Cookie was a sweet, older black Lab mix I rescued from a Georgia kill shelter and placed with a loving family that moved to Florida shortly after her adoption.
I was horrified when I got a frantic e-mail from her new mom the night of July 4th, telling me the family had come home from watching fireworks to find the screen torn from the window and the dog gone. This particular holiday occurred on a Saturday, so it was Monday before they were able to contact animal control. Cookie was there, hanging out in the office with them. She had been rescued from underneath a car several miles from her home. The damage to the inside of the window at the house showed that she had panicked at the sound of the fireworks, tore her way from the house and fled, running blindly until she shoved herself so tightly under the vehicle that she was wedged there. Her terrified cries had alerted bystanders, and animal control had to jack up the car in order to remove her.
Most of us enjoy the excitement of fireworks displays. Consider it from your dog’s point of view though. At night, most things look, sound and smell the same. Suddenly, with no warning at all, loud bangs surround them. Flashes of light brighten the darkness, and an acrid aroma fills their nostrils. They don’t know where the noise, lights and smells are coming from. They don’t know when, or if, they will ever stop. Worst of all, they have no idea how to get away from them.
Low-frequency, percussive noises such as fireworks and summer thunderstorms trigger wild fear in about 20 percent of dogs. Frightened dogs have different reactions to such sounds. Some tremble at their owners’ feet, others retreat to a hiding place and even passive, well-behaved dogs may display bizarre or even aggressive behavior and become aggressive, destructive and/or unpredictable. Others try to run off, which is why more dogs are lost around the fourth of July than at any other time. If you have a dog in this 20 percent, now is the time to prepare for the fourth.
It should go without saying, but if you have a dog that is noise sensitive, do not take him to a fireworks display and if at all possible, don’t have him out at all that night. Take your dog out for a potty break before dark and take him out on a well-fitted collar and leash, even if you have a fenced yard. Don’t leave him out in the yard, even if the fireworks are being set off at a distance. Remember, his hearing is much more sensitive than yours.
Indoors, don’t coddle or scold your dog for his fear. If you cuddle and baby him, you will reinforce his fear, and convince him that he is right to be worried. Scolding will scare and confuse him at a time when he is already insecure and vulnerable. Instead, try to play a game with him, or give him a puzzle toy or food stuffed toy. Get out the treats and attempt to distract him by requesting and rewarding him for performing known behaviors. However if he won’t cooperate, don’t force the issue. If you have another dog who is not concerned with the noise, play or train him in the other dog’s sight to reinforce that it’s a “normal” day.
Create a “bolt hole” for your frightened dog. This is especially important if you won’t be home. Place your dog’s crate in an inner room if at all possible, away from windows and outer walls. If not possible, close the drapes in the room. Place the dog inside with sturdy chew toys or food stuffed toys in case he wishes to chew to deal with his anxiety. Turn off the lights, but turn on the TV or radio to help mask the outside noise.
If your pet is especially fearful, talk to your vet ahead of time about the wisdom of giving your dog tranquilizers to help him through the worst of the noise. If you don’t want to use medication, you can consider using a product such as a pheromone spray or warmer, Rescue Remedy or another natural, calming product.
If you have a dog afraid of noises, help him enjoy his fourth of July, too. Make your plans to help him now, so when the day of celebration arrives, you’re not taken by surprise by an anxious, frightened pet.