For many, the winter season is a time for wrapping up warm, sipping on hot chocolate and perhaps enjoying a firework display with friends and family. For some family members however, fireworks night = fright night. So, what do you need to know about dogs and fireworks, and how can you keep your furry friend calm and safe?
When you stop to think about it, our dogs do incredibly well to adapt to our busy lives and human habits. However, there are some elements of our world that they find a bit challenging and scary. One of the most common fear triggers is fireworks night.
Did you know that a whopping 45% of owners think their dogs are fearful of fireworks? * Unfortunately, the real number is likely to be even higher, as some signs that dogs are worried are less obvious. Fear is a natural and understandable response to the unpredictable sights, sounds, vibrations and smells of fireworks. Here’s what we can do to help support our dogs and keep them safe and happy this winter:
Spotting the signs of distress
It starts with understanding when your dog is worried. Your dog says a lot about how he or she feels through behaviour and body language. Signs that they are stressed or worried include:
They may also become clingier, lose their appetite, be more destructive than normal, or even have accidents inside the house. Every dog is different, so they may show one – or many – signs.
Dogs and fireworks: practical ways to help
The good news is that there are many ways to help your dog find fireworks less scary. Read on for both short-term solutions and long-term support to help your dog feel happier and more confident around scary bangs and whizzes.
Long-term support – 6 months+ ahead
Work with a certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist
Ideally, it’s best to think long-term and get expert advice from a certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist who has up-to-date skills, knowledge and experience. (Inappropriate or out-dated advice can do more harm than good to your dog’s behaviour and welfare, so be sure to check qualifications and references carefully.)
Behaviourists can be particularly helpful for dogs who are worried about fireworks and may have become ‘sensitised’. This means that rather than fireworks being a part of normal life, your dog has come to associate them with feelings of fear. Unfortunately, this has a knock-on effect as a fear of firework noises can escalate into a fear of loud noises more widely. Early intervention is best to prevent the fear worsening and affecting other situations.
Behaviour therapy can support your dog with long-lasting effects. Your behaviourist is the best person to advise you with a plan tailored to your dog’s needs. Behaviour therapy is all about teaching your dog something new about the things they fear. One technique a behaviourist might include is sound therapy – though there are other options to suit different dogs. Dr Emily Blackwell BSc (Hons) PhD CCAB, explains in this video:
Planning ahead – 1-4 weeks before firework season
It’s useful to find out the dates of organised firework events in your area so that you can add them to your diary and have time to prepare support for your dog. Unfortunately for our furry friends, fireworks are rarely confined to 5th November – they often whizz, pop and bang in back gardens all winter long, so it’s worth being mindful of the possibility throughout the whole winter season!
YuCALM should be used as part of a combined approach to changing feelings and responses to scary situations, including fireworks. You can give it as part of your first steps towards rehabilitation as well as part of a longer-term behaviour therapy programme.
On the night - Home comforts and practical tips for dogs on fireworks night
Managing your dog’s environment and experiences is the next step in helping your dog feel better when there are fireworks on. There are many ways to prepare in advance.
Provide a safe space
Many dogs feel safer hiding under the table, behind the sofa or beneath a bed. Leaving a scary situation is a natural response so it’s really important that your dog has access to a safe, private place. Try to make their chosen spot as comfortable as possible – they’ll feel extra safe if you use familiar bedding, treats or favourite toys and cover the area with a blanket – though make sure there is enough air. If your dog hasn’t already got a hiding place, set up a den a few weeks in advance of firework season and help them get to know it as a positive place to go. Allow your dog free access, without using any force. Never put your dog in their safe space for confinement.
Reduce the visual impact
You can help to reduce the visual impact of fireworks by keeping curtains and blinds closed – it can be worth using black-out blinds, or adding a duvet or blanket over your regular curtains if they’re thin. This will muffle the sound, too.
Prepare a relaxing soundtrack
There are special sound tracks that help dogs cope with stressful or noisy situations – see if you can find a CD, or search for a playlist if you use Spotify.
Invest in a Thundershirt
Thundershirts or wrap shirts give your dog the feeling of a comforting hug, and lots of dogs find them calming. For best effect, order in advance and let your dog get used to the feeling of wearing one before the bangs start.
Keep the lights on
By keeping some lights on you’ll reduce the contrast of any flashing lights outside.
Walkies before dark
Exercising your dog before dusk will reduce your chances of experiencing fireworks whilst out and about. It’s important to keep your dog on a lead – if a firework were to go off and startle your dog they may run away or into the road. The double security of a harness and a collar can make sense in fireworks season.
Skip the displays
We’d recommend never taking your dog to an event where there are likely to be fireworks – even if you don’t think that they are afraid. You may not spot the subtle signs that they’re uncomfortable in all the excitement, and any accidents could see them become fearful in the future.
Make sure your dog stays inside so that they don’t bolt or escape. Take extra care when opening your door to visitors, keep windows shut, and try not to take trips to the garden when there is a chance of fireworks happening.
Update their chip and check their collar or harness
Is your dog’s collar or harness in good condition? Is your pet micro-chipped and wearing an identity tag? This is important for cats too – running away is a common stress response so it’s important to take every precaution. If they need a toilet trip after dark, pop their collar or harness and lead on – scared dogs are the ultimate escape artists, so don’t take the risk.
Being a brilliant friend – ways you can support your dog
Our actions as friends and ‘pet parents’ have a tangible effect on how our dogs feel. There are things you can do that will make a real difference:
Keep calm and carry on with the cuddles
Your dog will feel much more relaxed with you at home too – so try and swap nights out for snuggles on the sofa during firework season. Whilst it’s upsetting to see your dog in distress, it’s important to keep yourself calm to best support your dog. Keep in mind that if you’ve prepared well, you know you’re doing all you can to help.
Remember that it’s important to be consistent, kind and fair with your dog when they’re worried – never get frustrated or angry. This only makes them feel worse and could damage your relationship as their safe and positive friend!
Don’t make too much fuss
It’s natural to want to comfort your dog when they are worried but be careful not to overdo it. If they choose to be next to you, it’s great to give calm, quiet attention as you usually would, but don’t call your dog to you if you see them showing signs of fear. If you’re visually worried, they’ll pick up on it, which can give them more reason to feel afraid.
Try play and feed treats
Favourite treats, toys or new games can be a great distraction for some dogs, if they are interested. This is not a good idea if your dog has chosen to hide or seems overwhelmed. Don’t force anything, be guided instead by their level of interest and appetite.
References *Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. D. & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145, 15-25.
How does your dog cope on fireworks night? Do you have any ideas, tips, suggestions or comments? Let us know in the comments below and join in the conversation with our pet-loving community on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.