling at them or forcing them to lie down will only make things worse.
“Fear is not a voluntary emotion, and so punishment isn’t going to change behavior,” says Dr. Ilana Reisner, founder of Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services. “If you scold the dog, it’ll increase his anxiety, and the dog might associate that kind of treatment with fireworks in the future.”
Instead, be there for your dog. Give them a scratch beneath their neck or a pet from head to tail. Comforting your dog won’t encourage or reinforce the fear.
“Just make sure it’s attention they want, and avoid hugging, which can make them feel like they’re being trapped,” says Golub. “I wouldn’t do a lot of kissing on top of the head because when they’re in fight or flight mode, they may react differently than normal.”
As soon as the fireworks start, toss your dog a bone. Choose something that lasts a while, like a roasted marrow bone. Or fill a rubber Kong with a treat your dog loves. If you only have kibble on hand, slather those bits in peanut butter or some other high-valued ingredient.
“One of the main ways dogs cope with anxiety is chewing. They use it to self-soothe,” says Golub.
“The more they chew, the more endorphins are actually released in the brain,” explains Golub.
Treats also help to associate what’s scary with something that feels positive.
And if you have a dog that loves to pace, put them on a leash and pretend you’re going for a walk, but indoors.
“This helps the dog stay focused on something else with the owner by their side,” says Siracusa. “If you can increase the pace, jog around a bit to distract them even more.”
Some dogs will hide under the bed or curl up in the closet. If they have a safe space, make it available. But never lock them in a crate, even if that’s where they go for comfort.
“You can put a thick blanket over top, and for some dogs, the crate is their safe space,” says Reisner. “But if you lock it and they panic, they can really hurt themselves.”
You can also create a calming environment. Choose a room with the fewestwindows. Windows create vibrations that set some dogs off. Add background noise. White noise from a cheap box fan is a good place to start.
A common misconception is that forcing your dog to face fireworks will help acclimate them to the noise. Experts warn strongly against this.
“This is a very, very bad idea,” says Siracusa. “Emotions aren’t voluntary behavior, and it’s very important to respect their fear. Forcing them outside means they can’t find a safe place.”
Head outside, and your dog will not only encounter sound, but bright lights. There’s also potential to walk by a person who’s yelling, a car honking, or a kid screaming. The scenario is what’s called “trigger stacking,” which can make your dog’s response exponentially worse.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t try indoor conditioning. Shout out to all new pandemic puppy owners: Add mindful noise conditioning to the training list.
“For some dogs, it’ll take days of practicing, and other dogs can do it all in one session,” says Golub, noting the technique won’t work for every dog.
There are dogs who are so fearful that none of this will be enough.
“When there’s a strong fear, we usually use medication,” says Siracusa. “If you let the fear continue, there’s a chance it will keep progressing, so it’s important to address it.”
As some dogs grow older, noise aversion will intensify.
Medication options vary. One common prescription is Trazodone. It’s given as a pill and takes about 30 minutes to kick in.
“It increases serotonin, so it helps dogs cope with the fear instead of just completely sedating them,” says Golub.
Sileo is another common medication, a gel that goes into the pouch of the dog’s cheek. It, too, works to calm your dog without sedating them and takes about 30 minutes.
All dogs are different. Going through a trial and error process with your vet is common. But Reisner says to avoid acepromazine, also known as Ace.
“It’s a very potent tranquilizer,” says Reisner. “The trouble with the drug is that it sedates them, but it does not reduce their anxiety and fear, and can actually cause an increased sensitivity to noise.”
No matter the prescription, be sure to test it out in advance.
“All behavior modifying drugs have one common side effect — they can give a paradoxical response,” says Siracusa. “Some dogs can get more agitated, and you don’t want to find this out on the day of the fireworks.”