Summertime brings a lot of great things, but for many dogs, thunderstorms and fireworks aren’t included in that list. Noise sensitivity in our canine companions is really common and so it’s worthy of discussion here.
First things first: when a dog hears those scary sounds, remember that their behavior is a result of their fear. If they become
destructive, or perform behaviors we might deem “bad,” please know they aren’t doing it to make you mad. They are afraid! Punishing them or yelling will only increase their fear. On the flip side, comforting and tying to sooth your dog won’t make those behaviors worse, so lavish your dog with whatever empathy andnsympathy you can produce when they are in a state of panic.
With most every fear behavior, we need to treat the FEAR before we can treat the BEHAVIORS associated with those fears. For example, with a human who is afraid of spiders and screams whenever they see one, yelling at them in the presence of spider to stop screaming is not going to help them whatsoever. Instead, we need the person to feel safe in the presence of spiders if we want the screaming to stop.
With young puppies, preventing fear should be a top priority. Playing thunderstorm and firework sounds on a low volume (and then gradually increasing it over time) when your puppy is playing or eating (things they find fun and enjoyable!) will build the association that those sounds predict good things, not bad, and can help to lesson or entirely prevent sound-based fears later in life.
If your dog’s fear is already established, you can work in much the same way. You present the sound at a volume at which your dog can hear it without becoming fearful, and pair it with something awesome. In my house we paired each “boom” with a piece of hotdog or cheese. Over many repetitions over the course of several days or even weeks, you start to increase the volume. What you want to see is that your dog hears the sound and gets excited for food. If you see any sort of fear response, you’ve increased the volume too much and you need to back up a step or two.
Last year, when fireworks in New Jersey became legal, I had to work on this A LOT. In our case, fireworks were unpredictable in our neighborhood, so I had to be ready with snacks in the fridge at all times. One thing that I did which made things a lot easier was that I added a bridge between the stimulus (the scary sound) and the reward (the hotdogs). In training classes, you might be familiar with using a reward marker like “yes” or a clicker. In this case, I decided not to use my training marker. Instead, I used a very enthusiastic, “HOTDOG PARTY!!!!” every time I heard a boom. No matter what I was doing, if a firework went off I would yell “HOTDOG PARTY!” and start cheering and dancing (with nice loose body language that my dog associates with fun and playtime) all the way to the fridge where I would then produce a couple pieces of hotdog or cheese stick. If the fireworks (or thunder) persisted, I would have a bowl of tasty snacks nearby, but still make a habit of yelling “HOTDOG PARTY” and cheering happily before passing out each tasty bite.
Over the course of the summer both my cat and dog showed a significant decrease in anxiety with both fireworks and thunderstorms using this method. By changing their association, we were able to change their behavior and now both animals come running for snacks and play instead of running or cowering in fear in all but the very worst storms.
For some animals, the real-life storms are going to be way too much even if your training has been going well with recorded sounds. In those cases, you want to try to minimize the sounds as much as possible. Putting on the TV, radio, fans, or A/C to add some white noise can all be helpful. Some dogs prefer to have a place to hide, so setting up a fully covered crate with a noise machine nearby to drown out the “scary stuff” can also be helpful. Thundershirts or Happy Hoodies (which cover the ears) work
great for some dogs as they provide a snug pressure over their body that can be comforting. Some over the counter calming treats or CBD oil products seem to work for some dogs but not all. Be careful when sourcing products (especially CBD) as these products have become very popular and less reputable brands may not contain as much of the helpful ingredients as you might hope. You may need to experiment with different tools and products to see what works for your dog. Just know that these things, while they may be helpful, are not likely to cure your dog’s anxiety. You will still need to work on desensitizing them to the sounds and build a new, happier, association. What they can do for you is help your dog to start from a lower state of anxiety, thus allowing the training to be more successful.
Along those lines, if you are really struggling, talk to your veterinarian about medications that can help take the edge off and allow you to work on your training from a lower starting point of anxiety. Some dogs hear thunder and are already a 10/10 on the anxiety scale. A dog that afraid can’t be trained. Your vet may be able to help you find something to bring them down to a level at which the “hotdog party” game can begin to produce a change in the emotional reaction of your dog to those sounds.
Lastly, safety first! Remember that this time of year, thunder or fireworks can come out of, seemingly nowhere, so keep your dog safe by always keeping them leashed outdoors, especially in the evenings, if they are a flight risk, ensure that all fences and gates are secured before you let the dog out in the yard. I don’t recommend leaving your dog unattended outside generally, but this is especially true if your dog is noise sensitive. Plenty of dogs have been known to dig under, or escape over, a fence when in a state of panic from storms or fireworks. Better safe than sorry!
Remember, if you are really struggling to help your dog with noise phobias, speak to your trainer and veterinarian for assistance. No dog should have to live with crippling fear and your team of professionals is there to help.
For a brief video on our “cheese party” routine, visit our video on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=269194897645982
Nicole Lorenzetti Yuhas CPDT-KA
This blog is intended to be informative as well as entertaining. It contains my opinion which may not reflect the opinions of any organization I may be affiliated with. My opinions should not be interpreted as those of my coworkers, family, friends, casual acquaintances, and certainly not the opinion of my cat, although my dog probably agrees with everything I say, if for no other reason, than because I provide the treats and meals (cats are less inclined to agree with anyone but themselves). Information provided here is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge but, as information and opinions change, neither the facts nor the opinions expressed here may be true or accurate at any future date. As I don’t currently own a time machine, I cannot be responsible for things that prove to be untrue, or opinions I change my mind about, should those changes become apparent in the future. It should also be noted that, as I am human, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes in the information provided here. Frankly, even if I were a computer, it is likely there would be errors, as computers, in my experience, can be a royal pain in the butt. This blog may contain affiliate links which you are under no obligation to click. If you click them, they will hopefully take you the place I intended. But they may not. As I’ve said, computers can be a pain. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t think I intended, click your ruby slippers three times together and say, “there is no place like home.” If you do that, and click the “back” button, you should be safely returned. Computers can, at times, have a mind of their own. Any training suggestions or opinions expressed here should be taken as information only and should not be seen as advice particular to you or your dog’s unique situation. Please consult with a training professional before taking any action.