Thunder, fireworks, training at Quantico Marine Corps Base (or any military base where weapon and munitions training is done): the sounds produced are terrifying for many dogs. I live just a few miles as the crow flies from Quantico. There are many days it sounds like a thunderstorm here due to frequent training. It can last several days to a week. I can even feel my house shake many days of training. Fireworks are a common occurrence where I live. A local ball park often has them after games. Residents set them off for various occasions. Finally, we are no stranger to serious thunder storms in my area!
The fear is real to our dogs, even if it seems silly to us. If we respond in an anxious or punitive manner, fears worsen. Remain rock solid and calm for your fearful dog. It is OK to reassure your dog when afraid! We need to help our dogs compassionately and carefully. It is important to work with a trainer to help develop a program for your dog that does NOT include ignoring the fear or punishing it. You want to learn management and how to help your dog through the boomies.
Counter Conditioning and Desensitizing are great ways to begin working with these fears.
Counter conditioning works to change an emotional response. Remember Ivan Pavlov and his dog experiments? Dog hears bell and gets fed. Eventually when the bell sounds the dog reacts in anticipation of food even if no food is given. What if Pavlov used shocks instead of food? The dog would be conditioned to fear the ring of the bell. The dog would be conditioned to the bell sound being scary. If Pavlov removed the shock and used food, he could help the dog associate the bell with good things. The dog would have been counter conditioned to like the bell.
We desensitize by using small amounts of the scary stimulus while adding something else highly pleasurable for the dog like playing, etc. By using small amounts of the stressing thing while counter conditioning, we make it easier for the dog to handle the stimuli. Play the sounds very softly while giving the dog great treats, playing with him, etc. There are many great sound effects apps you can download, CDs and online sound effects you can use. Keep the volume soft in the beginning. You want the dog aware of the sound but the sound not so loud that he is already afraid before you begin work. As the dog becomes comfortable with each level, increase it just a little bit and continue work. Always work with the counter conditioning at the same time.
If your dog becomes stressed, back off, give your dog a break and start again later with the volume softer.
Thunder Shirts, herbal remedies and medications may be recommended and can help if used carefully. If improperly introduced as part of a program, Thunder Shirts can fail. Some owners toss them on at the beginning of an event and the dog associates the shirt with the scary thing. If you decide to try a Thunder Shirt, please make sure you do not accidentally teach the dog to associate it with the scary stuff. For other dogs, they work wonderfully! You will not know until you try it.
Some medications are chemical restraints and do nothing to help the dog’s emotional state. The dog is still stressed – he just cannot react. Imagine what it would be like to be forced into a stressing situation and unable to do anything? Medications, the correct ones, can be very helpful for many dogs. Dr. Karen Overall (veterinary behaviorist) has some great resources your vet may find helpful when it comes to discussing medication for stress and anxiety. There is a newer, short-term medication called Sileo that was developed for sound-phobic dogs. Discuss this possibility with your vet.
It is important to remember safety is always first. Keep your dog inside and well supervised when outside to help prevent a panicked escape. It is amazing how high a terrified dog jump. A four-foot fence is nothing for many dogs – even smaller dogs – especially when terrified. If you use an electric fence, scared dogs may bolt through the shock line and not come back. Additionally feeling a shock in conjunction with the scary sound can increase the dog’s fears of sounds. Tethered dogs may panic and injure themselves trying to escape.
Keep your dog inside long before the sounds start. Food stuffed toys, a quiet room with a radio or TV playing, your presence reassuring your dog can all help out. You cannot reinforce fear so do not worry about trying to make your dog feel safe.
Keep your dog HOME if you go to any celebration with fireworks (professional or private). Parties and big events can be stressing enough even for very social dogs. Add in explosions and sights and smells dogs are not acclimated too and this can be too much.
The number of lost dogs and veterinary emergency visits sky-rocket (no pun intended) around the 4th of July. Make sure your dog has a collar and ID tag as well as a microchip that is registered to your current residence. If worst case scenario happens, this can help your dog get returned. If you find a dog, even one who looks a fright, work to find the owner. Even a few days lost can make a beloved dog look horribly neglected.
Work to prevent issues before they begin. Using sound effects CD, apps and websites, you can make the sounds of fireworks and storms part of your socializing protocol. It is amazing what you can find for sound effects on YouTube! Play the sounds softly while you play with and feed your puppy. Socializing is not just seeing new things but also hearing them!
Do not flood or let a trainer flood (saturate) your dog with the scary stuff. Flooding is exposing an animal to a constant barrage of the scary thing hoping the critter will realize he is being silly and snap out of his fears. This rarely works and can make things a LOT worse. If the dog stops responding it may be because he has shut down and is truly not accepting of it. Never mistake stillness for a dog being fine. Make sure the trainer you choose knows how to use counter conditioning and desensitizing. It is important to do many short sessions a day when it is light and dark outside.
Yes, fireworks, thunderstorms and military base sounds can be scary for our dogs, but there is a lot we can do to help them through.
Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.