If you’re a Mexican dog, then you know about fireworks. Fireworks are a part of celebrations; in some cities, you will hear them almost daily. Human children often love to watch and play with fireworks and bangers, and some human children never grow up. That is a good thing in some ways, but if you are a dog and fear loud noises like fireworks, not so much.
I am originally from Mexico City and now live in the Yucatan city of Merida. Fortunately for us dogs, fireworks aren’t as popular here in Merida as in other parts of the country.
The thunder, on the other hand, can be very intense. The ancient Maya thought thunder was caused by the Gods playing with big stone balls, and I understand why.
Luckily for all you humans, and even luckier for your dogs, my human ran an animal behaviour practice for many years. She did what humans call ‘retiring’ from that profession due to something called ‘burnout’ (whatever that means) but continues to study and has many friends who are behaviour experts to ask about things like fireworks and fear. So, she offered to help me with the research for this article, thankfully. Have you ever seen a dog try to scroll? It’s not pretty.
What is noise phobia in dogs?
Being frightened of a loud and sudden noise is perfectly reasonable when you are a dog. We are designed to react when we feel threatened, and loud noises coming from no identifiable source can be threatening if we have never been given the opportunity to learn that they will not hurt us.
Try to imagine being in a dog’s body during fireworks or thunder. It can be challenging to work out whether the sound is coming from inside our house, outside our house, from the ground, or from the sky. All we know is that if we have not been emotionally prepared for these types of noises, we must do what our body tells us to do, and those instructions may be different for every one of us, just like they can be for you humans.
Some of us get angry and bark. We want to protect our territory and ourselves from whatever is making the noise, and we won’t calm down until we make it go away. You might notice your dog paces, pants, trembles, or may even try to escape.
Some dogs try to find places where they feel safe in their homes, crawling under beds, digging nests into furniture, or hiding in cupboards or the bathroom. Other dogs may believe any attempt to save themselves is hopeless and just fall apart, shaking, freezing in one place, and even peeing or pooping. When none of those things help, other dogs will go to drastic lengths and end up hurting themselves.
How to help prevent noise phobias in puppies
If you have a puppy, then you are in the best position to help them learn to cope with scary fireworks and thunder before they develop severe anxiety.
Puppies will always look to their humans and the other dogs around them to help them decide if something is dangerous or safe. If you behave fearfully or live with another dog that does, your puppy may pick up on this quickly.
Anne Rogers, a brilliant human, behavioural educator, and director of AniEd Ireland, a well-respected international animal behaviour and welfare education programme, explained.
“Puppies can be introduced to loud noises early on, ideally before they are five weeks of age. But in the absence of that, we need to be a little more careful. Over five weeks, puppies have developed stronger stress and avoidance responses and can readily experience a fright early on, impacting them over life.”
Don’t worry, humans. The good news is that puppies will also look to their humans and other dogs to learn about wonderful things, and you have the power to help your puppy understand that they are safe when they hear loud noises.
My human likes to teach puppies that loud noises mean fun. Start with small noises such as clapping. Begin with very low-level noises when your puppy is quite a distance away and already in a good mood. Remember, the whole point is to ensure your puppy doesn’t get frightened, so start small and easy.
Every time you make a noise or even if you hear an unexpected loud noise, act like it’s the best thing that ever happened. Throw around tasty treats, play with your puppy and do whatever your puppy finds the most enjoyable every single time they hear a noise. Be prepared if you are out in public. Cars backfiring or children throwing bangers can happen anytime, anywhere, so have your party supplies ready. Puppies love to play, and turning loud noises into a cue for ‘party time’ can really change the way they perceive startling sounds.
I can’t remind you enough to go slow and easy with your puppy. If you go too quickly or frighten them through this process, you may cause precisely the problems you are trying to avoid. And humans, give your puppy all the comfort and reassurance they need if they do get frightened. Fear absolutely cannot be reinforced by providing comfort, but your puppy can quickly learn that you are not a source of safety in scary situations, and that can lead to all sorts of problems later on.
There are other methods, and they can be used together. Anne Rogers explains another approach, which is also very useful for adult dogs.
“Set up a bunker for the dog where they can hide safely, and during quiet times, make that a place where all sorts of yummy things happen there. The dog might already have chosen a hiding spot that you can upgrade to make it more comfortable too. Setting up a safe picture for the dog with their bunker and enjoyable tasks is a central part of my programs. Teaching dogs pretty involved sniffing games can really help as sniffing uses up a lot of their brain, keeping their mind on the job. Sniffing and seeking type activities inhibit fear and panic, so setting up contexts in which the dog does these jobs helps prevent or reduce reactions to noises.”
You can also use recordings of fireworks and thunder that you find online. Our helpful expert, Anne Rogers, gave us some great advice on how to do this. “Control volume and play only at such a volume that the dog doesn’t really show any great response – their ear might orient toward the sound and then relax again. Place speakers near windows or other areas through which sound travels.”
As your puppy becomes more and more comfortable with loud noises, you can very gradually increase the volume. You can also play thunder and firework sound effects while your puppy is doing fun things. All of this helps to build positive associations.
You must prepare and practice to prevent your puppy from developing noise phobias. A. lot. And by ‘a lot’, I mean you really do need to put in the work with your dogs. Otherwise, you may end up with an adult dog with a serious problem that requires lifelong management. That is not a happy outcome for a dog or their human.
How to help adult dogs with noise phobias
You may not know this but noise phobias, especially of thunder and fireworks, can become very serious. Sadly, it is not that unusual for dogs that are scared of loud noises to jump through windows or off of upper floor terraces in an effort to run away. And we have all seen the many ‘lost dog’ posts after storms and fireworks displays. Many of these dogs are never found again. Some dogs will also self-mutilate by licking or chewing themselves until they create sores.
Because not all humans have their dogs from puppies, they don’t get the opportunity to do the critical work of socialisation, habituation, and confidence-building that all puppies require to be emotionally healthy. This is often most noticeable during fireworks and thunderstorms. Some dogs can inherit phobias or learn them from their parents and siblings. If you’re living with a dog that already has a phobia of loud noises, here are some steps you can take to help them.
Start by doing the things recommended for puppies, although you must be much gentler and more conscious of your dog’s response. If they show a fearful reaction at any stage, stop. When they are feeling in a positive mood, you can start again, but this time go back to the earlier steps as you must have pushed them too quickly by accident.
Do not ignore your dog if they are frightened. This is so very important. If your dog is afraid, help them. They depend on you and need your reassurance and comfort during frightening situations. The more confidence they have in your ability to help them feel safe, the braver they can be. Ignoring your dog if they are scared is horrible for both of you.
There are a zillion things that other dog guardians will recommend. You’ll find that there is little research to support most of them. Animal anxiety shirts and wraps are commonly recommended. Although the evidence isn’t clear about whether these help much, they certainly are unlikely to do any harm, and that is a good thing. So, it’s worth a try. Even if it relaxes you, as the dog’s guardian, that will change your behaviour, which will be reflected in your dog. That, along with things like flower remedies, CBD, and homeopathy, although the science is pretty clear that neither of these work for dogs, they are unlikely to hurt. That is, of course, you use them and don’t bother to do the hard and essential work to help your dog.
I will always ask you to talk to qualified professional humans about these things. I understand that it isn’t always easy to find them. Qualified trainers, behavioural consultants, and behaviourists should all be able to assist within the limits of their professional abilities. Only a veterinarian can prescribe medication, though, and medication may be required for your dog’s well-being if your dog is suffering from debilitating anxiety. Unfortunately, dog behaviour is not something that is taught much in veterinary school, so your veterinarian may not have specialist knowledge.
Other ways to help a dog with noise phobias
You may be worried about giving your dog a ‘drug’ to help them but humans, let’s get real. If your dog had an infection, you would give them drugs to help them; this is no different. There are drugs that have been developed and tested for noise phobias and your veterinary behaviourist will be able to prescribe the best one for you and monitor your dog’s response.
Some of the drugs you may wish to talk to your veterinarian about include (never use any of these drugs for your dog without veterinary guidance):
Gabapentin – has been shown to be effective in trials
Sileo – is a drug licensed for noise phobias in dogs in some countries. It is also known as Dexmedetomidine.
Benzodiazepines – Alprazolam is the most frequently recommended for noise phobias in dogs.
Trazodone – an antidepressant used to treat a number of anxiety-related disorders in dogs.
In the past, a drug called Acepromazine, commonly known as ‘ace’, was used to tranquilise dogs with a fear of loud noises. Anne Rogers explains why it may not be the best option. “Ace on its own may not help as it may increase sound sensitivity while also slowing the dog’s reactions and movement. This is a bit of a torture situation for a panicked dog seeking to escape aversion, but not able to.”
Can you imagine that humans? You are unable to react or move, but inside you are terrified. Your dog may look calm on the outside, but inside he will be so frightened. That can only worsen the situation, so you might want to avoid it.
The most important thing when it comes to helping your dog cope with fireworks and thunder is to really understand how terrified and stressed they are and the impact that this has on their well-being. This problem is more likely to worsen if untreated, so please take it seriously, and let’s help all the dogs learn to love the party and dance in the rain.
Below are links to science based articles and research about this subject. If you want to read more or learn more, I recommend you start with these.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33993491/ – Effects of a single oral dose of gabapentin on storm phobia in dogs: A double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7848045/ – Evaluation of repeated dosing of a dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel for treatment of noise aversion in dogs over a series of noise events
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S155878782030037X – Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs
https://www.dvm360.com/view/noise-reactivities-and-phobias-dogs-implementing-effective-drug-therapy – Noise reactivities and phobias in dogs: Implementing effective drug therapy