(Note: this article originally ran in 2016 on my Heavenly Creatures blog at Patheos.com. It has been slightly updated here.)
While humans are celebrating Independence Day with picnics and fireworks, many of our dogs are freaking out over the crowds and loud noises, sending many dogs under the bed – or over the fence and down the road, until they’re lost. Or worse.
With the Fourth of July just around the corner, here are a few tips to help keep your dog safe and stress-free.
1) Don’t feed Rover picnic food. While he might really enjoy a burger or a hot dog (or other things he can steal from your plate), changes to your dogs diet can cause stomach upset. And upset stomach = anxious dog. Not only that, some of the picnic fare is dangerous for dogs, like onions, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners found in candy and gum. If you insist on bringing him to the family gathering, make sure he has plenty of water and a cool, quiet place where he can retreat, and that you keep a watchful eye on well-meaning folks bent on giving the doggie a “treat”.
2) Leave the dog at home. While we like to think that our dogs want to be with us 24/7, the truth is that most dogs get anxious in large crowds. Don’t believe me? Just for fun, find a large crowd of people and then get down on all fours and crawl around for a while. It’s hot, it’s confusing, and it’s probably stressful, especially if there are going to be fireworks. He’d be much happier at home, with a nice Kong toy filled with a treat, the shades drawn, and the couch all to himself.
3) Prepare ahead for the fireworks. Some vets estimate that almost half of dogs are spooked by loud noises, like thunder or fireworks. It’s not something to blow off; dogs have much more sensitive hearing than humans and they’re also affected by the electrical changes in the air from thunder and stormy weather. Yelling at the dog, or closing him in a room by himself without actually addressing the problem, can make it worse.
If you need immediate help this weekend, try a Thundershirt, which helps “swaddle” your dog by applying even pressure on his body. You can also use calming aromatherapy scents and oils, like Canine Calm, that you can spray on a dog’s bed or apply to a collar. (Check with your vet before applying oils directly to your pets, as some can be irritating to the skin or in some cases toxic). You can also talk to your vet or trainer about pheromone collars.
Don’t hesitate to talk to your vet about medication; just make sure you give it to your pup well in advance of the fireworks so it has time to take effect. The one I’ve used in the past with Bailey takes about four hours to kick in, but once it does she’s sedated just enough that she really doesn’t care about the noises but not so drugged that she can’t function.
4) Prepare for the worst case scenario. No one wants to think about losing their dog, but a scared dog reacts without thinking, and can bolt in a crowd, run into traffic, jump a fence, chew through a screen door, or otherwise do whatever he can to get away from the scary noises. Make sure your dog is safely in the house this Fourth of July, is wearing a collar with tags, and is also microchipped. If he manages to get out, you want to make it as easy as possible for him to be identified and returned to you. The longer he’s away, the more traumatic the experience.
5) Get ready for next year, now. It’s never too early to think about the next thunderstorm or fireworks display. Help desensitize your dog to loud noises with programs like Victoria Stillwell’s Canine Noise Phobia Treatment or Through A Dog’s Ears [now iCalmpet.com], music “psychoacoustically designed to support you and your dog’s compromised immune or nervous system function”. I used it often and find very helpful. In fact, I keep a CD in the car for rides, and music on my phone, just in case. You use these to slowly desensitize your dog to loud sounds or pair the music with the feeling of being calm, so it won’t work overnight. But it’s not too early to make a commitment now to give your dog some long-term relief.
And if you don’t already have a relationship with a positive-methods dog trainer, now’s the time to find one. Dog training isn’t just about going to puppy classes. If you have a trainer that knows you and your dog, when a problem arises throughout the dog’s life you can call on her to help address the issue quickly and positively. My dogs are older, but I don’t hesitate to call my trainer with questions, especially since I have a very squirrely Border Collie and a reactive Retriever/Pit mix. We’re always working to help the dogs be less anxious and to get along better with each other. I promise: a well educated, positive method trainer will change both you and your dogs’ lives.
Here’s hoping you and your pups have a healthy and safe holiday!