Q: Why are so many dogs afraid of fireworks? I know fireworks are loud, but they only go off once a year. I admit I don’t have a dog; I’m just an interested party. – S.T., Las Vegas, Nev.
A: Most animals, including humans, jump at sudden unexplained loud noises. It’s an adaptive behavior. Our cavemen ancestors had a better shot at surviving if they feared and avoided inexplicable loud sounds.
Human babies are also bothered by fireworks because no one can explain to them that what they’re hearing is a sound to be celebrated, not feared. The same is true for dogs. Many cats also fear fireworks.
Keep in mind that fireworks sound louder to dogs because their hearing is keener than ours. Also, dogs can hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies and a greater distance than people. They may respond to the local fireworks display we hear – as well as a distant celebration we can’t even detect.
Some dogs are mildly fearful of fireworks, perhaps pacing, whining and seeking out a place to hide. For dogs who find their own hiding places, let them be. Others can be directed to a quiet spot, such as the basement. Turning on the radio or playing a CD specifically created to help sooth rattled canine nerves can also help. Examples include:
• “Through A Dog’s Ear: Using Sound to Improve the Health and Behavior of Your Canine Companion,” by Joshua Leeds and Dr. Susan Wagner (2008 by Sounds True). This is a book with CD. Additional music is also available at http://throughadogsear.com/
• Victoria Stilwell’s Noise Phobia CD: http://positively.shop.musictoday.com/. Stilwell is a dog trainer, and host of Animal Planet’s, “It’s Me or the Dog.”
You can also distract a fearful dog with games or toys stuffed with treats like low fat/low salt peanut butter. Here are some other helpful tools to relieve anxiety:
1. Pheromonal therapy: Adaptil is an analog of the naturally occurring calming pheromone found in the milk of mother dogs. One format is a plug-in, which diffuses Adaptil into the room, and the other is a collar.
2. Anxtiane: A chewable that contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that acts neurologically to help keep dogs calm.
3. Thundershirt (and similar products): While meant to calm dogs during storms, this vest, which fits snuggly around a dog, can help with any anxiety-related issue. It may take a week or more to get a dog accustomed to wearing one of these shirts.
4. For dogs who go totally out of their minds with terror, the best and most humane solution is pharmacological intervention. (I’m not referring to a sedative, which makes a dog drowsy but doesn’t affect its feeling of sheer terror.) Don’t wait until fireworks start to administer the drug. Once the drug takes the edge off, you can employ the above products and behavioral techniques to further diminish stress.
Q: My dog doesn’t listen to me. What should I do? – G.H., Baltimore
A: If your dog once did listen and no longer does so, see your veterinarian. Obviously, check the dog’s hearing, but there could be another health issue. Dog trainer and certified dog behavior consultant Pat Miller, of Fairplay, Md., says she once had a Pomeranian who competed in agility, and suddenly wasn’t taking direction. She says, “It turned out this little dog wasn’t being stubborn, but had hip dysplasia.”
Miller adds, “You need to find out if the message isn’t understood by the dog, or if the dog isn’t motivated with a reinforcer to comply.” In other words, while we assume the dog understands, that’s not always the case; or that treat (reinforcer) may not be tasty enough.
Miller, author of “How To Foster Dogs: From Homeless to Homeward Bound,” (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, Wash., 2013; $14.95), recommends that you find something fun to do with your dog, and in the process your pup will learn to communicate with you. Examples include organized dog sports like agility (an obstacle for dogs) or nose work (dogs learn to sniff for specific objects).
“Unless there’s something physically going with your dog, the responsibility is on your shoulders; your dog is not ignoring you on purpose,” Miller says.