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The Fourth of July has so many awesome associations for humans: cookouts, trips to the beach, an excuse to bust out the red-white-and-blue clothing, and of course fireworks displays.
But what we hominids think of fondly as fun and exciting traditions, the dog is just hassled by. He's not allowed to belly up to the picnic table with his people, he's not really that big a fan of the goofy flag t-shirt he's forced to wear so you can get a cute Facebook photo…and he hate hate haaaaaates the fireworks.
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The answer seems pretty obvious. …Well, it seems obvious to this sensitive-eared correspondent, who spent most of her childhood praying for rain on Independence Day so she wouldn't have to pretend to enjoy a fusillade of cringingly loud explosions. So, we can only imagine how it feels for dogs, whose hearing is much more receptive than ours (they have three times as many muscles devoted to it, and according to some sources, the range of frequencies a dog can hear is at least twice that of the range available to us). Keep reading to find out what the experts say.
Dr. Marty Becker of Vetstreet.com points out that it's perfectly logical for dogs to hate fireworks: "Fireworks are bombs, for Pete's sake. It makes sense to be scared!" Marc Elias, principal officer of Pooch Pals LLC, agrees: "Simply put, fireworks, to your dog, is like an artificial lightning/thunderstorm times ten!" Humans may come to enjoy the explosive annual tradition, because of the visual payoff — or because everyone around us is enjoying them, Becker theorizes: "I think our intellect allows us to learn to like these, based on peer input. I remember taking my niece to a baseball game with fireworks after[ward] when she was a toddler. We had to leave because she was terrified. That is not abnormal. She likes fireworks now...a cultural adaptation?" Dogs won't learn to like them the same way; to a dog, it's just a bunch of big bangs — not generally something pooches view as a positive. "I bet an adult who grew up a war zone or a soldier with PTSD doesn't dig the Fourth of July," Becker says.
And it's not just the volume; it's the unpredictability. Elias points out that, although many dogs hate thunderstorms also, at least an incoming cloudburst gives the hound some notice. Fireworks, not so much. "Unlike a thunderstorm where there are subtle precursors — barometric pressure changes, amount of light in the sky, humidity etc. — there is no 'warning' so to speak with fireworks," Elias says. "Without a warning, psychologically most pets get excited very quickly and have to cope with that excitement, fear, anxiety what have you."
And many dogs' method of coping — bolting at top speed, then hiding — is why animal shelters see such a big uptick in intakes right around the Fourth, Elias adds. "There are two directions they can take, flight or fight." Dr. Becker's daughter Mikkel, a pet-training expert, elaborates that a fearful dog will declare its own version of independence: "It's especially important during this time that dogs are prevented from getting out of the house or yard, because dogs that are afraid are more likely to dash out and keep running, often getting right into danger of traffic or getting lost."
Fido may also fear the fireworks because you fear them…or you fear his fearing them. In other words, you know he's going to freak out — so he picks up on your anxiety about that, and gets even more anxious himself. Amy Robinson, dog trainer and proprietor of DroolSchool.com, theorizes in the case of thunderstorms that the human's reactions may influence the pooch, and/or aggravate his angst: "If we flinch, pace, or dart concerned glances at the dog and mutter, 'Uh-oh, here it comes,' then the dog's fears are confirmed." We can probably assume that the same goes for fireworks.
Elias concurs: "Constant petting or coaxing your pet to come say hello to you can send that energy to your pet. Pets often know how you feel, before you know how you feel." The Pooch Pals website has a bunch of tips for desensitizing the dog to the fireworks — but Elias mentions building your own "chill kit" (chocolate, a phone to call a friend, maybe a glass of vino), and calming yourself down so as not to aggravate the dog's fears with your own. "Our recommendations and tips as trainers become vastly less effective when being implemented by a very nervous human."
It's probably too late to start desensitizing your dog for the fireworks this year — but Mikkel Becker recommends creating a "thunder room," a safe place for the dog with no (or blocked) windows: "Basements work well for this." Find a place where the dog can hibernate, she says, and create white noise to block out the sounds — loud music, a TV turned up high, or special "albums" for dogs like "Through a Dog's Ear" or "Music My Pet."
You can find other tips to help soothe your dog here, but if you have a dog who hates fireworks, knowing what makes him hate them could be half the battle.
Does your dog hate fireworks more than anything? Is it the lights, or the noises? Has he hit the road to get away from them? What distraction techniques have worked for you? Talk to us in the comments.
— Sarah D. Bunting
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