Every July 4, as fireworks explode throughout the nighttime sky, millions of dog runs for cover, or bark and howl in confusion at the noises assaulting their sensitive canine ears. Fireworks are scary and disorienting for dogs, who don’t know that the cacophony outside is celebrating “freedom” and not threatening their hearth and home.
Since your dog is just a helpless bystander here, you’ll be doing them a great service by preparing them for the trauma of fireworks season. There are many methods you can consider to manage their stress—from outfitting them with a weighted “thundershirt” to putting them on anti-anxiety meds—but the simplest might be a form of exposure therapy.
In the days (and weeks, if you’ve got time) leading up to the Fourth, make it a habit to put on a loud, explosion-filled movie as it begins to get dark. If your dog gets used to hearing cinematic explosions (or another similarly bombastic soundtrack, like a YouTube video of a fireworks show) before the mayhem ensues, they will hopefully be able to make it through the holiday without mistaking the noise for the collapse of civilization.
Why are dogs so scared of fireworks?
Your dog is not a hypochondriac. Just like their sense of smell isn’t like yours, their sense of hearing is also vastly superior—and more sensitive. Dogs can hear decibels so high they’re inaudible to humans, and sounds that are so soft, humans can’t hear them. It makes sense that super loud noises with no visible source would therefore startle them—but that doesn’t completely explain why dogs are so triggered by the blast of a fireworks show.
More likely a multitude of are contributing to giving your dog the trembles when the festivities kick off. “It can be the smell; it can be the noise and the flashes of the light,” veterinarian Judy Morgan told the American Kenel Club. Some dogs might have traumatic associations with loud noises in general. Smithsonian Magazine details how a dog might learn to associate the loud sounds of a construction crew with abandonment:
If, for example, a construction worker was hammering the wall in a neighboring apartment while a puppy was left home alone, that puppy might associate banging with abandonment—without her owner even knowing it had happened.
Still, dogs are generally fearful of the tumult of a fireworks show, regardless of their respective life experiences. One study from 2019 found 52% of dog owners surveyed said their pet was affected by firework noise, with “almost one-third of dogs receiving the highest possible severity score.”
The range of behaviors exhibited by dogs panicking during fireworks are broad, but they’re all bad. Jennifer Green, the Veterinary Director at Australia’s University Veterinary Teaching Hospital Camden, told Phys.Org what behaviors a dog owner might expect from an anxious pup on July 4th, or even during a severe thunderstorm:
These can include panting, pacing, whining, drooling, hiding, and destroying things around the house. They’re often so frightened they will try and escape. Many dogs go missing during storms or fireworks.
Taking steps to prepare your pup for the trauma to come might go a lot way to calming their nerves.
So play a loud movie, or white noise before the show
You can acclimate your dog to the racket outside by creating a lesser racket inside your home. One possibility is indeed finding a loud movie—perhaps one with a lot of special effects and explosions—to play regularly prior to the detonation of celebratory explosives. The aim is to desensitize your dog to the din outside, and reassure them there is nothing to fear—or confuse them so they can’t differentiate between the noise outside and what’s emanating from your television. You can also pair the noisy soundtrack with one of your dog’s favorite treats, to create a pleasant association.
Jenn Stanley, a canine behavioral consultant, detailed to the American Kennel Club just how to do this:
The volume should be low enough that your dog can notice it, but does not show signs of stress like panting, pacing, leaving the area or trying to hide. We call this keeping the dog ‘below threshold,’ and it makes it possible for learning to take place. If the dog is overwhelmed, they’re looking to escape the situation and are not going to be nearly as capable of learning that it’s not a threat.
Remember, the goal is to normalize the sound of fireworks to the point that your dog begins to find the bangs and booms innocuous. Which will pay dividends, since fireworks season typically stretches well beyond July 4.