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The Unexpected Dog Killer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For some, it happens in the bathroom. For others, it’s the living room. All across America, as fireworks go off on July 4th, many dogs experience varying degrees of fear and stress. Some crouch and huddle in the bathtub; others pace, pant and whine in the living room; others wildly dig and chew; and of course, there are the desk-hiders (among other behaviors discussed here). Today is not the easiest time to be a dog.

Fear and anxiety plague many dogs’ lives, and with good reason. The dogs we call ‘companion animals’ might have cushy lives in many ways (access to food, water, health care and companionship), but they are also exposed to challenges, such as repeated separations as you go off to work, then come home at variable times, and then leave on vacation; repeated mixing with unfamiliar dogs and people; and then there are those booming things that appear in the sky on barbecue day!

Nancy Dreschel, a veterinarian and animal science researcher at Penn State University, set out to investigate the ‘So What?’ aspect of fear and anxiety. Does living with fearfulness or anxiety have “negative effects on health and lifespan in the domestic dog”?

Dreschel took a retrospective approach. Owners whose dogs had passed within the last five years completed an online survey with 99 questions on a wide range of topics from general behavioral and health history to specifics like how much time the dog was alone each day, their exercise routines, training history, and of course age and cause of death. Fear and anxiety-related questions came from the C-BARQ, a validated questionnaire commonly used in dog behavior research (which you can fill out for your dog!). Dreschel drew her conclusions from 721 owner responses.

The study found it’s preferable to live without fear and anxiety:

1.  Being afraid of unfamiliar people (often called stranger-directed fear) predicted decreased lifespan. Dogs with extreme stranger-directed fear died six months earlier than dogs without.
2.  Non-social fears (like showing fearful behavior towards “noise, unfamiliar objects, traffic, storms, wind, new situations”) did not predict lifespan, but non-social fear and separation anxiety did predict both severity and presence of skin problems in adult dogs.

While the Fourth of July might not kill your dog, it’s certainly not a moment of enjoyment for many. In other species, activation of the stress response, particularly chronic stress, has been shown to affect both health and lifespan. Dreschel describes a study where rats who were consistently afraid of new things died earlier than non-fearful rats. In humans, chronic stress is associated with challenges such as “obesity, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, immune disturbances, altered endocrine responses and nervous system disorders.” Better to be la-di-da like Laverne & Shirley.

This research is an important step in exploring the relationship between fear or anxiety and the health and lifespan of companion dogs. As a correlational study, Dreshel adds, “we can hypothesize about the mechanisms of interaction and treatments that might be effective, but it is impossible to determine cause and effect of particular diseases and personality traits without longitudinal data.”

Now it’s in your court. Dogs who are sound-sensitive or fearful of strangers are not necessarily set in their ways. Living with a dog who displays fearful behavior doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say, “Sucks to be you!”

Over at Do You Believe in Dog?, canine welfare researcher Mia Cobb reflects on her own dog’s situation: “Over the years, we’ve developed strategies to help [my dogs] cope better with less anxiety and fear [relating to fireworks]. Most of the time, these strategies work (or maybe they are just going deaf as they get older?!).”

The below links are excellent, science-based resources to help canine companions with fireworks:

8 Tips for Fireworks Fear
Ilana Reisner Facebook, @reisvetbehavior

How to Keep Your Dog Happy When Fireworks Go Off — Using Science!
Jason Goldman @jgold85@io9

Let’s Talk About Dogs and Fireworks
Patricia McConnell Facebook

Thunder Phobia & Sound Sensitivities
Patricia McConnell Facebook

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

Don’t ‘Ace’ the Fear: Why Acepromazine May Make Your Dog’s Fireworks Fear Worse

Fireworks: Not Fun For Everyone (Or Every Dog)
Mia Cobb, @DoUBelieveInDog

What Kinds of Dogs are Troubled by Fireworks, and What to Do About It
Julie Hecht, @DoUBelieveInDog

How to Make Fireworks Less Upsetting for Dogs
Julie Hecht, @DoUBelieveInDog

Dogs and Thunderstorm Season
@SuzanneHetts and Dan Estep Facebook, @AARP

How are you dealing with your dog’s sensitivity to fireworks or thunderstorms?

Happy Fourth of July!


Image: Permission to use from Alison Kennedy-Benson

Dreschel N.A. (2005). Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95 (3-4) 153-168. DOI:

Dreschel N.A. (2010). The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (3-4) 157-162. DOI:

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. SJCrum 6:08 pm 07/5/2014

    By the way, when people feed their cats broccoli, if there is a single virus in the broccoli cats will ALWAYS get cancer. While the human defense system can fight off tow virus at a time, and even get cancer if three virus are in a body, cats cannot fight off even one.

    So, this article is about dogs, but this information is critically important for cat owners. Dogs never eat broccoli so it’s not an issue. But, cats do.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Percival 10:43 pm 07/5/2014

    Anecdote: we once had a male Doberman who was terrified every Independence Day no matter what we did *until* we moved to a home near a park that hosted a fireworks show.

    Closer to the source there’s less time delay between seeing and hearing fireworks of course, and apparently, once he could directly associate the scary sounds with the pretty lights in the sky, his fear vanished. He actually watched, and seemed to enjoy the show.

    Link to this
  3. 3. RonBurke 11:10 am 01/10/2015

    To accustom a dog that’s fearful of loud noises like gun fire or fire works it’s a matter of having him associate the loud noise with something he finds enjoyable. While bringing his food to him for instance, fire a cap pistol a few times. Work your way up to a louder noise that’s made with a starter pistol that fires shotgun primers. This will cure most dogs. It of course works better if this is done while the dog is a puppy.

    Link to this

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