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Curing Your Dog’s Fireworks Fear

Products using psychological techniques can rid your dog of its noise phobia.

chihuahua-633962_1920 Pixabay Elbowalker
Source: chihuahua-633962_1920 Pixabay Elbowalker

If your dog cowers at the sound of fireworks, you probably dread the dog days of summer as much as it does. And you’re not alone. An estimated 40% of dogs suffer from noise anxiety—usually in regard to fireworks and thunderstorms—with these anxieties peaking during summer.

Animal shelters know more than anyone how fireworks fears affect man’s best friend. Sadly, July 5th is a shelter’s busiest day of the year for taking in runaway dogs. And most facilities around the country see a 30-40% spike in reports of lost pets the day after Independence Day.

On a personal note, I know all too well the pain of losing a pet due to fireworks. When I was a child, my first dog Blackjack was so panicked by neighbors shooting off fireworks that he scaled our six-foot fence, crossed the highway miles from our home, and was hit by a car and killed. I still remember the moment I saw the red collar on his body at the local shelter, the collar I had picked out at the pet store for him, and knew he was dead. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.

So with July 4th around the corner, let’s examine what options dog owners have if they want to cure their pooch of its fireworks fear.

Temporary Fixes

Most products designed to help dogs with their noise fears offer only temporary fixes. Many come in the form of pills or drops. These include homeopathic blends, calming pheromones, and most recently, CBD oil. There are also anti-anxiety prescription medications like Sileo.

For pet parents wanting to use less invasive methods, there are anxiety jackets, head wraps, eye masks, and aromatherapy. Keep in mind there is scant research on the effectiveness of any of these methods, but pet owners may want to give them a try and see if any work on their fur baby.

A Permanent Solution

The problem with these approaches so far is they only offer a temporary fix. The immediate crisis is averted, but the dog’s underlying phobia is left untreated. This means that his or her anxiety will inevitably pop up the next time fireworks (or a thunderstorm) light up the sky.

Worse still is the fact that phobias tend to worsen and generalize if left untreated. One study found that dogs with a storm phobia also had a 95% likelihood of developing a fear of fireworks and a 75% likelihood of gunfire. And another study found that dogs with a noise phobia had an 88% likelihood of developing other anxiety conditions, like separation anxiety. Furthermore, noise phobias are genetically inherited, so a dog with a noise phobia is likely to give birth to puppies with similar noise issues. For these reasons, noise phobias need to be treated, not just temporarily soothed, and the treatment needs to occur as early as possible.

For pet parents who want to address the underlying cause of their dog’s issues and permanently eliminate its noise phobia, there is really only one option: behavior modification. A dog’s fear of noises—be it from fireworks, thunder, or in the case of hunting dogs, gunfire—is a psychological problem. It, therefore, needs a psychological solution.

Before we get into the solution, let’s briefly discuss the problem. It’s important to remember that phobias refer to irrational and uncontrollable fear. When your dog hears that first pop of fireworks or that first rumble of thunder, a cascade of physical responses occur. Its bloodstream floods with cortisol and adrenaline. Its heart races. Its lungs flood with oxygen. Its sensitivity to light and sound heighten. None of this is within your dog’s control, so saying, “It’s okay Fido” or scolding it does no good. Once the dog’s fear-switch has been flipped, it has no control over its responses.

The solution then is to modify that switch in advance so that when the fireworks do start, the switch doesn’t even get flipped. Essentially, we want to turn the negative stimulus (the pop of fireworks, the rumble of thunder) into a neutral or even positive stimulus. So how do we do that? That’s where behavior modification comes in.

You’ve probably heard of the story of Pavlov and his dog. In the famous experiment, Pavlov used conditioning techniques to train a dog to salivate at a particular sound (usually the sound of a metronome). Every time the noise started, he would give the dog a puff of meat dust and it would naturally salivate. By repeating this process over and over, he got the dog to automatically associate a neutral stimulus (the sound) with a positive stimulus (smell of meat).

To cure a dog of its noise phobia, we want to do the same thing as Pavlov did but in reverse. Now as you might imagine, it’s a lot harder to turn a negative into a neutral than it is to turn a neutral into a positive, but it can be done with the help of two psychological ingredients: desensitization and counterconditioning.

Desensitization means gradually exposing the dog to its feared noise. The key word here is gradual. Every time July 4th hits, a phobic dog is suddenly exposed to an overwhelming barrage of feared stimuli. That’s about the worst thing you can do to a phobic dog—it will only strengthen its noise phobia (therapists call this technique “flooding” – it doesn’t work well for human phobias either).

Instead, the dog should slowly be exposed to a very low-level trigger, one that is so low it barely responds at all (like the scarcely audible pop of a firework). Once it can handle that stimulus without responding, you move on to a slightly more troublesome trigger, and so on and so on. Over time, the dog becomes less sensitized to the trigger. This is essentially what exposure therapy does for humans, whereby someone with a spider phobia might first look at a picture of a spider and slowly work their way up to touching a real-life spider.

Counterconditioning means pairing the feared stimulus with something pleasant. Food is one option but it doesn’t always work because oftentimes the last thing an anxious dog wants to do is eat. Another option is to use soothing white noise or classical music to invoke a calm response in the face of a noise trigger. Even better is something like the product Kennel Calm, which uses music that has been scientifically engineered to mimic a dog’s resting heartbeat.

Now notice how these two processes work in tandem. Desensitization turns down the negative dial while counterconditioning turns up the positive dial. Over time, this will gradually cause the dog to replace an undesired response to the noise (whining, shaking in fear) with the desired response (calm).

Using desensitization and counterconditioning can be tricky because you must proceed gradually. If you go too far too fast, you’ll only reinforce the fear and have to start over. For this reason, it's best to go with a treatment system that has already taken the guesswork out of the process. CD programs like the Master’s Voice Noiseshy System combine desensitization and counterconditioning by slowly exposing dogs to their feared noises in the midst of background music that is not only calming but engineered to have the same beat as a dog’s resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute. The dog becomes so calmed by the music it barely registers the pop-pop of fireworks or rumble of thunder (in the case of hunting dogs, there’s a similar system that cures noise phobia associated with gunfire).

Keep in mind that not all noise phobia CD programs are effective. Some products involve sounds of fireworks or thunder against soft music, but they lack the gradual increase in noise necessary for desensitization and they also lack the engineered music necessary for counterconditioning. Plus, you can’t expect to just flip on the music, leave the house, and come home to find your dog cured (any product promising this is lying).

Treatments like the Master’s Voice series are effective, but they’re not quick fixes. They require a pet owner to work with their dog throughout each step of the process, much like a therapist works with clients to rid them of their phobias. Pet parents must be willing to devote a few minutes each day to their dog’s therapy. And depending on how bad the phobia, the process can take a few weeks.

But in the end, the results will be long-lasting. You’ll no longer have to drug your dog or swaddle them in weighted jackets every time there’s a thunderstorm or a fireworks celebration. Your dog will be cured and free to finally enjoy those dog days of summer (and so will you).

More from Melissa Burkley Ph.D.
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