Around every New Years (and 4th of July) holiday I see people comment on social media about their dogs and how they are so afraid of the fireworks. Many commenters want fireworks to be banned so that their beloved pets don't have to be afraid
I ask myself, why don't they help their dogs over this fear and improve the dog's life by teaching the pet to associate calm with fireworks? Then I realize that many pet parents may not understand that most dogs can learn not to associate fear with fireworks or thunderstorms.
Most Dogs Can Learn to Be Calm During Fireworks or Thunderstorms
Dogs don't reason, they associate. Most dogs that are afraid of the loud bangs of fireworks or thunder, associate the noise with being afraid.
There are many dogs that aren't effected by the loud noises or smells, and more than likely, these dogs were exposed to small amounts of loud noises and shown by their owners that there is nothing to worry about. Think about a hunting dog getting used to the noise of gunshots for example.
We can help a dog overcome his flight response (fear) by slowly introducing a new way to react to the sounds of fireworks or thunderstorms. This does take time and patients, by will most certainly have a lasting positive effect on the dog's life.
This type of training must be done over months and certainly not when there are real fireworks for thunderstorms!
Owners Often Reinforce the Wrong Behavior
When a dog is afraid of fireworks or thunderstorms, their owners often times will feel sorry for the pet and cuddle them or try to comfort them. This actually reinforces the fear responds, since the attention given rewards the dog. It signals the dog that what they are currently doing is correct. In the dog's mind, the owner is showing them affection, because they agree with their reaction.
As hard as it is not to comfort a dog that is afraid, it is important not to give affection when the dog is afraid. Allow the dog to find a comfortable place to withdraw to and don't hold the dog. When the pet comes to you, model the behavior you want, by being calm and relaxed.
Teach the Behavior You Wish to See
If you want your dog to be comfortable around the noise of fireworks and thunderstorms, you need to slowly introduce these sounds when the dog is relaxed. This way the dog will associate the sounds with being in the state of relaxation.
Start by playing the sound (you can find a YouTube Video or download the sound online) at very very very low volume after the dog has had a long walk and is comfortably laying down. If the dog shows signs of anxiety or fear, lower the volume even more. Do not give affection at this time, rather just sit and relax yourself. Be aware of your own body language. Don't talk, just let the low volume sound be the backdrop of your calm relaxed moment.
Over time, you can start using the low volume sound during other positive moments, for example, you can play the sound while playing with your dog, or if the dog is now accustomed to the sound, play it when the dog eats this food. These experiences will help the dog associate the sound with a positive experience. If the dog isn't afraid, you can give attention and praise.
Don't progress too quickly! Take a few weeks before you increase the volume of the sound. Continue with the same exercises at higher volumes.
Watch the video below to see how to properly do this exercise:
Behavior Modification Takes Time
Replacing a learned behavior with a new one takes lots of time. So if you wish to help your dog overcome his fear of fireworks, don't wait until the next holiday weekend. Start by making a plan to teach the behavior you want and take the time to desensitize your dog to these loud and scary sounds gradually. On average it takes about 2 months of training gradually to desensitize a fearful dog properly.
With you help, your dog can overcome his fear of fireworks and lead a happier life.
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