Cities around the country are noticing an increase in fireworks, and Boston is no exception. We definitely have our share of booms starting at about four o'clock in the afternoon and going long into the night. My personal dogs have always been pretty chill about fireworks; they don't love them, but it hasn't ever been a behavioral trigger, thanks to a combination of good temperament and a lot of desensitization training. Rio, my service dog, has attended a number of fireworks displays at Disney World, so she is especially relaxed about it all. Recently, however, Swanson started showing some fearful behaviors, likely because the sheer volume and consistency of noise has increased. We have had a lot of Ruff Translating community member questions about how to manage firework anxiety, and with the holiday weekend approaching, we wanted to share our best practices for coping with the noise. Swanson is now doing great with the increased volume of fireworks in a matter of less than a week. Remember, like in all things dog training, there is no silver bullet. There are multiple strategies that combine training and management. It takes time to find the magical combination that allows your dog the right coping skills to conquer anxiety and fear. We are here to help you get started with some of our best practices. If you dog has a high level of anxiety already or isn't fully crate trained, we strongly recommend joining us for a private lesson so we can better assist.
1) Get ready for the noise! Extra exercise or a high impact training activity, especially directly before fireworks start -- or even during if you can still get focus -- will help your dog start from a more relaxed place. Lack of impulse control and anxiety will be elevated if your dog's mental and physical stimulation needs have not been met for the day.
2) Restrict wandering! Yes, seriously! Just like many anxious people can get themselves worked up with repetitive behaviors like pacing, dogs who have trouble settling will often resort to "flight" behaviors. This will only increase their anxiety. Instead, provide a limited amount of space for them to hang out in. We recommend sending a pup to their "place," or if they are extra distressed, going ahead and helping them settle down in their crate. It's OK to move your crate or place set up to an area where you are also present. Sometimes that can help, too! At the very least, shut extra doors and restrict movement to a centralized room. With Swanson, we worked really hard on just sending him to "place" and reinforcing that he couldn't run through the house and hide. This allowed him to both be "in-command," which gives him clear expectations, and safe, as "place" is an extension of our crate training. If he were younger or less stable, I may opt for the crate.
3) Drown out the noise! White noise, the television, an air conditioner -- literally anything that reduces the amount of sound that's entering your pup's space. They are still going to hear the noise, but you can cut it down a bit. We like the Cooking Channel or young kid's cartoons for our pup's television background options because the voices are usually calm/friendly. A lot of our dog friends also enjoy talk radio.
4) High value CHEW activities! Chewing reduces stress and releases soothing hormones that help dogs relax. The act of chewing for a dog is similar to us getting a nice shoulder massage. Many, many dogs are too anxious to work on their typical treats, so pull out the extra stinky, extra delicious options! Bully sticks, naturally dried ears, trotters, etc. -- something that is nearly irresistible!
5) CBD! We love pre-measured chews and high quality CBD treats. The trick to using CBD effectively is to find a brand that is growing strains that are beneficial specifically to dogs with strict testing for dosage and purity. Our two favorite brands are Suzie's CBD and Treatibles. In our experience it is most effective to use pre-measured treats instead of oils. We love a Treatibles cookie dipped in Suzie's CBD peanut butter for those extra hard days. Dosage guides are available on each company's website, but you can always reach out to RT if you have questions on your specific pup's needs.
6) Get into a routine. Make the firework prep routine normal, especially on the weekends, even if you don't think you will need it that evening. Dogs LOVE predictability and schedule. If you practice the firework bedtime routine, it becomes a lot more familiar, which also helps reduce anxious reactions.
7) Desensitization exercises! Sound desensitization should really be done with the help of a professional trainer. We have had excellent results in combining scent exercises with increasing levels of firework sounds. Scent work, sniffing, and the like lowers dogs' blood pressure and heart rate, so combining that with unfamiliar, scary noises can be really therapeutic. These exercises require a keen understanding of your dog's stress threshold and how to SLOWLY increase the challenge to keep them successful. To get started on your own, play a low level YouTube video of fireworks on your phone -- be sure that the volume is set fairly low -- and practice "look" with a high value reward. Once you have eye contact, release your pup into a scent activity like a puzzle or a snuffle mat. For more involved exercises, please reach out to us for help!
8) Get your leash! Avoid baby talk and instead get your communication line open. Dogs speak really limited human language, but they are body language and pitch geniuses. If you melt when they melt and start using really soft, concerned language, that can accidentally reinforce their fear. It is totally reasonable to show kindness to your scared pup. But, remember, human kindness is not the same as dog kindness. If your dog is struggling, put them on a leash and do a few leash work exercises (ie. heel positions; rounds of soothing pressure using a K9 Lifeline transitional leash; practicing "center," "tuck," "right," "left"). Even just being on a leash and walking slowly around a room and forming tight circles can reconnect and refocus a dog. Try to remember that connection through the leash can help a dog, but coddling can reinforce their fear. Get into your dog's needs, and show them that you know they are scared but they can totally handle it and work through it. We recommend keeping a few slip leads around as your house leash in times where your dog needs a little extra reinforcement.
9) Adaptil diffusers! Adaptil is a synthetic pheromone diffuser that mimics the pheromones released by mother dogs nursing their pups. It takes about three days for the effect of an Adaptil plug in to be noticeable, so order or pick one up and get it plugged in near to where you want your dog to settle for fireworks. We recommend leaving them plugged in by your crate full time, but they also have GREAT travel products. Adaptil spray can be applied to bedding or bandanas for a more instantaneous effect. It is far from a panacea, but with the other tools we mentioned, it can really boost the progress your dog makes.
Truly, with all scary sounds, the most important things you can do for your dog is provide a safe place to be, provide structure, and reinforce their coping skills using training exercises. If you can work on a solid plan for your pup to work through their firework or thunderstorm anxiety, it often will also have behavioral benefits to other scary triggers! It is worth the time and effort to help your dog go through fireworks successfully so that they can be more confident and stable as you meet new challenges together.
You can check out one of our buddies, Ms. Bailey Bae, working on her firework anxiety at Muttessori Academy last week! We are always happy to help you tackle these real world training goals through our day programming!