Fears and Phobias: Fireworks and other loud noises
A fear of fireworks is quite common in dogs, and the effects can be devastating in some. Indeed, if not treated promptly, the fear can escalate quickly and a minor problem can become a severe one, with the dog becoming progressively phobic of other sudden loud noises or flashing lights, and any number of things that he has come to associate with fireworks. For example, some dogs may start to become apprehensive and agitated at the approach of dusk, thinking that it may be followed by the whizzes and bangs that they fear. Others may become fearful when in the same locations where they have heard fireworks, and for some this may even develop further into a general fear of the outdoors.
Signs of fear typically include:
- Attempting to hide
- Lack of appetite
- Distraction, it will be difficult to get the dog's attention
- In extreme cases, there can be incontinence
Good early habituation to a wide rage of sounds will prepare a puppy for any loud noises he will encounter later in life. If raised in a breeder's busy home, with people coming and going, and all the sounds that accompany ordinary family life (pans being dropped, washing machines, cups smashing accidentally, loud music from the teenager's bedroom, screaming in excited play, and so on), then a puppy is likely to be noise-tolerant as an adult in any subsequent home. Similarly, outdoors he will be fine if as a youngster he experiences the sound of aircraft, thunder, distant gunshot and bird scarers, traffic etc., and finds that his owners don't react to them, or to him when they go off, even if he is initially startled at the first exposures.
If the puppy's exposure to loud noises indoors, or fireworks etc outdoors causes great fear at the first exposure, however, or his initial anxiety is reinforced by attention from his owners, then he could well become fearful of such sounds for life and his condition may worsen steadily. Equally, if he was raised in a quiet, calm environment and had not built up any experience of such noises, learned to ignore them or how to cope with them, then he will probably have great trouble getting used to loud noises in his new home and especially when he hears his first loud firework or clap of thunder.
Using a pre-recorded CD of firework and other loud and strange noises, available from your vet or pet store, can help a puppy get used to a range of such sounds and learn to ignore them in adulthood. The CD needs to be played very quietly in frequent short doses initially; slowly increasing the volume over the course of several days provided he shows no fear. His habituation will be assisted if he is distracted playing or eating during these exposures. However, some puppy's may habituate to all sorts of recorded noises coming from the hi-fi speakers, but still react fearfully to the 'real life' noises, such as fireworks outdoors, and then become fearful at other associated signals, such as the smell of fires, darkness etc., or the atmospheric changes and sound of rain that he may come to learn are associated with impending thunder.
If a dog is already showing fear of fireworks or other loud noises then it would be advisable to seek the help of an experienced, professional behaviourist on referral from your vet as soon as possible. Fear is a very tricky thing to conquer and, if mismanaged or left, it will usually escalate and become more difficult to treat.
A word of warning…your vet may offer a long outdated treatment involving the prescription of a medication called Ace- or Acetyl-promazine (ACP), which often comes in the form of little yellow tablets. DO NOT administer these under any circumstances as they simply prevent the dog from responding to his fear and give the false impression that he is relaxed. When on ACP, a dog can still see and hear the fireworks and is still terrified. Unable to hide and escape, his phobia could well increase. ACP does not alleviate fear and should never be used to treat fear and phobias of this nature. Ask instead for a referral to a behaviourist.
The behaviourist will assess your dog and devise a personalised treatment plan. This may include providing him with a safe indoor den into which he can escape and be left alone when he is fearful. An indoor kennel or crate, with a blanket draped over the top and three sides, could provide such a haven, and help him develop a coping strategy if it is placed in a secluded corner of the house and filled with cosy bedding, a chew toy filled with nice treats, and perhaps sprayed with a calming pheromone available from your vet. Accustom him to using his den to rest, sleep and avoid household chaos in whenever he wants to, well in advance of any fireworks or thundery weather. Then, when fireworks or thunder are anticipated, make sure that he has free access to his den, so he can find it easily when the noises start.
It is most important for you not to show any anxiety or marked behaviour changes yourself when fireworks or other loud noises occur. You could well be nervous wondering how he will react, but try to remain as calm and 'ordinary' as possible or he will start to react to your behaviour before any sign of fireworks or thunder. Certainly don't attempt to comfort him if he looks even slightly apprehensive. Offering reassurance is only natural, but it could well reinforce his emotional response and so encourage his dependence on you rather than him learning to go to the safety of his den to relieve his fear. Ignore him when he is fretful; only give him attention when he is confident, or looking relaxed in his den.
Try to exercise him well in advance of bad weather or well before dusk during times of known firework celebrations, and obviously try to avoid risking his exposure to any fireworks going off while you are out. Keep him on a lead for the firework season, just in case he is spooked accidentally and runs off. Keep him indoors during the whole evening, and only take him out to the garden for his pre-bed toilet break, and on a lead after all the fireworks have ceased – even if it means staying up until 1am or later! Many dogs have scaled fences in fear, bolted and become lost from their own gardens because of their fear of fireworks so do take special precautions. Indoors, close the curtains to minimise exposure to firework or lightning flashes. Put the television or radio on, shut all doors and windows to reduce the noise of the bangs, and try to act as normal as possible, only rewarding him if he is relaxed.
For severe cases, where a dog is very distressed, or during the initial phases of treatment by a behaviourist, a vet may advise some form of medication, but not ACP!
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet's health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers at www.capbt.org, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.apdt.co.uk. Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.