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12 Tips to Solving Thunder and Fireworks Fears

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Scary Noises

Baby talk can backfire and reward puppies for acting fearful.

Image © Amy Shojai, CABC

Scary noises from storms, or even 4th of July fireworks can turn the bravest canines into scared puppies. Even fireworks noises for New Years, cars backfiring or gunshots during hunting season also create dog fear, and happen throughout the year.

Up to 20 percent of dogs suffer from noise phobias. For fireworks celebrations, owners can predict events and take steps to sooth upset doggy feelings. But unexpected storms can be difficult to manage. Frantic pups pull down window blinds, collide with screen doors or crash through windows, while others simply shiver and moan. It's important to puppy proof your home so the frightened pup isn't injured, and a secure fence should withstand even a puppy panic attack.

Solving Thunder and Fireworks Fears

Behaviorists recommend pups be counter-conditioned to the scary noises by exposing the fearful dog to recorded sounds of the scary noise played at a very low volume, and rewarding him for staying calm. Gradually, you increase the noise level, to help the pup “get used” to the noise--desensitize him--so he can learn to tolerate it.

Desensitization programs can take weeks and sometimes months to work, though. Pups suffering from storm phobias also may react to the sounds of rain. Even to the sensation of humidity or barometric pressure can trigger behavior problems, and you can’t do much to control humidity or barometric pressure. Use these 10 tips to dial down the noisy fear factor.

12 Tips for Soothing Scary Noises

  • Fearful dogs may instinctively look for tight-fitting places to hide. They often squeeze between furniture and the wall, or hide their eyes in your armpit. This applies a comfortable "hug" pressure sensation that seems to calm them, so let your pup seek his own shelter.

  • Avoid offering sympathy. Coddling your pup when he's fearful can reward the behavior. Instead of saying, "poor baby are you scared?" use a matter of fact tone, "wow, that was a loud noise--but we aren't scared."

  • Some puppies benefit from the Storm Defender that reduces static electricity that prompts some behavior problems. Another option is the Anxiety Wrap that applies even pressure to the dog’s body and helps him better manage his stress. A similar product that applies pressure is the Thundershirt. In addition, the Calming Cap seems to help some pups through stressful, anxious situations by hiding their eyes.

  • Avoid giving your puppy a sedative, because it won't reduce his fear. He just won't be able to do anything about it, which can make his anxiety even worse. Your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication based on your individual pup's needs.

  • Ear plugs that mask the sound may also help. My veterinarian Dr. John Brakebill says when a client's dog went crazy after they moved near a gun range, the phobia calmed during treatment for an ear infection because the thick ointment muffled the sound. He suggests cotton balls or ear plugs as a temporary solution to help muffle the noise. Ask your vet to show you how to safely place anything in the dog's ears, though, so you don't damage the pup's hearing and plugs are easily removed after the upsetting sounds subside.

  • Aromatherapy also helps sooth puppy fears. Canine Calm from Earth Guard Mists is designed to sooth dogs prone to distress due to thunderstorms, fireworks and other noisy or anxiety-producing situations. It contains pure essential oils of bergamot, tangerine, lavender, geranium, marjoram, and ylang ylang, all known to have a calming or even natural sedative properties. Earth Guard mists can be sprayed directly onto cloth, skin or fur without staining or leaving sticky residue and are said to be safe for puppies as young as 8 weeks old.

  • A natural supplement of melatonin may help--a substance similar to a chemical produced in the brain that helps regulate sleep. Melatonin helps reduce the panic attacks in noise-phobic dogs, but it won't sedate the pup. Melatonin lasts several hours and may be cumulative over several days so you can plan ahead for known scary events like 4th of July. Melatonin can be found in health food stores, pharmacies, and some supermarkets. Always check with your veterinarian for the proper dosage for your size and breed of dog.

  • Another option includes Comfort Zone with D.A.P. (dog appeasing pheromone). The product is an analogue of the pheromone mom-dogs produce to calm nursing puppies that signal him "don't worry, there's nothing to fear." Pheromones are chemical substances made by the animal’s body that act as a form of communication that, when inhaled by your dog, talks directly to his brain. It calms the fears of dogs of any age.

  • D.A.P. plug-in, sprays, and infused collars are available at pet products stores. It helps a dog put a damper on fear long enough to “think” so that your behavior modification/training techniques can work. You’ll need to have the D.A.P. plugged in for several days in advance for it to offer your dog the best benefits. So when the weather report indicates storms or fireworks displays are in the offing, be prepared. The infused collar works more immediately. The spray can be used every one to two hours on bedding or a bandanna the dog wears.

  • Dogs can’t panic when using their brain for something else such as “work” so give your dog a job to do just before and during the thunder and lightning display. Drill him on obedience commands and special tricks, or ask him to play fetch and carry around a favorite toy. That engages his brain into productive activity rather than thinking about the scary noises.

  • Giving him treats and positive rewards for remaining calm also reinforces the benefits of controlling his emotions. Each time the wind blows, or thunder booms, try saying, "Wow, what fun!" to jolly him along and show there's no reason to fear, and then give a treat.

  • Turn a radio to static to create white noise that muffles scary noises. Certain types of music can prove calming, too, by “entraining” the dog’s heart, respiration and brain waves to slow down and match the soothing rhythm. Harp music can be especially calming.

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