Pets and Fireworks
Linda Campbell, R.V.T.
Director of Programs
Humane Society of Missouri
Behavior Helpline: 314-951-1540
Pets and fireworks don’t mix. This time of year can strike terror
in the hearts of many pets and their owners. Frightened animals may
hide or attempt to escape the noise by digging under, chewing through
or climbing over a fence. A truly panicked dog can cause harm to
himself by jumping through windows. He may housesoil, bark or cry.
Modifying the actual behavior is time consuming, but we have some tips
that will help you and your pet make it through this season:
Provide your pet with a quiet place to retreat inside where sounds
are less intense. This could be a basement or an interior room like a
bathroom or closet. However, do not force the pet to stay there if he
is not comfortable.
Close all windows and/or turn on a radio to television to mask the
Avoid confining your fearful dog on a chain or in a small area such
as a crate. This could actually increase his panic.
Never punish your pet for his behavior. It will only make him more
Talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety drugs that can help to
reduce your dog’s discomfort and panic.
Make certain that your dog always wears a collar and ID tag. If he
should escape and become lost this will be the best way to ensure his
A little preparation can make this Fourth of July a little less
Helping Your Dog Overcome The Fear Of Thunder And
Other Startling Noises
Copyright Denver Dumb Friends League and Humane Society of the
United States. All rights reserved.
It’s not uncommon for dogs to be frightened of thunder,
firecrackers or other loud sounds. These types of fears may develop
even though your dog has had no traumatic experiences associated with
the sound. Many fear-related problems can be successfully resolved.
However, if left untreated, your dog's fearful behavior will probably
The most common behavior problems associated with fear of loud
noises are destruction and escaping. When your dog becomes frightened,
she tries to reduce her fear. She may try to escape to a place where
the sounds of thunder or firecrackers are less intense. If, by leaving
the yard or going into a certain room or area of the house, she feels
less afraid, then the escape or destructive behavior is reinforced
because it successfully lessens her fear. For some dogs, just the
activity or physical exertion associated with one of these behaviors
may be an outlet for their anxiety. Unfortunately, escape and/or
destructive behavior can be a problem for you and could also result in
physical injury to your dog.
Things that are present in the environment whenever your dog hears
the startling noise can, from her viewpoint, become associated with
the frightening sound. Over a period of time, she may become afraid of
other things in the environment that she associates with the noise
that frightens her. For example, dogs that are afraid of thunder may
later become afraid of the wind, dark clouds and flashes of light that
often precede the sound of thunder. Dogs that are afraid of
firecrackers may become afraid of the children who have the
firecrackers or may become afraid to go in the backyard, if that’s
where they usually hear the noise.
What You Can Do To Help
Create A Safe Place: Try to create a safe place for your dog to go to
when she hears the noises that frighten her. But remember, this must
be a safe location from her perspective, not yours. Notice where she
goes, or tries to go, when she’s frightened, and if at all possible,
give her access to that place. If she’s trying to get inside the
house, consider installing a dog door. If she’s trying to get under
your bed, give her access to your bedroom. You can also create a
"hidey-hole" that’s dark, small and shielded from the frightening
sound as much as possible (a fan or radio playing will help block out
the sound). Encourage her to go there when you’re home and the thunder
or other noise occurs. Feed her in that location and associate other
"good things" happening to her there. She must be able to come and go
from this location freely. Confining her in the "hidey-hole" when she
doesn’t want to be there will only cause more problems. The "safe
place" approach may work with some dogs, but not all. Some dogs are
motivated to move and be active when frightened and "hiding out" won’t
help them feel less fearful.
Distract Your Dog: This method works best when your dog is
just beginning to get anxious. Encourage her to engage in any activity
that captures her attention and distracts her from behaving fearfully.
Start when she first alerts you to the noise and is not yet showing a
lot of fearful behavior, but is only watchful. Immediately try to
interest her in doing something that she really enjoys. Get out the
tennis ball and play fetch (in an escape-proof area) or practice some
commands that she knows. Give her a lot of praise and treats for
paying attention to the game or the commands. As the storm or the
noise builds, you may not be able to keep her attention on the
activity, but it might delay the start of the fearful behavior for
longer and longer each time you do it. If you can’t keep her attention
and she begins acting afraid, stop the process. If you continue, you
may inadvertently reinforce her fearful behavior.
Behavior Modification: Behavior modification techniques are
often successful in reducing fears and phobias. The appropriate
techniques are called “counter-conditioning” and “desensitization.”
This means to condition or teach your dog to respond in non-fearful
ways to sounds and other stimuli that previously frightened her. This
must be done very gradually. Begin by exposing her to an intensity
level of noise that doesn’t frighten her and pair it with something
pleasant, like a treat or a fun game. Gradually increase the volume as
you continue to offer her something pleasant. Through this process,
she’ll come to associate "good things" with the previously feared
Make a tape with firecracker noises on it. Play the tape at such a low
volume that your dog doesn’t respond fearfully. While the tape is
playing, feed her dinner, give her a treat or play her favorite game.
In your next session, play the tape a little louder while you feed her
or play her favorite game. Continue increasing the volume through many
sessions over a period of several weeks or months. If at any time
while the tape is playing, she displays fearful behavior, STOP. Begin
your next session at a lower volume - one that doesn’t produce anxiety
- and proceed more slowly.
If these techniques aren’t used correctly, they won’t be successful
and can even make the problem worse. For some fears, it can be
difficult to recreate the fear stimulus. For example, thunder is
accompanied by changes in barometric pressure, lightening and rain,
and your dog’s fearful response may be to the combination of these
things and not just the thunder. You may need professional assistance
to create and implement this kind of behavior modification program.
Consult Your Veterinarian: Medication may be available which
can make your dog less anxious for short time periods. Your
veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to
prescribe medication for your dog. Don’t attempt to give your dog any
over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your
veterinarian. Animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do,
and a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your
dog. Drug therapy, alone, won’t reduce fears and phobias permanently,
but in extreme cases, behavior modification and medication used
together might be the best approach.
What Not To Do
Attempting to reassure your dog when she’s afraid may reinforce her
fearful behavior. If you pet, soothe or give treats to her when she’s
behaving fearfully, she may interpret this as a reward for her fearful
behavior. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you don’t notice her
fearfulness. Putting your dog in a crate to prevent her from being
destructive during a thunderstorm is not recommended. She’ll still be
afraid when she’s in the crate and is likely to injure herself,
perhaps even severely, while attempting to get out of the crate. Don’t
punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make her more
fearful. Don’t try to force your dog to experience or be close to the
sound that frightens her. Making her stay close to a group of children
who are lighting firecrackers will only make her more afraid, and
could cause her to become aggressive in an attempt to escape from the
Obedience classes won’t make your dog less afraid of thunder or
other noises, but could help boost her general confidence.
These approaches don’t work because they don’t decrease your dog's
fear. Merely trying to prevent her from escaping or being destructive
won’t work. If she’s still afraid, she’ll continue to show that fear
in whatever way she can (digging, jumping, climbing, chewing, barking,
Consult a Animal Behavior Specialist/Veterinarian
If your dog has severe fears and phobias and you’re unable to achieve
success with the techniques we’ve outlined here, you should consult
with an animal behavior specialist and your veterinarian.