You've seen The Onion’s hopeful headline, ‘Nation’s Dogs Vow To Keep Their Shit Together During 4th Of July Fireworks.’ That is unlikely, particularly if your dog has had trouble with big bangs in the past. “Our nation’s dogs” are unlikely to simply keep it together on their own accord, and not just because of the loud noise. Something else is also at play.
Fireworks will always fall in the category of loud, unpredictable, and uncontrollable booms and flashes. This is the essence of what it means to be a firework. While NOISE is a crucial part of what makes fireworks oh so upsetting for our dog friends, animal welfare science highlights that their unpredictable nature also contributes to the intense anxiety and fear that so many dogs experience as fireworks season rolls around.
Predictability plays a big part in how animals perceive things, particularly things that are aversive. Predictability can take one of two forms: first, something can have temporal predictability, meaning it happens at regular intervals, like you being bopped on the head with a Nerf bat every 5 seconds. While that might be aversive and annoying, over time the head bop every 5 seconds becomes predictable, and you might even get used to it and carry on with whatever you were doing. Predictability can also be attained through signalling, say a bell sounding or a light flashing just before the head bop arrives. If this happens every time, the bell or light eventually signals the head bop, and you again might be able to carry on with what your doing. When animals can't prevent an aversive event completely, like a loud noise or an electric shock, many will seek out the version that is predictable over the version that is unpredictable.
For a dog, fireworks are intrinsically unpredictable. They are unsignalled and lack a temporal sequence (especially if many people in the neighborhood are setting off fireworks, and don't even get me started about the culminating moments of the fireworks display where as many fireworks are thrown into the air as humanly possible).
How to help a dog that is not okay being exposed to this incredibly unpredictable, incredibly loud, and therefore incredibly aversive stimulus?
In ‘Usher Might Ruin Your Dog’s Fourth of July,’ I highlight what many others, like The New York Times, have also said: Don’t take your dog to a fireworks display. Don’t. In '6 Ways to Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks,' trainer Eileen Anderson (@) highlights that dogs shouldn’t be expected to “tough it out.” It doesn’t work that way.
Focus your attention here: secure, indoor location; tasty tasty food; supplements; background noise; certain anti-anxiety medications. Veterinary behaviorist E’Lise Christensen (Facebook) recommends Vet Vine’s '7 tips to help pets that are fearful or anxious in response to loud noises.' Also see veterinary behaviorist Ilana Reisner’s '8 tips for fireworks fear this Fourth.' For more science-based links on how to deal with dogs who think fireworks are the pits, see my post from last year, 'The Unexpected Dog Killer.'
Image: Fireworks, Flickr creative commons license.
Reference: Bassett, L., and Buchanan Smith, H.M. 2007. Effects of predictability on the welfare of captive animals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 102, 223-245.