Firework noises have been exploding in my house all week.
Why? It's part of Peanut's annual fireworks vaccine. Because sound desensitization isn't just a one-shot deal and the fourth of July is coming up in the US. It's so long between firework displays that your dog may not remember the last training you did. To prevent spontaneous recovery of your dog's fear, give your dog a little taste of firework noises every year, before the full-volume ones happen.
Shelters fill up with lost dogs on firework holidays. Dogs get so panicked that they run away from home and can't be found. Help your dog get used to firework sounds and make sure you are home with your dog if she might be scared.
If you have a new puppy, now (before the holiday) is your time to train, train, train to get used to sounds. Fortunately, the training is pretty straightforward. It doesn't have to be that hard for you.
Sounds are a great way to predict danger, so adult animals tend to default to fear of new loud sounds. If you have a puppy or an adult dog with sound sensitivities, now is the time to train your dog to be more comfortable.
Buy, make, or find a recording of the sound: There are many options. @Terry Ryan has a CD series called Sounds Good that is designed to acclimate dogs to a variety of sounds: Thunder, Fireworks, Babies, Children, Guns & Hunting, and Vacuums & Kitchens. The Company of Animals has a CD called CLIX Noises & Sounds. Victoria Stilwell has the Canine Noise Phobia Serieswhich has calming background music (Fireworks, Thunderstorms, City Sounds, and general Calming).
You can also get sounds for free from YouTube. Epic Fireworks in the UK uploads a new short video each day. I subscribed to their channel so that YouTube would send me a reminder to play firework sounds every day. Their videos are very short. I also really like this 10-HOUR clip, because then it's not a loop:
Play a variety of firework sounds. In YouTube, you can play multiple videos in a row or you can focus on one type of firework. The volume may be higher on some and lower on others, so watch out for that.
The whistling fireworks tend to be scariest for the dog’s I have had, but your dog may be different. When playing sounds, always test the volume with your puppy out of the room, so you don’t accidentally play it too loudly. I start with the volume down to the lowest notch on my computer and also reduce the sound within the YouTube player.
If you have a Bluetooth speaker, you can help your dog generalize by playing the sounds in many locations, not just right next to you or in one particular room, or even only inside. Using a phone, you play the sounds from a Bluetooth speaker all around town. You can use one or all of the techniques below to desensitize your dog's response to the sound.
I also like playing calming music at the same time in the background, at least the first few times through (for example, I love the duo Hang Massive, and my dogs find them very sleep-worthy). You can pause the music every so often as you go or run it all the way through with music and then start over again without music.
Don't rush. It's not a race. The slower you go, the more time the dog has had to consider this NO BIG DEAL, and the less likely it is that your dog's fear will return.
If turning the volume all the way down is still stressful, change the speed of the video, so the sound is in slow motion, gradually speeding it up. I discovered that this twist on making the sound less scary helped quite a bit with dogs who were extremely sound sensitive.
Method 1: Sound as a Marker. I like desensitizing dogs’ responses to noises by using those sounds as markers for behavior. This is an empowering way to do counterconditioning, because the dogs control the onset of the noises. In other words, you can play a recording of the sound just as if you were clicking a clicker with a behavior your dog already offers easily, like a sit. You only cue the behavior a few times, to jumpstart it, but mostly the dog should be offering the behavior, then you mark (play the sound) and reinforce.
The behavior is what I call a More Please Signal, a way for the dog to say “please play that sound, because I know it leads to treats.” More Please Signals are great for teaching a dog actively cooperate in grooming, vet care, etc. The dog can use them to indicate readiness for counterconditioning procedures. For example, a chin target is a good More Please Signal for a jugular blood draw.
The dog holds that position and then you touch his neck with a finger and feed a treat. Building up slowly over time, you can do an actual blood draw with very minimal restraint.You don’t necessarily need to use the More Please Signal for sounds, but it is more empowering than standard counterconditioning.
Method 2: Open-Bar/Closed Bar Counterconditioning with Systematic Desensitization. The standard way is, however, a bit easier: all you do is play the sound at a low volume, give your dog something great (like his breakfast in a food puzzle), and turn off the sound just before he finishes the food. If there are any fireworks out of the blue in the real world, you can bring out a toy or feed a tasty treat. Just DON'T act all excited and happy. I hear that advice a lot, but I see a lot of dogs react as if their owners are scared. Your behavior and voice should tell the dog you are pleased, but not over-the-moon giddy. Act like it's no big deal, but it's pretty good. Imagine you are a contestant on a radio show and you just won free a free dog toy. It's good, but it's not an all-expense paid trip to Iceland.
Method 3: Systematic Desensitization with Relaxation. I really like teaching puppies about sounds in a relaxing way that gives time to process the information. This is also a good survival strategy on the day of the fireworks. If you start the protocol in the morning, it can be quite loud by evening, and then the real fireworks just blend right in.
Choose a time when your puppy is resting, but not asleep. Play it at low volume, just enough that you think the puppy can hear it. What you are looking for is no response or a very tiny one, like the ears turning toward the sound. When the puppy is done listening, the ears will shift back to neutral. Don’t confuse lack of interest with fear—if your puppy is moving away from the sound in avoidance, the ears are pinned back, the breath rate goes up, your puppy turns to look at the sound, or you see any other signs of stress, it’s too loud.
Play the sound at that level for several minutes. Then turn it up a tiny bit higher and replay the same sounds again. Over many sessions, you can eventually have it pretty loud.
The point is not to see how quickly you can turn it up loud, but to try to increase the volume so gradually that the puppy barely notices the difference. That’s how you measure success - the fewer alerts you have to the sound, the more you've WON. If you do this with an older dog, expect to go even more slowly. If the puppy gets up or shows signs of distress, turn down the sound halfway and do something fun for your puppy, like tossing a handful of treats to find, feeding a food puzzle, or doing a little easy clicker training, then turn the sound off. Wait for a while and next time, increase the volume more gradually.
It should look nice and boring.
SURVIVAL TIPS for the night of the fireworks
- Stay home, don’t go out dancing and leave your pup to suffer.
- Play calming music or watch television
- Have a container of fabulous treats in reach (so you don’t have to jump up to get them). Toys are also a good choice for dogs who love toys more than steak.
- Whenever a firework goes off that your dog might consider "loud," close your eyes, breathe out calmly, grab a treat and calmly give it to your dog (you may have to open your eyes for this). Feel free to toss a handful of treats on the floor. If it’s a toy, you can throw it. Do this every time there’s a boom and if the noise is long, just keep calmly tossing out treats.
- Dogs tune into our stress level, so it's important to stay calm, even if you're worried about your dog. This has been demonstrated by science. During and after the treat tossing, visualize your most pleasant memory/fantasy in great detail. It can be rated G, like imagining world peace or the taste of chocolate on your tongue, but it doesn’t have to be. If you have trouble relaxing, consider taking my How to Human course. It's a 6-week online class full of wellness tips for wholehearted living.
- If your dog comes up to you for affection, use the 5-second rule (video below). Regular petting/patting hasn't been shown to help, but I have seen it be very useful to give dogs a way to ask for affection and reassurance.
The visualization step is important. I don’t think I’ve heard it suggested elsewhere, but it really helped my dog Peanut. It can also really help to actually do normal things, like lie down for a nap, wash dishes, talk on the phone, do yoga, etc. (Thanks to Kathy Seube for the reminder!)
Other tips: put on an Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt a while before the fireworks start. This should not be your dog’s first use of such a wrap (otherwise they will associate the wrap with the noises, which is bad). Use Happy Traveler or some other herbal anti-stress medication, have calming oils in the room, like lavender. Composure from Vetriscience is a chewable that works well for calming. I recommend doing the double dose.
If you have enough time before the fireworks play in your area, you can play a sound CD of fireworks at low low volume in the morning and gradually raise the volume during the day (as in method 3, above). Then by the time the real fireworks come, your dog will just think it’s part of the CD.
If you really must go out,
- Take a long walk to exercise your dog before you go so that he is likely to be asleep.
- Leave him with music and/or television on.
- Leave him with a full food puzzle (or several) for him to enjoy while you are gone. If you have a Kong, you can freeze it with food or if you don’t have time to prepare that, put melted cheese in it to make it last a while. Melting cheese in a glass container that you transfer to the Kong is ideal, but you can put a 1-inch cube of cheese into the Kong, microwave for 20 seconds, and swirl it around to get it coated with cheese. Cool off before giving to the dog.
If you have a lot of time to read a super long blog article on fireworks, check out the very comprehensive article by Karolina Westlund.