Occasionally, I get someone asking me what to do about fireworks or sirens. Here’s the problem: it’s hard to train for fireworks or sirens, because they don’t happen very often! Around this time of year, clients often ask me for some advice to get them through the Fourth of July fireworks display. Here is some of the advice I often give, and the way I personally help my dogs:
1. Safety first. More dogs are lost on the Fourth of July than any other day of the year. Don’t leave your dog in the yard where s/he can escape, and make sure your dog has identification. You want them returned if they’re found!
2. Distraction. Playing the radio or the television will provide some background noise and a handy distraction to the sound of fireworks. Sometimes, this is all you need.
3. Wear them out! Taking your dogs for a long — and I mean long — walk beforehand, or let them play at the dog park,or take them to a dog-friendly beach all will help them to be nice and tired, and therefore care a lot less when the fireworks start.
4. Essential oils. I’ve found that, occasionally, for minor anxiety essential oils (or benedryl, which makes them drowsy!) can help. I recommend a tiny dab on the bottoms of their paws or the insides of their ears. “Peace and Calming” or lavender oils work best. But I do mean a tiny dab, and if you have a small dog put it on their fur rather than on the skin. Oils can be very strong stuff!
5. Rescue Remedy. This is an herbal, oral supplement that just helps them stay calm. You can find it at Target, WalMart, Whole Foods, and most pet stores.
6. Positive reinforcement. This is one area where I really like treat training! When you start hearing fireworks, ask your dog to sit, lay down, shake paws — whatever will distract him, and then give him treats and love for ignoring the fireworks to do as you ask. When the fireworks have been going off for fifteen minutes and your dog is used to them being no big deal, you can relax and enjoy the show. If your dog starts getting worked up, distract him again.
7. Correction. Neither of my dogs are worried about fireworks in the slightest. As puppies I first distracted them as above, did some work on laying and sitting and staying, gave them treats and told them they were good. Then, if we relaxed and they started to worry, I’d tell them, “Oh, stop. Lay down and don’t be goofy.” This kind of attitude — the, “there’s nothing wrong, stop being silly” attitude — will often tell a dog that you aren’t worried, and they shouldn’t be, either.
8. Firm Correction. For dogs with more severe mania around fireworks, I put them on their training collars and when they start to bark or get distressed, I give them a pop to tell them to knock off the bad behavior (continuing firmly until they take a quick break and I can see they’re thinking — momentarily — again), then I’ll ask them to lay down so that I can praise them for doing something well. This combination of correcting for mania and praising for focus often works.
9. Denning them. For dogs who are very anxious about fireworks, make sure they have a safe place to go, preferably deep in your house where the noise and lights will be muffled. If your dog is crate trained, this is a good time to put them in their nice, safe crate where the scary fireworks can’t get them!
All of these also work for sirens. Added to that, however, if the sirens are nearby — like going down the street while I’m standing on the sidewalk! — I often cover my dog’s ear closest to the sirens. It probably doesn’t help at all, but it makes me feel better!
For very severe fear of fireworks, contact a dog trainer you trust. Getting your dog to a point where they’ll listen when in the throes of great stress takes some time and work, but can be done. The basics are often what I’ve outlined, but small changes for each dog can make a big difference in whether or not it works!
Happy Fourth of July!