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How to Help Dogs Who Are Terrified of Fireworks or Thunder

New data rates the effectiveness of techniques to manage fear of noise in dogs.

Source: evgengerasimovich/Shutterstock

"So to celebrate the holiday somebody on our street set off a whole bunch of fireworks on their lawn. The next thing I know Red starts screaming and scrambling around trying to find a place to hide, yowling all the while." Red is an 11-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, and is already a large, imposing dog who looks like nothing in the world would frighten him. My friend Kathy's voice showed the degree of emotional stress that she was feeling as she continued, "And here is the kicker. I'm in my living room trying to calm Red down when there is this knock on the door. I open it and I find that I am looking at a pair of uniformed police officers. Apparently somebody heard Red's screaming and thought that a woman or a child was being attacked or abused and they called 911! Although it was the sound of the fireworks which sent him over the top that time, he also panics when he hears the sound of thunder. Is there anything I can do about this?"

It turns out that research has shown that approximately half of all dogs have fearful reactions to loud noises, at least to some degree. Fireworks, thunder, jackhammers, lawnmowers, gunshots, coffee grinders, the sound of a dropped pot, and even the sound of Velcro flaps being ripped open have all been reported to frighten at least some dogs. Their reactions vary in intensity. While Red screamed in fear, some dogs whimper, whine, or tremble. Others try to hide, occasionally taking refuge in hiding places that are so tight that they get stuck there. Still others act as if they are having a panic attack and try to escape, gnawing at door handles, crashing through windows or screen doors, or racing off into traffic in a desperate effort to escape the loud sounds that have frightened them.

Because the anxiety caused by loud noises is so common in dogs, and the resultant behaviors can be so disruptive, a potpourri of interventions and treatments have been suggested. Since our society believes that there is a pill for everything, it is not surprising that prescription medications to deal with canine anxiety have been tried, and then of course there are herbal products, homeopathic blends, essential oils, and various canine-calming pheromones. There are also CDs containing the sound of fireworks or thunder mixed in with soothing musical selections, and, alternatively, there are noise-generating CDs to drown out the threatening sounds. More recently special pressure jackets that swaddle the dogs and supposedly have a calming effect have become available.

In addition to these therapeutic attempts a variety of different behavioral techniques have been suggested including relaxation training, counter-conditioning (which involves an attempt to train the dogs not to be afraid), special massaging procedures, having the owner provide reassurance for the frightened dog through the use of gentle spoken sounds and physical contact, or simply recommendations that the caregiver should ignore the fear-evoking sounds and the dog's panicky responses in order to demonstrate to him that these are not important or dangerous events that need to be attended to.

With so many methods of treatment and intervention being suggested, Stefanie Riemer, who is a member of the University of Bern's Companion Animal Behavior Group in Switzerland, decided to gather data to determine whether any of these techniques actually worked. The study involved an online survey of 1,225 owners of dogs with a known fear of fireworks. She was seeking information on which methods owners had tried and how effective each was when it came to alleviating noise phobia in pets.

It turns out that prescription medications did cause significant reductions in the fearfulness of 69% of the dogs. Non-prescription alternatives, however, were not very effective. The reported success rates for the treatment categories of pheromones, herbal products, nutraceuticals, essential oils, homeopathic remedies, and Bach flowers were all in the range of 27 to 35% improvement which Riemer describes as being "not higher than would be expected based on a placebo effect." The canine pressure vests fared a little bit better: They were deemed as effective by 44% of owners who used them.

Looking at the more behavioral methods, the noise desensitization CDs were effective in 55% of cases. However, Riemer concluded that the most effective means of dealing with canine noise phobias involved at-home counter-conditioning, which was effective in more than 70% of the cases.

What exactly is counter-conditioning in this particular context? It is a method some dog trainers and behaviorists call "jollying." When the fireworks, thunder, or other loud noises start, this method involves having a bit of a party, or more precisely, actively playing with the dog, giving treats, and expressing positive emotions and comfort in a joyful manner. This runs counter to an existing myth which is that by reacting positively you are reinforcing or strengthening the dog's fear. This is apparently not the case, since in essence you are replacing the fearful, escape-driven behaviors with positive feelings and responses. It is important to note that the ease with which you can "jolly" your dog will depend upon the intensity of the dog's anxiety. Some dogs will simply be too afraid to take treats; however, for this technique to work, you simply carry on with the playful and supportive behaviors and continue the session for a period of time, even after the noises have completely disappeared. This continuation beyond the termination of the traumatizing sounds seems to help the dog to more quickly calm down and leaves a positive halo over memories of the events. This ultimately helps reduce the level of emotionality that the dog will experience when he encounters loud noises in the future.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

I must admit that I agree with Riemer's conclusion about the effectiveness of counter-conditioning. As a bit of anecdotal evidence, I have personally had a number of dogs in my life and none have shown fearfulness based upon loud sounds. This is because, when my dogs are puppies, even if they are not yet showing any fear of noises, I use this "jolly" technique of counter-conditioning whenever we encounter loud noises in our environment, and thus sound-triggered fearfulness does not become a problem behavior in my pets as they grow up.

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Riemer, S. (2020). Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 37, 61-70.