At the time of this writing, it is the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 2021. I had an extremely uneventful New Year’s Eve due to both an impending ice storm and COVID-19. The dogs and I mainly snuggled on the couch for the evening and watched movies. However, when I woke up this morning, I had messages from friends and saw several posts on social media about outrage over fireworks being lit at midnight and scaring both dogs and horses. These posts and conversations inspired me to post a few tips about preventing and managing animals that fear fireworks, thunder, or other loud noises.
- Prevention. The best way to control fear is to keep it from ever happening. If you get your dog as a puppy, it is best to choose one that has been exposed to lots of new people, environments, and interesting stimuli. Dogs go through a “critical socialization period” that ends at around 14-16 weeks old (it varies by breed and individual). Before this time, the more new and positive experiences your puppy can have, the less likely they will be to struggle with changes as an adult. You can read more about giving puppies the best start here. With each of my dogs, I planned for the first thunderstorm or loud holiday that we would experience. Anytime it thundered, they each got a bite of very high-value treat (like string cheese) that I reserve for special occasions. After several times of doing this, they’d practically come running to me after each big boom, not out of fear, but because they figured out the loud noises meant treats. Now that they’re grown, they don’t even notice the storms or fireworks.
- Training an already fearful dog. Dogs have much better hearing and overall senses than we do, so it’s no wonder that they have a heightened response to such sounds. Once an animal has developed a fear association to certain stimuli, like fireworks, it can be VERY challenging to overcome their response. To attempt to retrain their behavior, you have to start when there are no fireworks or thunder. You first teach an action, like going to lay on a specific dog bed. Then, theoretically, you would start with VERY low threshold (like thunder playing very softly on a stereo) and ask the dog for the same behavior, providing positive reinforcement, and VERY slowly increasing threshold until they can handle the “real deal.” As I said, this is REALLY hard to do, and may not be possible for a lot of pet owners to accomplish. It also may not be possible for you to ever simulate enough of the environment that induces fear (like changing barometric pressures with thunderstorms) to create an association in the dog between relaxing on the bed and not being afraid of the storm. That leads us to management.
- Managing a fearful dog. We can’t control neighbors that choose to set off fireworks on holidays, sight in rifles (if you live in the country like I do), or even the weather that brings loud storms. But we can control how we respond to those situations. If you know a storm or fireworks worthy holiday is coming, get prepared. Leave the TV or radio on with your dog to help cover up the noise. Bring them in the house or garage if they normally stay outside. And, most importantly, contact your veterinarian about medications that can be given to help reduce fear and anxiety short-term in your pet. There are currently A LOT of options out there to choose from.
You can read more about counter-conditioning training and managing a fearful dog here.
Loud noises aren’t going anywhere, and as animal lovers, we must do our best to keep our pets happy, safe, and comfortable. The focus of this post was mostly on dogs, but a lot of this can also be applied to horses that are afraid of fireworks or storms as well. You can desensitize young or new horses to lots of startling sights and sounds so that they won’t be so concerned when they see similar things in the future. You can also manage and prevent situations that you know are likely to cause fear in your horses. At the end of the day, we can’t control what the weather does or how our neighbors choose to celebrate, but we can control how we prepare and help our animals during this time. My goal for this post is that we might learn how to help our pets with their fears, and for everyone to be able to enjoy holidays, both people and pets! Happy New Year!