Fireworks and Thunder - Sound Sensitivity in Dogs

The Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are cause for celebration! And in many places across the United States, fireworks “wow” crowds in celebration. But for many dogs, fireworks are a big cause for concern, or panic. Many dogs develop serious sound sensitivity to fireworks, and it can also extend to thunder and gun fire. More dogs end up in shelters during the 4th of July than any other time of the year, with many more pets lost and roaming the streets after bolting from fear of the sudden booming sounds.

My Aussie, Echo, is one such dog that developed a severe sensitivity to fireworks. Her breaking point was one New Years evening when I took her outside to potty and fireworks went off near my house (which was illegal). She had a panic attack and tried to take off, and if I did not have her on leash, I would have lost her! The look of shear terror on her face was heartbreaking. After that, every time she heard thunder or fireworks or gun fire, she would whine, pace, pant, and shake in fear, and she would not go outside - even when she needed to go potty. From that point on, every 4th of July became a heartbreaking time, spanned across a few days, not just one evening. And summer thunderstorms send her hiding and I would have to search the house to find her. Often I found her hiding in the basement shower.

There are things that you can do if you find your dog having a reaction over fireworks or thunder. The solution to help your dog may be three fold. I have broken down the tips into different categories. For some dogs, to be successful in the training and counter conditioning phase, they need initial help with the fearful and anxious emotions because it is so deeply rooted, like in Echo. You will need to figure out what method, or combination of methods, help your dog best.

Prepare Ahead of Time

It is very important to work with your dog on noises right from the start. This might even be the game changing solution to avoiding sensitivity altogether. Set up a session with recorded sounds - various ones, not just thunder or fireworks. Play them on super low volume and practice calmness. You will be pairing the various sounds with wonderful things to create positive associations and relaxation. You can use a boundary to help promote further calmness. Do this for a few months, and over time you will very gradually increase the volume of the sounds, and the positive associations and calmness you’ve created will help your dog to maintain calmness with the slow volume increase. 

Reducing Anxiety and Fear

For some dogs, the moment they hear something that sounds like thunder, gun fire, or fireworks, they immediately shut down or are so stressed that they can not take food. If this is the case for your dog, then training will be more difficult. Many times, support in reducing the anxious feelings with natural remedies can be just enough to then allow training to take place. Other times the anxiety is deeply rooted and a trip to the vet for prescription medication may be necessary. Talk with your veterinarian and ask questions. Over time and with training, you may find that these medications may not be needed as much as when you first started.

Natural Remedies to Help Calm Anxiousness

Rescue Remedy - a natural herbal calming agent that can effectively take the edge off of emotional stress.

Canine Calm - an essential oil spray that can help calm pets.

Essential Oils - dōTERRA Essential oils have been found by many to be effective in helping their dogs deal with anxious behavior and feelings: Lavender and Serenity being the top two, but other oils are also known to have calming results (see chart for recipes below). You need to find which one(s) works best for your dog. Many people are finding that Serenity works better than Lavender - but remember every dog is different and Lavender may work just fine. You could also experiment with Balance. Place a drop or two on the underside of your dog’s bedding. You can also apply the oil to the bottom of your dogs feet, but make sure to dilute it with a carrier oil, and be sure you know your dog doesn’t mind the scent. You can mix them in your hand and then rub it on your dog’s pads and fur along the back. Diffusing the essential oils is another effective option. There are a number of other essential oils that can be effective in helping dogs deal with anxious issues:  Sweet Marjoram, Bergamot, Tangerine, Geranium, Ylang Ylang, Valerian, Roman Chamomile, Vetiver, Orange, Sandalwood, and Cedarwood (atlas - preferred variety). You can start with the recipes provided below and then make any adjustments as needed. You can also keep it simple and introduce oils individually to find out which ones your dog likes and which ones he doesn’t. Then if you want to create you own blend, go for it. The only rule is the number of drops per ml or fluid ounces of carrier, and that is outlined in the article Properly Diluting Essential Oils. For medium to large dogs, use a 2% solution or less. For small dogs, use a 1% solution or less. Remember that the use of essential oils is for healthy adult dogs and medium to large breed puppies 8 weeks and older, small breed puppies 10 weeks and older. Rules are different for nursing or pregnant dogs and dogs with certain conditions such as epilepsy, liver or kidney problems or other chronic ailments.

D.A.P. or Adaptil - Dog Appeasing Pheromones mimic the soothing affects of a lactating female that calms her puppies. It comes in a collar version, spray and diffuser option.

Thundershirt - a wrap that fits snug around your dog’s body. This is based on the technique of swaddling a baby to help with calming. You can also do a wrap out of a sheet. Here is a video on how to wrap your dog and see if this technique works for your dog.

Conventional Medicine for Anxiety

Melatonin - has been shown to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety due to thunder, fireworks, and other noise phobias. This is a drug, so please consult your veterinarian before using.

Prescription Medication - if natural and herbal remedies do not help, consult your veterinarian on what medications would help your dog with anxiety. DO NOT use Acepromazine for fear or anxiety. This medication is a tranquilizer typically used by veterinarians as a sedative before anesthesia. It sedates a dog but does not lessen the fear or anxiety, so your dog is essentially "paralized in fear."

 Here is a good article that talks about “good” and “bad” medication for sound phobic dogs.

Initial Preparations

There are a few things you can do ahead of time to prepare your dog. First, have a collar with I.D. tags with updated contact information that is readable. It is also very important to have your dog microchipped. Collars can slip off, tags can get lost. When dogs enter a shelter, they are all scanned for a possible microchip. Make sure that the information on your dog’s microchip is also up-to-date.

Setting Up the Home

  • Keep windows closed to minimize sound.
  • Make sure to close exterior doors.
  • Close curtains/blinds and have interior lights on to mask the flash of lightning or fireworks.
  • Turn on a fan or air conditioner so the sound of the device helps drown out the exterior sounds. The TV can also serve this purpose, but I like the idea below for sound therapy…
  • Play calming music to cover the sounds of thunder or fireworks. Choose soothing music with a tempo that is close to the rate of your dog’s heartbeat when at rest. Through a Dog’s Ear utilizes music therapy to help calm your dog. They have developed a Canine Noise Phobia Series for dogs to help with desensitizing. They even have a portable player called iCalmDog. I would suggest playing the music on normal days and going through a calming session with your dog to practice the behavior, so your dog is already conditioned to calm down with the music before using it for a storm or fireworks. Playing calming music can help not only to ease your dog's heart rate, but also to drown out the sound of the fireworks or thunder.
  • Provide a sufficient amount of exercise. If you have the ability to plan ahead of time, take your dog out for a long walk earlier in the day. Exercise will help in tiring your dog out and giving her a better chance of reducing restlessness.
  • Provide a safe place for your dog to go to in order to feel more secure, whether this be a small room, under a table or desk, the crate, a basement, or even a closet. If your dog retreats under your bed (one dog even sought refuge in a bath tub), let her stay there - do not pull her out. 
  • Keep your dog inside during a storm or fireworks show, and if you have to take your dog out, make sure to have her on leash and that the collar or harness is fitted properly so your dog can not slip out of it.

Preparing Yourself - The Emotions in You and Your Dog

It is important to keep yourself calm. Any anxious feelings you have can transfer directly to your dog, so make sure to do things to help yourself relax.

There is misinformation about if it is okay to comfort your dog when she is afraid. A certain TV personality spread the idea that if you comfort your dog when she is fearful or nervous that you will reinforce the fear, but actually the opposite is true. So, if your dog comes to you for reassurance, you can comfort your dog and be her emotional anchor. You are not reinforcing the emotion of fear - reinforcement coincides with behavior. Seeking safety in your lap is just fine, and you can be there for your dog. A calming touch or massage may be just what your dog needs to feel better.

Training Strategies

There are things that you can do to help your dog reduce stress during a thunderstorm or fireworks. Here are some scientifically proven methods to help your dog learn how to cope and behave through the situation.

Desensitization - Get your dog used to the sounds of thunder or fireworks by slowly exposing her to them. You will set up sessions and play thunder or firework sounds on a computer or stereo very, very quietly at first and for a short period of time. Over the course of a few weeks, you will progressively increase the volume, then the duration, always staying within your dog’s comfort zone so she does not feel fear and hence, begins to create a new and better association to the sound. You can find thunder sounds on Garage Band for Apple, and thunder and fireworks on YouTube and with the Through a Dog’s Ear Canine Noise Phobia Series.

Counter Conditioning - Pair the sounds with your dog’s favorite things. Treats and really delicious food will help a lot, because food triggers the dog’s brain to release endorphins to make your dog feel good. You will feed your dog treats the moment the sound starts, and then stop giving treats when the sound stops. Massage can also help to calm your dog during the training session. Play, like throwing a ball or toy into your dog’s crate or tossing it in the air for your dog to catch can help if your dog is toy/ball motivated. You can also play catch with treats.

Classical Conditioning - In the beginning you will not require your dog to do anything during the sounds. You simply feed your dog food. Make sure that the intensity and volume of the fireworks or thunder sounds is low enough to not promote an adverse reaction in your dog, so that your dog can simply not react and get food. This is the method of when the sounds starts, feed your dog food, when the sound stops, stop feeding food. Once your dog gets to a good level of sound tolerance, move on to operant conditioning.

Operant Conditioning - Now have your dog perform something during the sound to get food. This is when I like to play catch the treat with my dogs. I also played “Find It” and the Touch game. I like these games because they keep the dog moving so she has an outlet for any anxiety. Keeping a dog still when they are nervous can build the tension until the dog can’t hold it anymore and they explode, so to speak. Playing games is fun so they help to reinforce associating the sound with good things.

How long it will take to get your dog more accustomed to thunder and/or fireworks will vary, as will the results. Don’t hesitate to contact a positive reinforcement trainer in your area for help. The important thing to remember is to not rush the process. You will need to give your dog as much time as she needs to learn how to cope and to feel safe and more relaxed. As you can see from the photo at the top of this page, Echo got over her terror of fireworks, but it took over a year. She still gets nervous and comes to me for reassurance, but she is now able to feel more at ease and relaxed. And, she is able to go outside when she needs to potty. With time, proper preparations and training, you will be able to help your dog get through it, too.

Essential Oils for Emotional Upsets

Fortunately, essential oils can also help a lot. When it comes to an upset doggy, I find that either tummy rubs or inhalations work really well. The following are oils that can be effective:

  • For Despondent Behavior: Bergamot, Geranium, Lavender, Sandalwood and Sweet Orange
  • For Anxious Feelings: Chamomile, Lavender, Sandalwood and Sweet Orange
  • For Apathy: Bergamot, Eucalyptus, Peppermint
  • For Aggressive Behavior: Bergamot, Chamomile, Geranium, Lavender, Sweet Orange

Aromatherapy Support
If you have a diffuser and would like to do some safe aromatherapy with you dog, there are a number of essential oils that could help in calming your dog. I have included some recipes and information below for essential oils that can support you in helping to calm your pup. Almost all of these oils are available at doTERRA. If you use oils form another company, then purchase the ones they have available for your recipes.

It is best to start this a number of weeks before and create a nice and calming environment. Accompany an aromatherapy session with canine massage or T-Touch or acupressure to aid your dog further in calming and relaxing so that the scent ties into these emotions and can be a positive neurological trigger. You will diffuse for 30-45 minutes each day. It may take a week to see positive results.There are a number of things to know before you begin, especially when applying essential oils topically. For more information on safely using essential oils with your dog, please see the articles  Aromatherapy, Essential Oils for Pets, and Properly Diluting Essential Oils.

Please double check the safety of essential oils before using them on your dog. These recipes are suggestions/guidelines for healthy adult dogs (dilution appropriate for medium to large dogs). Use higher dilution ratios for smaller dogs and puppies over 8 weeks. Do not use on puppies younger the 8 weeks of age. Not for topical use on your pet’s skin unless specified in the recipe. EO’s should be used in very small amounts and diluted with a carrier oil before using with dogs, especially when applying topically. Please consult with a professional before using on other household pets. Recipes not intended for pregnant and/or nursing animals  - you should avoid the use essential oils at that time, especially stimulant EOs such as peppermint, basil, cedar and citronella.

Disclaimer: These remedies have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Always follow usage directions as indicated on the original product label. The information on this page is does not replace veterinary medical advice. Always consult a veterinarian for medical advice. This is not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.