I’m very lucky that my dogs have never been very stressed out about fireworks. Maybe it’s because I’ve always lived in San Francisco’s Mission District where fireworks go off completely randomly for all occasions that aren’t the Fourth like New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, winning soccer matches, Halloween, World Series wins, Valentine’s Day, Tuesday, you name it, fireworks go off day or night.
When I describe them as fireworks I’m not talking about semi legal ones that come in a combo box from a stand in counties where it’s legal to sell them, I mean fireworks that sound like actual bombs. Car alarms over multiple blocks will go off from just one explosion.
Or you hear the explosions, poke your head out the window to see that there is a full on, professional grade, fireworks display going off in the night sky that would make the Giants’ Stadium jealous. It’s so close that I close my window to escape the firework’s ash that snows over my apartment. In the morning I find parts of the fireworks in my backyard. I’m literally blasé about them now. Britt and I just turn up the tv and continue shuffling around our kitchen making dinner while our dogs sleep.
When we lost our beautiful big angel dog Jasmine recently and got Naughty Dotty the puppy, I finally realized why my dogs have never reacted to fireworks…because we don’t react to the fireworks. Dotty had her first fireworks experience last month and her eyes widened in panic, her back went up and I noticed she first glanced up at me to check in about what was happening. I didn’t react to the sound and just continued to make dinner. She then looked over at her big sis Ree Ree sleeping peacefully on the couch and she adjusted her stress level accordingly. A couple more bombs went off with zero reaction from me and ReeRee and so she made the decision that these noises didn’t matter and settled in to the couch to contentedly chew her bone.
Btw, I totally get that some dogs with a ton of past trauma have nervous systems that are totally shot and they will absolutely not be able to do any decision making at these moments like Dotty was able to as a puppy that had never faced abuse. But I do still recommend trying this because your dog looks to you to gauge what their reaction should be. Completely ignoring the fireworks could take the edge off of a hyper sensitive dog, giving them some peace through the difficulty of the Fourth of July.
For clarification, when I say have no reaction, I mean absolutely none. Like, don’t even sigh in frustration, don’t complain about them to your partner, don’t stop speaking mid sentence, try not to jump, don’t look outside, don’t curse about it, don’t eye roll over them. Keep your shoulders relaxed, keep watching tv, reading your book or making dinner with zero notice. If you can’t keep from jumping with each explosion then I suggest wearing ear plugs or headphones with a podcast or music so you don’t even hear them so that your body won’t make any involuntary movements that alert the dog that they should be worried.
The main reaction to avoid during fireworks, and this sounds so mean that I hate that I even have to write it, is to please stop rushing over to the dog to comfort, squeeze, hug, cuddle or whisper that it’s okay. That’s communicating that there is something to fear that you must comfort them over. It is a reaction signifying that there is something bad happening that they have to be protected from. Just do the regular amount of cuddling at the regular times that your dog would expect. If you’re watching TV with your dog curled up next to you and you’re stroking them, do not change the petting tempo at all. Just act normal and your dog will act normal.
Dogs spend all day and night staring at us. It’s literally their favorite thing. Even when they nap they’ll open an eye to check on us before falling back to sleep. They are almost psychic in their ability to pick up on our moods and feelings through watching our body language. Their entire lives are based on our habits and body language so they study us and memorize us. So this technique is really powerful to a dog.
“Well Sunde,” I can hear you saying to yourself, “You’re just lucky you have such well adjusted, not fear driven dogs. I could never try this with my dogs.” My answer to that is that our Jasmine was so terrified of the world that she wouldn’t leave our apartment without being carried down the stairs for her first couple of years with us. She wouldn’t walk further than one block before running in a panic back home. ReeRee was so abused and neglected that a friend once described her as feral. She would lunge and growl at strangers, bikes, rollerskaters, the sound of the neighbor walking upstairs etc. Or she’d immediately spiral into a zombied frenzy at the smallest, out of the ordinary or unsettling experience. When we first got her she’d have nightmares where she’d wake up barking and snarling and when we’d go to comfort her she couldn’t register where she was and would just growl and lunge at us until her mind returned to her and she recognized who we were through the fog of her night terror. So I believe there is hope for your terrified dog too.
Obviously there are a ton of other things to do to help your babies that I’m sure you know about like sound machines, isolated rooms, not letting them outside so they can escape, Thunder Shirts and probably dozens of other things but pretty please give this a shot, even if it helps a tiny bit it could set a foundation of fearless fireworks for the years to come as they get less and less worried about them.