Boom, rumble, crack, pow, pop, screech. To us, these are the familiar sounds of summer thunderstorms and July 4th fireworks. But to some dogs, these sounds produce true terror. They don’t understand the noises of fireworks are just our way of celebrating a holiday. They don’t understand the rumble of thunder and loud crack of lightning won’t put them in danger. The terrifying noises of fireworks come out of nowhere. On top of the unexpectedness of the noises, dogs are nearly twice as sensitive to high frequency noises.
When these noises create terror for dogs, it is no wonder the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports nearly one-in-five lost pets go missing after being scared by the sound of fireworks, thunderstorms or other loud noises.
Reactions to the sounds of thunderstorms and fireworks can range from uneasy pacing, trembling, vocalizations, and stress panting to urination and defecation, hiding, or escape attempts which can result in destruction to property and injury to the dog.
According to Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, in her book Canine and Feline Behavior, “Fear is an ethologically normal emotion that elicits a physical reaction which protects against danger. When that reaction is maladaptive and out of proportion the actual stimulus, it is classified as a phobia.”
There is evidence certain breeds of dogs such as herding dogs or hunting dogs may be more sensitive to these noises. Both Dr. Horwitz and Dr. Overall cite the possibility of a genetic component to the fear reaction of these sounds.
As many owners of dogs that are scared of thunderstorms have discovered, the fearful reaction when their dogs hear thunder (predictive of the louder noise and flash of lightning), after several seasons of storms even the change in barometric pressure or sound of rain can trigger unease in anticipation of thunder and lightning.
These fears should not be ignored. Continued fear responses can affect a dog’s physical and mental well-being. Untreated, continued exposure to (any) triggers that cause stress can affect your dog’s health including a weakened immune system, inappropriate urination and/or defecation, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and even behavior problems.
So how can you help your dog?
Here is what not to do—do not punish your dog, even if he becomes destructive. This will only increase the fear.
Do make sure you keep your dog inside during storms or fireworks to prevent escape. Have your dog microchipped and have a collar and tag on him in case he does escape.
Consult your veterinarian. Your vet can recommend a prescription drug to help. Prescription drugs combined with management and behavior modification are the kindest and most effective way to help your dog.
Talk with your veterinarian about other problems that may contribute to the noise phobia such as separation anxiety, pain, poor hearing or vision, other fears, cognitive dysfunction, or urinary tract infections in instances when the dog is urinating inappropriately.
If you have a new puppy, start now to help him feel more comfortable when confronted with loud noises. You can purchase a CD with noises to begin pairing potentially scary noises with good stuff, like treats and play. Start by playing the CD softly and treat and play while the CD is running. Gradually increase the sound level of the CD as long as your puppy remains relaxed.
For dogs that are only slightly uneasy during thunderstorms or fireworks, there are several interventions and management strategies that may help. Try playing with your dog or asking for familiar cues and rewarding with treats. If your dog has been trained for cues with shock collars or with punishment, do not try this solution. Cues trained with punishment carry a negative association and can increase stress.
Have a “treat party” each time there is thunder or a crack of lightning or a boom of fireworks. As soon as you here the noise say “Yay!” and toss a handful of super tasty treats on the floor. This is also a good training exercise to prevent noise phobias for young puppies.
Use a room darkening shade so the dog cannot see the lightning or fireworks. To minimize the sounds of the storms or fireworks you can try noise-reducing earmuffs for dogs such as Mutt Muffs. Provide a room in a quiet part of the house and play white noise or background music.
Try using a dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) diffuser or spray. The diffuser should run continuously in the room, not just during storms or fireworks.
It may be helpful to offer your slightly nervous dog a treat dispensing toy such as a stuffed Kong, as long as this is not the only time your dog is given this treat. If your dog won’t eat treats or nibble on his Kong, this is a gauge of the level of his fear and medical assistance from your veterinarian should be sought.
Teach a Settle or Relax cue. This is particularly helpful if the cue is taught on a mat that can be taken to different places.
You can try using an Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt. These are spandex products fitted to be snug, but not tight, around the dog’s body. They are meant to simulate massage and calm him by applying gentle pressure that relaxes muscles. There are no scientific studies or data I am aware of regarding the efficacy of these products. My personal experience with the Thundershirt is it has appeared to relax some dogs that are mildly anxious in different situations and occasionally reduces barking (associated with anxiety). Make sure your dog does not get overheated when wearing one and it does not have the opposite effect of stressing him further.
As with the wraps, the effects of the use of essential oils and other homeopathic treatments are anecdotal.