I love fireworks, and I always look forward to the Fourth of July displays on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Unfortunately, my dogs and I do not align on this issue. Once the bottle rockets start popping, my fur babies shake and hide. But I want to celebrate, so I talked to an animal behaviorist to figure out how to help my dogs stay calm during fireworks.
It’s not that dogs hate ‘Murica — although I have a feeling they are as suspicious as I am of the current administration — it’s that firework displays have a lot of components that animals find upsetting. First of all, there’s the noise. “While we humans have learned to expect fireworks around the Fourth of July, the sound of fireworks can be quite startling for dogs,” Ragen T.S. McGowan, a behavior research scientist at Purina tells Mic. “Thus, dogs experience the same sort of startle response as you would if you were surprised by a loud noise.”
The startle response McGowan is referring to isn’t just a fleeting moment. Your dog’s whole body responds to the sound of fireworks. McGowan says this response can include an increase in heart rate, a rush of adrenaline, and an increase in stress hormones circulating through the body.
It’s not the same for all dogs, either. The intensity of your dog’s fireworks-based fear can vary according to its personality. “If your dog is of a nervous disposition, or has not been gradually exposed to this type of noises during its socialization period, fireworks noise can be frightening for him,” McGowan says. Even if the cracks and bangs are far away or don’t sound that loud to you, McGown points out that dogs have more acute hearing than we do, so they might even hear extra noises that we humans cannot.
This response is normal, McGowan says, so there’s no need to panic. You don’t need to call your vet. And there are things you can do to help your fur family feel safer. “The best thing to do is to remain calm around your dog during fireworks. Making a big fuss around the dog only reassures him that there is a good reason to panic. Dogs look at us for reassurance so showing them that we are calm and relaxed is likely to help the dog understand that there is no real danger,” McGowan says. So part of your job as a pet parent is staying calm to show them there’s no danger. You can also try to keep your pups in a quiet room, she says, and placating them with toys and treats probably won’t hurt.
I asked McGowan if the famous Thundershirt — a tight fitting vest for dogs– might help. “Thundershirts can help some nervous dogs to feel more secure just as swaddling works to soothe some infants,” McGowan says. Aww. Well, they really are my babies. Keeping them close to you, as you might a child, can also help, but again, you have to stay chill about it if you want your dog to chill. “Don’t overreact to their clinging to you, just go on about your usual routine as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on,” McGowan says. Honestly, I really needed to hear this, because usually I kind of freak out when my dogs get nervous. Go figure that doesn’t make them feel better.
The fourth of July, it turns out, is a good time to help your pets boost their stress resilience by finding ways to show them a good time even when the world is loud. Kesh suggests taking them to a quiet room in your house and making the experience as pleasant as possible for them. “Try to create a positive association with the events by playing games or asking them for easy behaviors they know like “sit” and giving them rewards for their positive behavior.” I hear that. Couldn’t we all use a little extra reward when it seems like the world is exploding around us?