Dogs and fireworks: 10 expert tips to help nervous pets calm down
Independence Day fireworks may be a source of joy for you, but your pup might not be in on the fun.
Were it up to dog owners (and dogs), pups wouldn’t have to suffer even one moment of a single day. No loneliness, no shots, and definitely no fireworks.
But the reality is less than perfect for dogs (and everyone), so owners do their best to protect and soothe their beloved pets. A few days a year in the U.S. — including July 4 and Labor Day — that means shielding their pooch’s delicate ears from the loud bangs, pops, and whizzes that so terrorize them.
Importantly, when a dog is in distress, its owner often is, too. Helping your pup make it through these nights of loud celebration is good for both your well-being. And to do that, the experts say, you need to be prepared to get creative.
As Chris Pachel, a behavioral veterinarian in Portland, Oregon tells Inverse: “You may have to try a couple of things.”
Why are dogs afraid of fireworks?
Before going all-in on tackling the noise problem, it helps to understand why many dogs freak out when fireworks go off — often, being physically close to the fireworks isn’t so much an issue for your safely inside dog as much as just being able to hear them explode outside nearby.
But what makes some dogs so sensitive to fireworks, while others don’t bat an eyelid, is a bit of a mystery.
“We’re not 100 percent sure why some dogs are sensitive to ‘x,’ and not ‘y,’” Michael Baugh, a Houston-based dog trainer with 22 years of experience, tells Inverse. But he has his own theory on why fireworks might intimidate certain dogs, based on his years working with canines.
“It has to do with the sharpness and the percussive sound of the fireworks and the random intervals,” he says.
Essentially, fireworks are completely unpredictable phenomena from the dogs’ perspectives, so they are unable to anticipate when the next firework will explode. It is that uncertainty that may be so unnerving. This is true of other loud, stochastic noises like a car backfiring.
A car backfiring or another unexpected bang can startle a human as much as it does a pet, but remember that dogs’ ears are much more sensitive than human ears. Dogs hear sound across higher frequencies than do humans, and they can hear sounds at far greater distances than we can, too.
What this means in terms of fireworks is this: Even if a firework display sounds distant or muffled to you, it might sound far louder and more immediate to your dog. At the same time, certain fireworks make a screaming sound as they ascend into the air — these high-pitched whistles may sound all the more screechy to a dog than they do to a human.
Worryingly, the emotional and the physical fallout from these loud bangs, screeches, and pops are hard to tease apart, according to Pachel.
“There is this complex, interwoven relationship between pain and overall physical well-being,” he says. Some dogs, for example, seem to show panic with body language that’s more consistent with a pain response.
“Within the last few years, there’s been some ongoing research that has identified some correlations between especially chronic pain syndromes and increased sensitivity to noise exposure itself,” he adds.
How do I know if my dog is afraid of fireworks?
Dogs wear their heart on their furry sleeve. If they’re joyful, angry, or frightened, you can usually tell by looking at certain physical cues. As yourself these questions to help gauge whether your dog may be feeling frightened or upset as a result of fireworks:
- Are my dog’s ears pinned back?
- Is my dog growling or whining?
- Is my dog shaking?
- Is my dog’s fur on end?
- Is my dog running away from me, or being extra needy?
If a dog runs away howling at the first pop of a firework, that probably means they’re scared — likewise if they cower close by or under the furniture. But there are some telltale cues and facial expressions that aren’t as closely associated with fear, and dog owners ought to know them before the explosions start, Baugh says.
Other physical signs of fear include excessive panting, pacing back and forth, drooling, shallow breathing, and trembling according to Baugh.
“The ears plaster back, their eyes are open wider so that you see more of the whites of their eyes,” he says. Other signs to watch for include a furrowed brow, or dilated pupils.
Do fireworks hurt my dog’s ears?
Because some dogs have such a visceral reaction to fireworks, it is reasonable to think that the loud bangs and pops might hurt dogs’ sensitive ears. But in truth, physical pain isn’t the biggest risk fireworks pose to dogs. Rather, the primary effect may be more psychological.
“What I tend to think more about is some of the emotional trauma,” Pachel says.
That’s not to say fireworks couldn’t be the indirect cause of physical harm: A startled pet could dart out into a busy street, or run off entirely, for example.
But the emotional trauma stemming from the moment may cause a more enduring panic response in a dog. In these cases, the dog becomes hypervigilant because it’s constantly anticipating another acute event. As a result, it exists in a heightened state of arousal.
Sometimes, the panic can last weeks. Pachel recalls one dog that, after the Independence Day fireworks on July 4, “refused to go outside and started eliminating inside the house.” (“Eliminating” means going to the bathroom, just so we’re clear.)
Can my dog die from fear of fireworks?
The short answer to whether your dog can die from its fear of fireworks, Pachel says, is no.
But delving into the details, it isn’t entirely clear cut for certain dogs. Pachel explains that some metabolic conditions in dogs do directly relate to a dog’s emotional state in an acute situation.
So it’s possible for a traumatic experience — a night of constant fireworks — to trigger a metabolic crisis. The best way to prepare and protect your dog, in this case, is to make sure you’re up to speed on your dog’s metabolic health with your vet before subjecting them to any stressful situations — whether that is a firework display or anything else.
How do I calm my dog down during fireworks?
Ultimately, owners can do their best to protect their pets, but it is difficult to avoid Independence Day fireworks if you live in certain areas, for example, in a city, or next to the field chosen to host the display. It is also hard to predict when, exactly, a loud bang might occur at any given time. And these factors lead us to the critical point: What to do about it.
Preparation is key, Baugh emphasizes. There’s only so much one can do in the midst of the frenzy, but taking the right steps weeks or even days ahead of the acute event (i.e., fireworks on July 4) can save a lot of stress on the day for both you and your dog.
There are ways to condition your dog to cope with loud noises ahead of time, too. This kind of training is essential for dogs that work in war zones or policing, for example.
New Jersey-based dog owner Claire Tomasi explains to Inverse how she has tried to do this kind of training with Ticket, her two-and-a-half-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Loud sounds make him uneasy, so she always feeds him a treat after the sound has passed. He has come to associate loud sounds with treats, so now instead of cowering at a bang or rumble, he looks to Tomasi for a reward for being such a good boy.
If you want to try a similar training technique, Baugh cautions owners not to feed the dog a treat before the sound, because the association will backfire: Your dog may come to think that eating treats causes a scary sound.
But ideally, preparation for Independence Day fireworks every year begins during the dog’s earliest moments, when they are a puppy aged between eight and 18 weeks. That’s the perfect time in dogs’ development to teach them that loud bangs don’t necessarily mean danger, and how to respond appropriately.
But no matter your dog’s age or training, when it’s go-time it’s best for owners to have a handful of tricks available.
“You may have to try a couple of things in that moment to see what makes the difference,” Pachel says. It may take a suite of distractions to calm your dog and take their mind off what can sound like armageddon, including:
- Physically distancing your dog from the noise
- Muting the sound
- Feeding your dog treats
- Cuddling your dog
- Playing a game with your dog
- Running through physical training exercises
But after the fireworks are done, that shouldn’t be the end of trying to help your dog, Pachel advises.
“The moment the trigger is gone, it tends to be out of sight, out of mind,” he says.
Rather, once the acute moment is over, it’s in the owner and dog’s best interest to start preparing for the next time it happens, instead of just breathing a sigh of relief.
Should I let my dog hide during fireworks?
As long as your dog is indoors, it can try to find a suitable place to wait out the terror. If you’re outside, try to physically distance your dog from the sound as much as possible without letting go of it.
One option for owners is to get your dog familiar with the idea of having its very own “bunker,” such as a closet, where sound is muffled and it knows it can be safe inside. To get started try these steps:
- Put the dog’s bed and water dish in the “bunker” days or even weeks before the event — this lets them know it’s their new spot.
- On the day, play white noise or soothing music to buffer the sound from outside.
What can I give my dog for fireworks?
If these tactics aren’t cutting it, then you may be tempted to try a medical intervention. Before you do anything, however, talk to your vet.
There are certain anxiety-reducing substances that you may be able to give your dog to help them manage their fears. These include:
- CBD, or cannabidiol
“[These medications] can all work some of the time,” Pachel says. But to know exactly how effective a medication is, or how it might affect your dog, it’s best to do a trial run before breaking out the meds when the fireworks start.
Again, talk to your vet before you try any medication for your dog. But once you have settled on the best course, then it may be helpful to give your dog the recommended dose of the medication on a typical, non-firework-filled day, and observe its behaviors.
Pachel says owners should ask themselves: “What does dog plus CBD [or] Benadryl [or] melatonin look like in the absence of those triggers?”
One thing to keep in mind is that when a pet is on anti-anxiety substances, what you’re seeing physically might not necessarily reflect how your dog feels.
“The tricky part, which is often difficult for even well-intentioned pet owners, [is] to evaluate the true clinical effect, meaning if we’re getting a level of sedation, that can mask some of the signs of anxiety,” Pachel says. It’s possible that your dog is still freaking out internally, but is just a little zonked — all the more reason to see the drugs’ influence ahead of time.
Again, talk to your vet before trying any medical intervention on your dog. And remember: The best way to help your dog make it through the fireworks every July is to make sure you and your dog are prepared at any point in the year.