Dogs and Fireworks – Essential Advice For Calming A Dog During Loud Noises And Events

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Advice from veterinary behaviourist Jon Bowen

As we know dogs and fireworks can be a stressful combination. We asked veterinary behaviourist Jon Bowen for his expert advice on calming a dog during loud noises and events.

Distress, fear, and anxiety during exposure to loud noises (e.g., storms, fireworks) are behavioural and welfare concerns for dogs, and affect up to 50% of dogs over their lifetime (Korpivaara et al.2016).

It may not be immediately obvious that your dog is anxious, they can show their anxiety it in many different ways, as shown in the diagram below. Some of the most common signs are panting, trembling, salivating/drooling, pacing, or possibly freezing on the spot, or trying to find somewhere to hide, or trying to escape, vocalising, which you often hear as barking, or howling, or they may be very clingy to you and sometimes they may even empty their bowels in the house.

Some dogs may just show one of these signs, some will show several, the more signs you see the more stressed your dog might be. Subtle signs like lip-licking and yawning are often overlooked.

What would you advise I do with dogs and fireworks or if there is a storm with thunder?

Advice from Jon Bowen veterinary behaviourist

Jon: Loud noises are a problem for many dogs. The best way to handle this is to provide your dog with a readily accessible hiding place and try to minimise the impact of external noises by keeping curtains and windows shut, and playing background music. Feeding your dog early, and going on a walk to allow them to empty their bowels before dark minimises the risk of exposure to loud noises outside. When you arrive home, turn on some loud music that will help to block out any noises that come from outside (don’t do this if your dog does not like loud music). Put a chew or bone in your dog’s hiding place, as an encouragement to go there (don’t do this if your dog aggressively guards chews and bones).

Then try to act normally during the noises. Don’t try too hard to soothe your dog, but don’t ignore your dog either; instead, stay calm and interact with your dog as you would at any other time. Regularly check on your dog while he/she is in the hiding place. Offer gentle praise and some food treats while your dog stays in the hiding place. If your dog comes out of the hiding place, encourage him/her to go back there, perhaps by offering some food treats. Try to act as a good role model; stay relaxed and calm. Above all, don’t get cross if your dog becomes uncontrollably distressed.

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What should I do after the noise dogs hate has stopped?

Jon: When your dog has come out of hiding after an event has passed, offer some gentle encouragement but keep things calm until he/she has fully settled down. We want the dog to use the hiding place until he/she has naturally regained the confidence to come out. Being excessively encouraging when the dog comes out of his/her hiding place could lead to him/her remaining unsettled during a noise event, going in and out of hiding rather than settling down.

Why shouldn’t I soothe my dog?

Jon: Our natural response is to try to offer comfort and support when we see that our dog is afraid. This can make us seem worried and vulnerable, and confirms your dog’s fear of what is happening. If we become the main source of security for the dog during times of stress, they may have greater difficulty coping when we aren’t around. It is much better that your dog learns to go somewhere safe to hide, rather than depending on people for comfort. We should act as good role models; remaining calm and relaxed as if nothing bad is happening, and helping to guide the dog to its hiding place. Above all, try to be consistent in the way that you manage and interact with your dog during loud noise events.

What advice would you give if we are having a noisy party at home with lots of guests?

Jon: If you know in advance that a party will be noisy and stressful for your dog then try to make sure that the noisiest activities happen in a particular room or part of the home, so that the dog is not surrounded by noise and activity.

For example, keep all the children’s party games in the garden or living room; the rest of the house is out of bounds. Set up a place for your dog to go for some peace and quiet whenever he/she wants; you could put your dog’s bed in your bedroom and then make that room out of bounds to guests. Some dogs would rather stay with you than go off to have a nap in a bedroom alone, so you may have to plan regular breaks with your dog, when you take him/her to sit somewhere quiet with you for a few minutes.

Can medication help to calm dogs during loud noises?

Jon: The stress-relief approach works with most dogs in most situations, but if your dog shows a lot of stress signs during noisy events such as fireworks, travel or parties then anxiety reducing medication can be very effective. There is a licensed product available that can reduce noise-related fear and anxiety without making your dog sleepy, ask your vet for more information and they will be able to give further advice and prescribe me the best medication for your dog.

So in summary, to help dogs who hate loud noises you should:

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References: Korpivaara, M., Laapas, K., Huhtinen, M., Schöning, B., Overall, K. (2016) Dexmedetomidine Oromucosal Gel for Alleviation of Acute Anxiety and Fear Associated with Noise in Dogs. Abstract ACVIM