Survey Shows Which Treatments Are Effective for Fireworks Fears in Dogs

Ad-hoc counter-conditioning and relaxation training work, say owners, but many other treatments don’t.

The treatments that help fireworks fears in dogs
Photo: Elisa Emiliani/Pixabay

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Many dogs are afraid of the bangs and whistles from fireworks, up to half according to one study. A new, large survey by Dr. Stefanie Riemer (University of Bern) shows that treatments involving food and play are effective – but many other popular treatments are not rated as successful, according to people using them.

The standard recommended treatment for fireworks fears is desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC) using recordings of fireworks noises. The sounds are initially played very quietly at a level the dog is happy with, and over time the volume is gradually increased (the desensitization part). In addition, while the sounds are playing, the dog is offered very nice treats (the counter-conditioning part). In some cases, vets may also prescribe medication.

The cover of Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog by Zazie Todd
Pre-order Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog by Zazie Todd

Outside of training sessions, of course, fireworks and other loud bangs will still happen, especially at times of year like Halloween, Bonfire Night, and 4th July. When this happens, you can do ad-hoc counter-conditioning by quickly offering a great treat after the bang. The results of the survey show the importance of including ad-hoc counter-conditioning as part of your plan to help your dog with fireworks fears. As well, it could be a good idea to counter-condition not just fireworks, but any noise that startles your dog.

Dr. Riemer told me,
“In the scientific literature, DSCC with noise recordings is usually the recommended behavioural treatment, while ad hoc counter-conditioning does not seem to feature prominently. However, many professionals additionally recommend ad hoc counter-conditioning and relaxation training – which is probably why a large proportion of respondents used these techniques in my study. 
There are no scientific data on this, but it is conceivable that ad hoc counter-conditioning to any kind of sudden noise in the environment might make dogs more resilient also to other stimuli including fireworks, especially when this is done in a preventative manner (perhaps, even creating a positive judgement bias towards surprising stimuli - see also my last firework paper on the power of preventative training). So I would not limit ad hoc counter-conditioning to when fireworks actually happen, but apply the principle to any potentially startling stimuli in everyday life. 
Finally, relaxation training is rarely mentioned in the literature, but owners perceived it as pretty effective – so there are additional ways that could help fearful dogs. Nonetheless, while behavioural training should constitute the core of the treatment strategy, it may not always be sufficient on its own and all dogs are different, therefore don’t be afraid to reach out to a qualified professional who can help to find the best strategy for your individual dog.”
The analysis grouped people’s responses into four categories. The feed/play category, which included providing food and toys during fireworks as well as giving them as a direct response to hearing bangs, was the only category associated with improvements in fear amongst dogs who were severely impacted by it.

Management strategies, such as providing a hiding place, playing music, or doing nothing, were associated with worsening of the fears. Although the data is correlational and does not show causality, it is unlikely these strategies themselves are making the fear worse. Perhaps it is more that people only use them when their dog is already very afraid, or are not also using behavioural strategies.

The two other categories, alternative methods (homeopathy, Bach Flower remedies, essential oils, nutraceuticals, pheromones and herbal products) and interaction strategies (comforting the dog or ignoring the dog) were reported as having no effect on the progression of fears. It’s important to note that in other studies, comforting a fearful dog by petting and talking to them has sometimes seemed to help. It is perfectly okay to comfort a fearful dog if they want it (despite old-fashioned advice to the contrary).

The paper also looked at individual strategies and how they were said to work. In particular:
  • Ad-hoc counter-conditioning was said to work by 70.8% of people. This is an interesting finding because one of the principles of DSCC is keeping the dog ‘under threshold’ (but of course with fireworks this is not always possible).
  • Relaxation training was said to work by 69.3%. One way to do this is via classical conditioning, to induce relaxation by petting, and then transfer this into stressful situations. Another way is via operant conditioning, by positively reinforcing behaviours consistent with relaxation. From this study, it is not possible to tell which of these methods was used most often or is most effective.
  • Prescription medication was effective for 68.9% of owners. 
  • Using noise CDs was said to be effective by 54.4% of people.  
  • A thundershirt was said to work by 44% of people
  • All other treatments were reported as effective by 35% or fewer of the people who used them.
These results follow on from an earlier study (mentioned by Dr. Riemer above) which found that preventive exercises and training can both help with firework fears.

So if your dog is afraid of fireworks, ad-hoc counter-conditioning should be part of your plans. You may also wish to try relaxation training, although based on this study it is not possible to give guidelines on the best way to do this. You should also consult with your vet, who may prescribe medication (and will also check for pain), and of course consult with a good dog trainer if needed.

You can follow Dr. Stefanie Riemer via the HundeUni Bern Facebook page and on Twitter.

If you liked this post, you'll love my new book, Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog which is available for pre-order now. Karen Fine DVM, author of the NYT-bestseller The Other Family Doctor, says “Bark! should be required reading for every veterinarian and anyone who loves an anxious, fearful, or reactive dog.”

If your dog is afraid of fireworks, what strategies have helped your dog?

Riemer, S. (2020). Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. 

Follow me!