• Lucy returned home to find flashing lights, police and a crowd of people on her front lawn. Panic set through her and her heart thumped out of her chest. She rushed over and with a lump in her throat, asked what was happening.

    The police were called because a neighbor thought there had been a domestic dispute. The front window was broken and there was blood everywhere. When police arrived, they found her dog Juniper on the front lawn with several lacerations, panting and drooling. She had jumped through the front window after being startled by the smoke alarm going off.

    Juniper required surgery for her injuries and the physical wounds healed but she continued to suffer from chronic anxiety after that incident.

    When I arrived for my consult, the first thing I noticed was the boarded-up windows. The main floor front window was covered with a panel of wood and the second-floor window had been covered as well. By this time, Juniper had jumped through the window on two other occasions and had tried to jump from the second floor.

    Lucy and her husband were understandably distraught. They felt helpless and even questioned their ability to continue caring for Juniper. Juniper could no longer be left alone without fears of her having another panic attack. Their emotional bank account was running dry and with the amount of money spent on Juniper’s surgery and post-op vet bills, their finances were running low as well.

    While this case is extreme, sound sensitivities and phobias are very common in dogs. With the long weekend right around the corner, along comes the fireworks.

    Very often, pet owners are left feeling helpless when their dog is showing anxiety during fireworks or thunderstorms. Below are some tips on how you can help them get through it and training you can do to prepare them for it.

  • Counter conditioning

    With this training technique, you take something the dog loves (usually high value food like chicken, cheese or hot dogs) and pair it with something they find scary. This can work with any noise your dog finds scary like thunder storms, fireworks, smoke alarms, vacuums, etc. I suggest to clients to play noises they find online at a very low volume and feed while the sound is playing. As long as their dog is doing well, they can gradually increase the volume in future training sessions.

    The idea behind this training technique is that we begin to teach the dog that the sound predicts good things happening so we can change their emotional response to it.

    During Fireworks and thunderstorms

    • As obvious as it sounds, keep your pet indoors during these times. It’s not uncommon for a dog to get spooked and run away and hide.
    • Have a safe place in the house for them to go. If your dog wants to hide, let them hide. It may even help to have a place set up for them where they might feel more secure like a crate covered with a towel or blanket. I leave the door to the crate open so they have the option of leaving if they aren’t comfortable. Some dogs may hide under beds, in closets or even in the bath tub.
    • It’s ok to comfort your dog when they are scared. A common misconception is that you’ll actually reinforce the fear if you comfort your dog while they’re scared or anxious making them more likely to be fearful in the future. While you can inadvertently reinforce behaviours resulting from fear (barking for example), you can’t actually reinforce the emotion of fear. If your dog is trying to climb in your lap or hide behind you, by all means, help them out.
    • Another option to try is a wrap or a Thundershirt. The idea behind it is that it applies constant gentle pressure similar to swaddling an infant and may reduce anxiety.
    • If your dog is showing more severe signs of anxiety towards sounds or having a hard time returning to normal even hours after the sounds stop, you may want to discuss the option of medication with your veterinarian. Several clients I’ve worked with have found medication has greatly helped reduce their dogs anxiety while working on behavior modification.