Research has suggested that over a million UK owners say that their dogs are scared when fireworks go off – so why are fireworks so problematic for our pets, when they’re entertaining for us?
It’s largely to do with expectations. The loud bangs and whizzes of a fireworks display can be a positive experience when you are expecting them to happen and understand that they are part of an evening’s entertainment based on a historical attempt to blow up Parliament. But think about how differently you might feel if you experienced similarly loud bangs when you’re not expecting them – when you’re on a train or relaxing at a street café in summer for example – and have no idea why they are happening. You would probably feel pretty terrified. That’s exactly the situation for our pets – they have no understanding why on earth such scary noises would suddenly happen without warning, and often get very scared indeed.
We can prevent our pets from developing these fears by ensuring they are introduced to noises like fireworks and thunder early in life in a gradual and positive way. This is one of the key messages in the puppy classes taught by Dogs Trust Dog School teams around the UK. In the classes, puppies get to hear the sounds of fireworks, but to start with at such a low volume that they hardly notice them. Whilst hearing these noises they get to have a game or get treats or chewy toys so that the noises are associated with something fun.
Over time, and as long as they don’t show any signs of fear, the pups get to hear the various whizzes, cracks and bangs at increased volume and closer together. By introducing firework sounds like this in a positive way, we can make sure that when they grow up and experience fireworks for real the pups see them as a normal part of life. But what if you have a pet who is already worried? There are two aspects to think about here – firstly at this time of year you need to think about prepping ahead for the dreaded nights when fireworks go off. Then once the fireworks season has finished you need to get cracking to plan a programme of treatment to help your pet cope better next time round.
What to Do Now
- If you know that your pet gets frightened by fireworks, then make an appointment to see your vet as soon as possible. For severe cases, they may be able to prescribe some medication that will help your pet – this is worthwhile as the right medication will not only help your pet cope this year, but also help prevent them ‘sensitising’, or reacting even more in future because of their bad experience this time round.
- Prepare a safe place for your pet. This is ideally a ‘den’ or hiding place that they can snuggle into. If you can, make this in the middle of the house, away from windows (under the stairs is often ideal), muffled by blankets or duvet, and just big enough for your pet to be able to feel snuggled up and enclosed inside. For dogs, it will help to make this a familiar and positive place before firework night – for example by giving them treats or a chewy toy inside.
- Plan to get your pets inside before you would expect any fireworks to start, and if possible stay in with them so you can keep an eye on them.
What to do When Fireworks Go Off
- Try to stay calm yourself and keep to your normal routines. Looking out of the window or moving around a lot when you don’t usually do this could be unsettling for your pet. Make sure your prepared den or hiding place is easily accessible for them.
- If possible stay with your pet. For dogs in particular, it’s important to give them some reassurance if they come to find you when they’re scared. In the past, you might have heard advice suggesting it’s best to ignore your pet if they are frightened. The rationale for this was ‘to avoid reinforcing the fear’ – but that’s a bit of a fallacy, as the fear is already there, what you are reinforcing by giving attention is the dog’s way of coping with the fear (seeking reassurance from you). In the long term, it’s a good idea to change this response, because being dependent on you being there makes it all much more traumatic if you’re not there. But fireworks night is not the time to start changing this! Give him or her attention now when they need it, as suddenly removing it when your pet depends on it to cope would be very traumatic.
- If your pet goes into the ‘den’ you prepared, then leave them in there. It’s important to not try and get them out, even after the noises have finished, as they may still be scared and defensive. This also applies if they have jammed themselves into another space that you hadn’t planned for, like your wardrobe.
- At the end of the event, stay calm and reward your pet with attention and praise when they decide for themselves to come out from a hiding place or settle down after running about or barking. If your pet carries on being scared for a while after the fireworks finish, if you behave normally it will help them settle back into everyday routines.
After the Fireworks Season
As soon as the last fireworks of the New Year celebrations are over, the time is right to start thinking about next year. Firework fears don’t get better on their own – and in many cases it will get worse each year throughout the pet’s life if not addressed. Many owners don’t realise that it’s possible to change how their pet feels about loud noises, so that they are not freaked out in subsequent years. This change is done through a programme of behaviour therapy.
Ask your vet to refer you to a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist to get a programme of advice tailored specifically to you and your pet.
These programmes will usually involve very gradually teaching your pet that loud noises are no longer scary. This is called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ – a bit of a mouthful, but in essence changes your pet’s response to a sound from a negative emotion to a positive once. And because the underlying emotion changes, the behaviour does too.
Programmes may also include teaching your pet to be less dependent on your attention during scary events, to make sure that they can cope even when you’re not about.
These programmes can take a bit of work and time – that’s why it’s important to start as soon as possible in the New Year. All the work will feel worthwhile when you see your pet cope much better through future fireworks seasons.
You can find more information on preventing and dealing with noise fears in dogs
Dr Rachel Casey BVMS PhD CCAB DipECAWBM(BM) DipECAWBM(AWSEL) MRCVS RCVS Recognised Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine European Specialist in Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law