Noise Phobias and Fireworks

By Rebecca Köhnke

If your dog suffers from a noise phobia, it’s important to have him checked by a vet before attempting any other measures. Recent research has shown that the presence of noise sensitivities in dogs is strongly linked to the presence of physical pain. When we find and treat the pain, the noise sensitivity often reduces.

We still need to help the dog with the actual fear, especially as there will be those dogs that experience fear due to a traumatic event, or something similar, and which is unrelated to pain.

Now the trouble with noise phobias is:

  • The noises they fear are often pretty much out of our control and appear at random and varying times and volumes
  • Dogs are so perfect at making connections. Fireworks happen in the dark. So therefore, anything after sundown is hell and a no-go. Where I live, fireworks happen during the days leading up to New Year. Most Christmas trees go up around Christmas Eve. Most firework phobic dogs freak at the sight of the Christmas tree. You get the idea
  • Our dogs are also hugely efficient at generalising phobias. Fireworks started it. So, it’s fireworks for a while. Then a bird scarer goes off. Wham – that was a bang, too. It reminds them of that awful night. Here comes the panic; then a gun, a door slamming, a branch breaking, rain on the conservatory, tin foil crinkling. This includes locations, too. That house over there, that’s where the fireworks went off. That block around the corner, heard a balloon pop there once. It’s the fear of fear itself that ultimately perpetuates these associations.

And unfortunately, without our intervention, all noise phobias will become worse over time.

So, we have our work cut out. We need to:

  • First and foremost, keep the dog feeling safe
  • Help them break all those seemingly random associations, and
  • Counter-condition and desensitise to the scary noises

Now, here comes the real kicker. While working on these phobias, the dog must never be triggered to experience fear. We always need to keep them under threshold.

When a dog is ‘only’ phobic to certain noises, the phobia is usually manageable to a good degree.

We can:

  • Avoid times and areas where the noises appear
  • Build dens in the house and dull external noises as much as possible
  • Teach the dog to wear mutt muffs
  • Put fabric blinds on the conservatory roof to pull if rain is forecast (they’re nice to keep the temperature down, too)
  • Investigate the use of situational medications for those situations we can’t avoid, like forecasted thunderstorms

More management ideas can be found throughout Guide 5.

Information on how to progress with desensitisation can be found in this Guide.

Now, some dogs develop a general sound phobia; they’re scared of pretty much all external noise. As you often have no control over environmental noises, this is very difficult. You really need to contact a behaviour savvy vet or vet behaviourist (VB) and get your dog on daily medication to help with the anxiety. This will give you a foot in the door. Without this, I promise, you will not be able to tackle the phobia, and it will get worse. There is very good medication available, but you will need the help of someone with experience. Medication can stop the phobia from worsening if there is a slip-up or accidental exposure to noise, and so they are worth considering.

While you’re working with your savvy vet/VB, you can help your dog by managing to avoid noises as much as possible:

  • Get her used to wearing mutt muffs
  • Find out times for all those repeatedly occurring noises. You can contact local offices/farmers to find out when shoots will be held, pigeons scared, trees felled, planes landed
  • See if she will toilet just outside your fence or in your garden. Maybe inside a garden shelter. This might be the one occasion where I might advocate for puppy pads too

For all dogs fearful of anything, really, the following applies:

  • Do not force/drag/carry a fearful dog outdoors. This is important!
  • Please do continue to take her out if your dog enjoys it. It might be worth checking out places beforehand, so you can avoid those scary situations
  • Please do comfort your dog. She already knows she’s scared. Fear is not rational, it’s an emotion. It’s there, and true, and real for her, and she doesn’t care if you confirm it or not. What she does care about though, is that she has a safe haven with you. Don’t freak with her. But if comfort is what she asks for to help her calm down again, then please do so!
  • Remember, she’s at the mental level of an infant/very young toddler
  • There are several sound desensitisation programmes available. Start at the lowest volume!!!! Your starting volume is one less than what causes your dog to twitch an ear. Only increase volume when you get no more reaction!
  • Start in February for November fireworks season. You need a good six to nine months to work on this!
  • Refresh in between fireworks seasons

These programmes are great for some dogs. For some, they lack the ‘real fireworks’ feeling, but they’re a good starting point. They can be very helpful for preventing phobias in puppies too. Good speakers and/or Dolby surround helps.

Facebook post on fireworks

Another Facebook post on Fireworks

See also the guide on Calming Products and Anxiety Medications