Fireworks Noise Can Stress Out Your Noise-Sensitive Pooch
That's right, the beloved American tradition of shooting off fireworks every Fourth of July is nothing more than a scary, anxiety inducing prison term for many noise-sentitive dogs. We already know that loud noises can cause stress levels to rise in people, so it only makes sense that pets are also susceptible to noise-triggered anxiety. With the Fourth of July upon us, those of us with dogs who show obvious signs of distress when noise invades their space may need to give some extra attention to the pooch if they’re living close to a spot where fireworks are launched.
I once had a pug named Maggie who suffered from noise-related anxiety, and the Fourth of July could be a miserable occasion for her. Fireworks blasting away, sometimes for an entire weekend, meant Maggie needed a quiet space in our home to which she could retreat. She also needed a lot of soothing talk and lap time, which is just not easy for a working person. I came to find out later, it’s not the most beneficial thing I could have done for her either.
In fact Maggie's fear of fireworks earned her a spot on the local 6:00 evening news one early July evening in a segment on how some dogs can't cope with fireworks noise. Our Vet recommended her for the spot; he knew she'd perform and she did. She trembled in fright as they turned on and then off a recording of fireworks throughout the demonstration and I swear her teeth were chattering. Maggie could not be calmed, despite a very kind and protective veterinarian holding and calming her throughout as he described to the viewing audience the harmful impacts of noise on our pets' health and discussed some measures people could take to calm their noise-phobic doggies.
Fireworks were Maggie's nemesis, and she proved it on television. She didn't run from the vacuum, and thunderstorms didn't bother her, but fireworks threatened to send her to an early grave. Literally.
Many dogs are hyper-sensitive to loud noises like thunder, air traffic, and yes, fireworks. Some animals are so perturbed by noise they can lose control of their senses and even become destructive if they can’t find a spot that feels safe to them. The hard surfaces common to modern home interiors – wood, tile, granite and concrete fixtures, stainless steel appliances - can combine with high ceilings to create an echo chamber of loud and scary.
Although some dogs have a history of noise-provoked trauma that can explain their inability to cope with loud sounds, there are plenty of dogs with no known history of trauma that can have a phobic relationship to noise. Researchers believe particular breeds of dogs may be more susceptible to noise sensitivity than others, and if you think about it, humans aren’t so different. Loud, unexpected sound triggers the fight or flight response in humans and animals, which causes the heart to pound, the pulse to race, and anxiety to heighten.
Signs of noise-related stress in pets can include taking a potty break in the livingroom, panting, pacing, drooling, trembling, dilated pupils and incessant barking, any one of which can raise a whole new set of problems. Some pets may try to escape the noise that is stressing them out by acting recklessly - some dog owners have stories of their frightened pups jumping through windows, digging at floors, and even attempting to chew through walls in their urgency to escape the noise.
If they become so agitated by noise that they head for an open window or claw at the floor as if to tunnel out, imagine what the stress is doing to their little hearts and nervous systems.
This Fourth of July, if the fireworks trigger anxiety in your pet, be careful not to do anything to reinforce their reactionary behavior. Prolonged exposure to noise loud enough to trigger anxiety can lead to serious health problems for your pet. Noise sensitive dogs need to learn to cope with noise if they're going to live long, healthy lives.
When your dog is reacting irrationally to noise, dog behavior experts say any type of response, whether loving and gentle, or angry and punishing will reinforce their poor behavior. Giving your pet any kind of attention, whether positive or negative while he’s responding badly to noise does nothing to help him learn how to cope and manage stress.
Petting or cuddling your pet to get them through the fireworks, thunder storm, or whatever is contributing to their noise-induced anxiety attacks – exactly what I was guilty of doing for Maggie - will provide the dog with no incentive or tools to cope. In fact, it confirms to her that her fears are legitimate, and that maybe the noise can hurt her. Although it might seem cruel not to reach out to your pet when they’re frightened by noise, to do so may only be robbing her of the ability to adjust. Obviously punishment should never be considered an option, and it would do nothing more than elevate the pet's anxiety level.
My other dog Niles, a rough and ready little Brussels Griffon had no issues with noise. Nothing fazed Niles, there were no dangers too fierce for this curly red-haired, 12 pound superhero-in-his-own-mind; but it pained him to see Maggie feel threatened by noise. Niles was a complete enabler, his instincts to stay close to her and lick her until the noisy threat was gone did her no favors, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought it was the cutest thing in the history of the world.
But repressing a dog's ability to face the source of fear (noise) and learn how to handle it without turning into Cujo for the duration is critical in her long term well being. By providing your dog with opportunities to learn coping skills makes sense, and you can begin by looking to see what acoustical challenges in your home might be an easy fix, and taking measures to cut down reverberation and echo in some spaces.
Try changing the environment in at least one room in your house to create an oasis where your dog knows he or she can go to ride out the Fourth of July firecrackers or the teenager-next-door’s garage band practice. You may be able to help your pet cope with their noise-driven stress levels by affording them a room or a spot in which the noise is diminished and they can relax. The dog will learn quickly to retreat to the “quiet room” when noise begins to stress him, and in doing so he will have established a coping mechanism that he can perform on his own.
See if you can figure out the source of your dog’s stress-filled reactions to noise, if you haven’t already. Observe her behavior and make a note of her reactions to noise in various situations. If you can predict what situations will trigger her anxiety in the future, you can make a conscious effort to help her work through her noise phobia, or at least figure out how to self-comfort.
Some dogs are predictable; their stress is triggered by the sound of a vacuum cleaner, or the roar of a jet plane overhead. Then again, we've all known dogs who bark at air with great gusto, as if they know something dangerous that the rest of us are somehow missing, but that's an issue for another day. You can’t do anything about the jet plane noise, and in fact you can’t quit vacuuming either. I found some great tips online for helping your dog learn to cope with noise from Holly Nash, DVM, MS Veterinary Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.
Once you have Identified what kind of noise makes him most anxious:
Try to use "desensitization" to help your dog to overcome noise phobia or anxiety. For example, if your dog is afraid of thunder, try playing a recording of thunder at very low levels. Reassure your dog that everything is fine and no harm will come to him. As he relaxes and does not show any signs of anxiety, gradually increase the volume. This technique requires time and patience for it to be effective. Remember to praise and reward him for remaining calm.
Another way is to try to distract your dog during a thunderstorm by playing his favorite game with him. This will take his mind off the noise and can help calm his anxiety as well.
It is also helpful if you try to talk to your dog softly and reassuringly when he is having an "anxiety attack". You may also consider playing some calm and soothing music before the possible onset of an anxiety attack. For example, if you know a thunderstorm is approaching, start playing some soothing music before the storm starts.
Most Americans love the Independence Day fireworks, but that doesn’t mean their pets do. As a pet owner, you are a steward of his health and well-being. But before your reach out to cuddle him through a noise-driven anxiety attack, consider how you can guide him to adopt coping skills. Provide him with a quiet space to which he can retreat when the volume is just too much, and trust that he can learn the skills that will keep him alive and healthy for many years to come.