Updated: Apr 5, 2022
Why do some dogs become terrified of fireworks and some just don’t care?
Every day is a school day, an old saying that’s relevant for us and for our dogs. They are learning all the time, what is fun, what’s boring, what’s normal and what’s scary. In addition, dogs in a human environment with limited choices and agency are particularly preoccupied with a feeling of safeness.
When our dogs experience something for the first time they either perceive it as safe or not safe. If it’s safe, that’s fine they explore it further and as long as it stays safe, they decide whether it’s interesting enough to get happy about or just another neutral part of the environment. This is called habituation.
When dogs experience something that makes them startle or scares them, the feeling of safeness is less likely to occur. For example a loud bang like a firework will startle most dogs and even momentarily make them feel like they’re in danger. The feeling is accompanied by a nervous system reaction, they don’t just think they are in danger, all the chemicals in their body tells them they are in danger, preparing them to run or fight. A shock or startle that is harsh enough can teach a dog to be scared of something forever, even if they have only seen or heard it once. This is single event learning. When startled and feeling unsafe because of something in the environment one of two things happen:
They get used to it (habituate)
They get scared and phobic about it (sensitise)
The exact learning experience depends on the dog, their natural resilience, how they first experienced fireworks and at what level, their learning history, where they are and what they are doing when they hear their first firework. It’s not straightforward.
As fireworks are so invasive and intrusive many dogs become sensitised to them very quickly. And because they can’t escape them, we see all the fear and stress of being unable to escape.
What we are seeing around bonfire night is basically flooding that’s outside of our control. Flooding is a nasty technique which used to be applied to make people and dogs face their fears until they run out of the energy to be scared. It’s been discarded as a therapy option now, simply because of the huge range of welfare issues it creates. So what can we do with a dog who is scared on bonfire night, week or season?
In the short term we can ask the vet to give them something that will help them cope.
We can take a rural holiday for a couple of weeks.
Get them a snood for their ears and a calming wrap for their bodies.
We can use natural remedies and loud music.
Distractions and Kongs sometimes help.
Giving them a den to hide in often helps them to settle.
In the long term we can work year-round to desensitise them to the sound, by playing it low and regular at a volume they can cope with, then raising it as they habituate.
We can help them, by comforting them and showing that we have got their back, even though it's scary.
The main thing is that we must do something because just to let them struggle is unfair. Seething about fireworks doesn’t help our dogs to cope (even though we all do). A process of trial-and-error strategies to make them feel safe helps. Long term desensitisation helps. Hopefully one day the government will realise what a welfare issue bangy fireworks are for domestic and wild animals and even some people. One day we might see the silent explosion of silent fireworks onto the market. Until then, let’s do our best for the dogs in front of us, at the time they need us most.