For starters, animals have more sensitive hearing than humans.
A dog’s hearing range is approximately 67 to 45,000 Hertz (Hz), whereas humans can detect sounds between 64 and 23,000 Hz. What’s more, our canine companions can hear sounds four times further away than their human parents, notes Smithsonian Magazine. Therefore, their noise tolerance is significantly lower than ours.
Fireworks also produce sparks, flames, lights, and smells that can further increase anxiety in animals. Plus, they come without warning, causing major psychological distress.
I had my first dog when I was 12 years old (see our brand story), and I saw what fireworks can do to pets and animals in general. From my experience, it’s possible to help your buddy overcome his fear of loud noises and enjoy the holiday season as much as you do.
It may seem difficult at first, but with practice, you may desensitize your dog to loud noises, including fireworks. Just think about military working dogs—they go to war and live in extreme conditions, but they have managed to adapt to their environment.
Why Are Dogs Afraid of Fireworks?
Fireworks are a very unnatural thing to begin with, so staying calm around them really goes against dogs’ (and every other animal’s) instincts.
Think about it – not only are they loud and noisy, but they trigger basically every sense in their bodies . Sound is the most obvious, but they also send out flashing lights over the dark sky when there shouldn’t be any.
Fireworks also change the smell of the air to a strong burnt scent, and the big ones can even be felt through vibrations on the very ground under your puppy’s feet.
To find something similar in nature, we’d have to look at catastrophes like a volcanic outbreak, a meteor strike, or a wildfire. These are all things every animal on earth is hardwired to run away from.
And with this in mind, we should always act on the principle “better safe than sorry” when getting a puppy. Assume they will be afraid of fireworks until you know for sure they are not. Use every available method of prevention before the damage is done.
It just might happen that you and your pup are among the lucky ones who are not affected by these noisy sky bombs. If that’s the case, you can go about those days as any other normal day. You risked nothing by taking some well-considered precautions for your puppy’s first encounter with fireworks.
On the other hand, assuming it will all be fine and then ambushing a young pup on New Year’s Eve can cause irreparable damage.
Loud Noises Can Trigger the Brain’s Fight-or-Flight Response
Loud noises cause anxiety in nearly 40% of dogs, reports a 2016 survey published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. Along with fearfulness and separation anxiety, noise sensitivity is one of the biggest stressors for our canine friends.
As the researchers note, this factor can cause abnormal reactions like trembling, panting, hiding, barking, and more. Some dogs may freeze out of fear, destroy the things around them, or try to escape from their homes in response to loud noises. They might also tuck their tail between their legs, lose bladder control, or salivate excessively.
These behaviors may seem abnormal, but they’re perfectly justified from a psychological standpoint. Fireworks are loud and unpredictable, which can trigger the fight-or-flight response in humans and animals alike.
Also, it’s important to note that dogs use all their senses to experience the world around them—and fireworks can overstimulate their senses, causing unexpected reactions.
Why Some Dogs Are More Scared of Loud Noises than Others
Some dogs are less sensitive to loud noises than others, says Smithsonian Magazine. This may be due to their early life experiences, stress genetics, or other factors, such as their age and breed.
For example, puppies develop a fear response around 12 weeks of age, canine behavior researcher Naomi Harvey told Smithsonian Magazine. If they are exposed to fireworks or other threatening stimuli during this time interval, they may continue to fear them later in life.
Moreover, some dogs are genetically prone to stress, and their cortisol levels will go up in response to loud noises. This explains why certain breeds, such as the Norwegian Buhund, Lagotto Romagnolo, and Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers, are particularly sensitive to noise, suggests a2015 study.
Researchers also found that female and neutered dogs are more likely to be afraid of loud noises than male and intact dogs. Other risk factors may include:
- Age: Dogs’ fear of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises tends to fade after age 10;
- Socialization: >Under-socialized dogs are more likely to develop a fear of loud noises;
- Activities and training: Dogs engaging less frequently in regular exercise, mind games, training, and other activities are more fearful of fireworks;
- The number of dogs in a household: Dogs living in single-pet households tend to be more afraid of fireworks than those living with other dogs;
The dog owner’s experience plays a role, too. Dogs raised by less experienced owners are more likely to fear loud noises, reports the above study.
While some of these factors are out of your control, you can (and should) teach your dog to remain calm during fireworks. By doing so, you’ll not only have a more peaceful holiday season but also keep your buddy safe and stress-free.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure: How to Calm a Dog Down During Fireworks
Some pet parents use natural remedies to calm a dog down, but such products have limited efficacy. Plus, it’s a pain to stock up on pills year after year, hoping they’ll do the trick.
Keeping your buddy away from the noise isn’t an option either—at least not in the long term.
A better approach is to desensitize your dog to the sound of fireworks. VCA Animal Hospitals recommends starting out at a time of the year when fireworks are unlikely to occur.
Desensitization and counterconditioning, the techniques described below, involve gradually exposing your pet to loud noises to a point where he’s no longer afraid of them.
Personally, I embraced this approach long before reading about it on the Internet—and I can say from experience that it works. The whole process takes time, but the results will last. With other strategies, you’ll only ease your dog’s fears rather than help him overcome them.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Desensitizing Your Dog to Loud Noises
While there are several ways to desensitize a dog to loud noises, I want to share the strategies that worked for Floke, my beloved Pinscher.
Floke isn’t scared of fireworks at all because I desensitized him when he was very young. However, desensitization and counterconditioning may work for adult dogs, too.
That said, take these steps to help your buddy overcome his fear of fireworks.
On the days when fireworks are expected, use the early part of the day to exercise your dog both mentally and physically. Don’t go overboard, though—keep it at a level your dog can handle, as too much exercise can have the opposite effect.
Feed your buddy at least a few hours before curfew, and make sure he’s comfortable and ready to rest. A quick and final potty break close to curfew ensures his bladder is empty. Note that some dogs will start leaking when they are under stress. Being content will help him deal with unexpected events in a more balanced way.
As a rule of thumb, dog parents should always stay calm and unaffected when dealing with a situation that could potentially scare the dog.
If you’re projecting stress and acting overly comforting and protective toward your pup, he may go from being only slightly nervous to shivering in fear. Keep this in mind even if your dog goes into a state of great distress. In such cases, he will need a leader to show him that everything is under control and help him snap back to normal faster.
As discussed earlier, fireworks send out four different alarming signals:
- Flashing lights
- Loud and sudden noises
- Unusual smells
Let’s approach and work through these signals strategically, defusing what we can.
1. Flashing Lights
This one is pretty easy to deal with. Simply stay with your dog in a room with no windows or cover the windows with light-blocking curtains or fabric. Remember to act normally and stay calm.
There is no good reason your dog should be exposed to the flashes unless you’re absolutely sure he won’t be negatively affected by them.
2. Loud and Sudden Noises
Even though it’s not so easy to eliminate this one completely, you can reduce it by keeping the doors and windows closed.
You can also try to mask the noise by keeping the TV on or playing music (if that’s something your dog is familiar with). However, do not turn the volume up very loud, as it could cause more stress.
If your dog is used to being in a crate and feels safe inside it, make sure it’s available to him during the fireworks. Don’t place the crate in a different room than the one you are in, as it will force him to choose between two safe zones.
Wrapping blankets over the crate will further reduce the impact of the noise and increase the dog’s feeling of safety and comfort. It’s his home within the home.
Just make sure you keep the crate door open so he can change locations within the home if he wants to.
Plan Things Out Ahead of Time
Getting your dog used to noise and bangs is a great prevention method. Plus, you can use a couple of tools to desensitize him and break negative associations (to the other scary signals and fear) formed by previous experiences.
The key is to start small.
If you do it right, your buddy will become accustomed to the noise and see it as a normal thing. When the noise alone occurs on any given day, and he even gets a yummy treat when it does, it won’t be long before he thinks nothing of it in most cases.
First, turn to YouTube or another source of recorded fireworks. Many videos were created especially for this purpose, so it should be easy to find one that works in your particular situation.
How loud and how long you should play the video depends on how severe the dog’s fear reaction is, or if it’s completely new to a puppy.
Don’t place the sound device close to your dog. And for the most severe cases, start with a very low volume and play the video for just a few seconds to see how your buddy reacts to it.
As a general rule, only use this strategy when the dog is rested and comfortable, and be ready to treat and reward him immediately when playing the sound in the beginning. Remember, better safe than sorry, so take your time and don’t rush things.
If you are unsure about how to proceed, reach out to a professional dog behaviorist or trainer.
Dogs have an exceptional sense of smell and can detect odors as far as 20 kilometers away . Fireworks produce all sorts of smells and fumes, so we can’t fool our canine friends into thinking those things are not there.
This is likely not the signal that causes the most stress for dogs, but combined with everything else, it’s yet another sign something isn’t right.
The best thing you can do is keep the doors and windows tightly closed. You could also spend that time making a delicious dinner to camouflage the distinct smell of fireworks. This approach may also help calm your dog and divert his attention.
If your little buddy feels like eating, give him a smelly long-lasting chewy treat to work on after dinner.
This factor alone would probably not set off your dog’s danger alarm. But, as with the smell, it’s more of a reinforcement of the danger perceived from the noise and flashing lights.
However, if a puppy has been exposed to things like traffic or trains, he shouldn’t be afraid of a slight vibration. Take your pup to different places and environments and let him explore them. Stay next to him and guide his steps so he can feel comfortable and safe.
Don’t Let the Fireworks Ruin Your Night
Fireworks are associated with social gatherings, parties, friends, and family. And while these are fun festivities you don’t want to miss out on, it just might be that you should do it for your dog’s sake. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay home alone every time for the rest of your dog’s life.
With a good training plan and consistency, you can reach a point where you can either have guests come to you or ask someone to watch your dog in your home for a few hours while you are out. A dog sitter should be someone your buddy knows and feels safe with.
Getting a puppy or dog comes with great responsibility, and our little buddies enrich our lives so much with their happiness, friendship, and loyalty! Your four-legged friend would give his life for you, and the very least you can do is stay home and say no to a social event when he needs you the most.
If you’re not sure about how anxious he is, try giving him a small amount of food he likes. Use this approach when the first fireworks go off or while playing firework sounds. If your dog refuses the food he would normally chuck down, that’s often a sign of extreme stress—and you should consider staying home.
Personally, I would never leave any other dog completely alone during fireworks. Your buddy should be with someone or come with you, even if he seems fine before you leave the house. Fireworks can have unexpected effects on dogs, and it’s hard to tell how our canine friends will react when left alone.
Keep Your Dog Safe During Fireworks
Now you have the answer to your question, “Why are dogs afraid of fireworks?” We hope that our guide will help you plan things out for the upcoming holidays so both you and your little buddy can fully enjoy the season.
However, if your dog is severely traumatized by fireworks, consider seeking professional help from a canine behavior specialist. Another option is to rent a place or visit someone who lives in the countryside where fireworks are kept to a minimum.
Beware that loud noises may cause physical pain in our canine friends. This problem is more likely to affect dogs with noise phobia, reports the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The noise can also harm their hearing, causing complications later on.
There’s also a risk of poisoning. Fireworks contain potassium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals that can be toxic if ingested. Additionally, lit fireworks may cause severe burns, blindness, or hearing loss. If that ever happens, make sure you know how to perform first aid on your dog.
Whatever you decide, make sure your furry friend cannot escape the house and run off. Lock the front door and secure your buddy if someone has to go out or come in.
Remember, fireworks take place just once or twice a year, and it’s not the end of the world. The other 363 days are firework-free, meaning that you and your buddy can enjoy the outdoors without feeling restricted.