The City of Santa Monica will have its annual fireworks extravaganza this weekend. A few years ago they moved it from the ocean front to Santa Monica College’s Cosair Field, which happens to be about 3 blocks from my house. The awe-inspiring colors dazzle and dance just above the treetops on my street, giving me a 50 yard line seat right on my front porch. In addition to the breath-taking show, my house shakes and rattles as though a bomb were exploding in close proximity. Add in Goldie, my 7 lb Silkie-mix who has a strong aversion to loud noises, and an otherwise happy celebration quickly becomes a nightmare.
How do you help a dog with a noise phobia at this time of the year? Mostly with a lot of advance planning. If you can avoid the explosions, do so. The dogs and I literally evacuate about an hour before the fireworks show begins and don’t come back until it’s over. That’s not practical for the entire week before and after the holiday, however, when the neighborhood kids randomly set them off (despite laws to the contrary). For this period I recommend the following:
Exercise - If you take the time to drain your dog’s energy fully before an anxiety-producing event, they’ll be calmer during it. Keep your dog’s fitness level, age, and the ambient outside temperature in mind, and don’t suddenly run 5 miles if your pup normally only strolls around the block. Walking, playing fetch, swimming, or hiking an additional 15 – 30 minutes at a moderate pace can make a huge difference in the amount of energy your dog will have to devote to being nervous.
Bring your dog inside – Seems obvious, but July 4th is a very busy time for animal shelters because so many dogs and cats panic and run away from the noise. Dogs have been known to dig out of yards, jump fences, and break down fences and gates. Even if you’ve “never had a problem before,” don’t wait for a worst case scenario to happen before you protect your four legged family members from being put in harms way.
Keep doors and windows closed - This is the 1st line of defense against unwanted sound intrusion. Also moving to an interior room (or the back of the house), away from exterior walls and windows will help muffle the noise.
Use “white noise” to diffuse what you can’t avoid – This can range from running fans and/or an air conditioner, to increasing the volume of the TV or radio, to playing CDs specifically designed to calm anxious canines, such as “Through a Dog’s Ear.” Avoid playing anything so loud that it makes your dog more nervous. If it’s uncomfortable for you, it’s probably uncomfortable for them, to.
Crate time can be calm time – If your dog is crate trained, consider having them spend peak fireworks time in their “den” with a raw meaty bone, stuffed Kong (stuff with wet food, raw meat, or peanut butter and freeze to make it last), or Bully Stick.
Wrap to relax – Like a baby wrapped in a swaddling blanket or Temple Grandin’s Squeeze Machine, maintained pressure and acupressure can help to relieve anxiety and fear in dogs. Two of the most popular products on the market that achieve this are the Thundershirt and the Anxiety Wrap. Both cover the upper portion of the dog’s torso with a steady, even pressure, but leave the belly exposed so they don’t increase the dog’s body temperature unnecessarily.
Desensitization through exposure – Ideally this should be accomplished during the socialization process, when your dog is just a puppy, and you’re teaching them to be calm in the face of unexpected noises. Unfortunately, most people don’t think about fireworks (or thunder) at that stage, and end up having to desensitize an adult dog, instead. Either way, the process is similar (though desensitizing an adult dog takes much longer and is much harder on your dog): You play a CD with the sound of fireworks in the background while engaging your dog in another activity, such as practicing obedience commands (not teaching new ones), playing tug or fetch, playing with a dog puzzle or treat dispensing toy, etc. Over time you gradually increase the sound level of the fireworks and reward your dog for remaining calm despite the noise. This will take at least a few weeks to positively affect an adult dog who has already demonstrated a fear of loud noises.
Relaxation through alternative remedies – There are many canine-specific herbal remedies on the market, including Dog Appeasing Phermone (DAP), Rescue Remedy, and Doggie Calm spray. These products have tremendous results with SOME dogs. Other dogs will not benefit from any of them. The only way to know what works for your dog is to try them. You should do so a minimum of several days, and preferably a week or two, in advance of the time you are hoping to benefit. Some people report that DAP took weeks of daily use before they saw results. None of them will harm your dogs if you follow the instructions.
Melatonin is a hormone supplement commonly used as a sleep-aid for humans, it has also shown promising results in reducing or eliminating noise-related reactions in dogs. You can find a great deal of information about the potential side-effects, recommended doses, etc., on the web. It is always a good idea to check with your vet before administering any supplement, especially if your dog is taking other medications or has other health challenges.
While the 4th of July will never again be the carefree holiday it was before I had dogs, with a little advanced planning, we manage to get though it without any long-term side effects. I wish you and your canine companions a safe and peaceful Independence Day.