Dogs Don’t Have to be Afraid of Fireworks

Preventive exercises and training are good for dogs’ fear of fireworks, study shows.

Dogs don't have to be afraid of fireworks: training helps. Dog is hiding under chair because of fireworks
Photo: NachoChaves/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Up to half of dogs are afraid of fireworks, but a survey of 1225 dog owners shows there is hope, both in terms of preventing such fears in the first place and helping dogs who are already afflicted. The research, by Dr. Stefanie Riemer (HundeUniBern) is published in PLoS One, and has important implications for dog owners and dog trainers.

Dr. Riemer told me in an email,
“From this study, perhaps the most important takeaway for dog owners is not to wait for problems to appear but to be proactive. Teaching dogs to associate loud noises with something positive appears to be highly effective in preventing a later development of firework fears. This is especially true for puppies, but it also has beneficial effects in adult dogs. 
And maybe the other point is, if you have a dog affected by noise fears, I highly recommend to seek professional help to find the best strategy to help them to cope. “
52% of dogs in this study were said to be afraid of fireworks, and most of them developed this fear at a young age, including 45% during the first year. Given the early onset, it seems possible that there is a genetic component. From 6 years of age, few dogs went on to develop this fear.

One of the interesting findings from this study is that fear of fireworks was not necessarily static: it could improve or get worse. 39% of dogs who were afraid of fireworks had improved or improved greatly, while 27% had got worse or much worse.

The takeaway for dog owners is that if your dog is afraid of fireworks, you should do something about it.

In this study, less than half (43%) of dog owners had done some training with their dog, either to prevent fears in the first place or to help their dog to cope with fireworks. In fact only 26% had done preventive training.

This study found that both puppies and adult dogs seemed to benefit from training aimed at preventing fear of fireworks. Preventive training is thought to be especially beneficial if it happens during the sensitive period for socialization when the puppy’s brain is growing rapidly, and in this study the best welfare scores were found in dogs who had been trained as puppies. However, the study showed preventive training is beneficial for adult dogs too.

When dogs were already afraid of fireworks, the study found that training was associated with a better progression of their fears than if no training was done. Interestingly, the dogs that received training and those that didn’t were equally likely to be on medication for their fear. This suggests it is the training that is associated with improvement.

The most common types of training that people said they used were counter-conditioning when the fireworks noises happened to occur and training dogs to relax on cue.

Most owners (70%) of dogs who were afraid of fireworks had sought help, with the most common sources being a trainer, the internet, a veterinarian, or a book. Although many dogs took half an hour (21.6%) or an hour (17.5%) to recover after hearing fireworks, some recovered right away (11.9%) while a small number took more than three days.

Another interesting finding from this study is that, contrary to some previous research, no link was found between fear of fireworks and separation anxiety. Being afraid of fireworks was associated with fear of thunder and gunshots, but only to a small extent with fear of other loud noises, and not with any other behaviour issues.

Dogs don't have to be afraid of fireworks
Photo: Stocksnap/Pixabay

Breed group, age, and health problems were all linked with fear of fireworks, and there was also an interaction between age and health problems. The paper points out that you would expect fear of fireworks to increase with age as more dogs become sensitized to them.

Mixed breeds and herding dogs tended to have more impaired welfare during fireworks, while the breed groups that did better were molossians (mastiff-type dogs), retrievers, flushing dogs (such as Springer Spaniels and Cocker Spaniels), and companion dogs. However we cannot assume this is due to genetic factors, as there are typically other differences between mixed breeds and purebreds, such as early life experiences and origin (breeder vs shelter).

The study found that although neutering appeared at first to be linked to fear of loud noises, this effect disappeared when other variables were also taken into account. This suggests that whether or not dogs are spayed/neutered is also linked to other factors (such as dogs coming from shelters and rescue, or different management on the part of the owners).

Exercises to help prevent fear of loud noises are a component of some puppy classes, although research shows this element is missing from many puppy classes. (See: how to find a good puppy class). Training for dogs that are already afraid of loud noises typically involves desensitization and counter-conditioning. In this training, loud noises (such as fireworks) are played at a low level that the dog is happy with and immediately followed by tasty treats.

Although this study is correlational and cannot prove causation, it is very interesting and the large sample size is a bonus. It shows the benefits of training, both to prevent fear of fireworks from developing, and to lessen such fear if it has already arisen. While more research is needed, these results suggest that if more dog trainers included exercises to prevent fear of fireworks in their classes, it could potentially benefit many dogs.

If you have a sound sensitive dog, there are some tips in this post from Jennifer Pratt and this one from Eileen Anderson. You may also find it helpful to see your veterinarian to talk about medication, and find a good dog trainer to help.

The paper is open access (link below), and you can follow the HundeUniBern research group on Facebook.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Is your dog afraid of fireworks?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Riemer S (2019) Not a one-way road—Severity, progression and prevention of firework fears in dogs. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0218150.

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