(Five Minute Read)
Our Fireworks Fear Story and Our Fear Remedies
I love fireworks.
Or at least I used to.
When I was a kid, my dad would bundle us up in the station wagon long after bedtime. We’d drive off to watch our small-town fireworks extravaganza near our lake cottage in Michigan’s upper peninsula. It was gorgeous and loud and marked our midsummer.
We never brought the dogs with us – that wasn’t really a thing way back then – but our dogs were never bothered by fireworks. I suspect that’s because they were hunting dogs, accustomed from puppyhood to leap happily at any loud sound. After all, a sudden “bang” meant they’d soon be racing through the woods all afternoon.
Ignoring Fireworks Fear
Fast forward to adulthood, and I found myself with wonderful golden retrievers who were never around guns and weren’t trained to feel comfortable around loud noises. Two of our four goldens developed terrible storm and fireworks phobia. At the time, experts recommended ignoring the fear and simply providing a safe space. In their frenzy to find safety, my goldens made their own shelter, creating a makeshift den in the spare comforter at the bottom of the kids’ bathroom linen closet.
If a storm was on the way, I’d know it long before our local meteorologist, as I’d find our Maddie hiding either in the tub or the closet.
It never sat right with me that I should be just ignoring our dogs’ fireworks fear, but the concept fit the “alpha dog” philosophy so popular at the time. But, here, I’ll repeat my favorite Maya Angelou quote: “When we know better, we do better.”
Havanese and Fireworks Fear
Now, we have our Scout and Phoebe, two Havanese with remarkably chill personalities. Scout, my red-headed three-year-old, is brash and bold. (Well, she’s brash and bold as long as whatever she’s challenging doesn’t challenge her back. When that happens, she high-tails it behind her nearest human.)
Phoebe, my gold, black, and silver seven-year-old, is more dignified in everything she does. There’s a wise old soul in her eyes. Truly. But cue a thunderstorm or fireworks, and that wisdom dissolves completely.
Phoebe’s thunderstorm fear began in puppyhood. My theory is that she simply absorbed the terror her big brother Romeo exuded whenever he felt the least electricity in the air. Because otherwise, Phoebe exhibits a calm most monks would envy.
Symptoms of Fireworks and Storm Anxiety
At its worst, Phoebe’s anxiety over firework or storms brought on the following symptoms:
- arched back
- elevated heart rate
- lowered tail
- lowered ears
- refusal to go potty
Fortunately, by the time Phoebe came into our lives, I’d moved beyond the whole alpha-dog “ignore their suffering” school of thought. With Phoebe, we’ve worked on a couple of solutions that have helped immeasurably.
Storm Anxiety: Basic Tips That Helped Our Havanese
In our old house, fireworks were only an issue on the 4th. We lived on a two acre lot in a fairly rural area, and our biggest challenge was facing severe New England thunderstorms. We found that playing music, swaddling Phoebe in a towel, and keeping her close to us helped her the most. When my husband held her, she felt most protected. Her trembling would ebb a bit at least.
Of course, we both actually work for a living, and many times we weren’t home to provide any of these comforts and reassurances when storms arrived unexpectedly. We’d watch helplessly on the puppy cam as she suffered terribly until one of us could get back to the house.
And now, our new home creates a much bigger challenge to keeping our pup calm during fireworks or storms. We’ve moved to a coastal town surrounded by more coastal towns. We swear that setting off fireworks is the avowed second job of every third homeowner in our neighborhood. Beginning with Memorial Day and continuing through well into September, legal and illegal fireworks displays occur multiple times a week.
It’s beautiful and celebratory if you’re a human or dog without PTSD, noise anxiety or illness. If you’re not, well, then. It’s awful.
Solutions for Fireworks Anxiety
Our Havanese Phoebe is in the unlucky category, and the fireworks make Phoebe’s life miserable when they’re going off. Or at least, they did.
When we moved here and I realized how relentless the fireworks can be, we set about finding more solutions for Phoebe’s noise anxiety. I am all about the science, so we researched university-level studies and found two which specifically address how to prevent fireworks fear in dogs.
Phoebe still struggles mightily, but we’ve eliminated almost all her symptoms but the trembling. And honestly, the next two days will be the test to see whether I resort to pharmaceutical drugs. According to at least one study, cited below, prescription anti-anxiety medication works to end fireworks fear symptoms in 90% of dogs.
While I don’t believe in throwing medication at issues as a first resort, if all else fails, I will use them. But first, let me share what additional things have worked for Phoebe’s anxiety:
- Relaxation Training: Phoebe loves to sit on our laps facing away from us so we can rub her shoulders. Under normal circumstances, she becomes so relaxed her head will actually loll to the side and she can fall asleep sitting up. We’ve started using this technique during storms and fireworks, and it’s helped. If your pup suffers from fireworks anxiety, try practicing their favorite massage daily and linking a word to it, like “relax.” When the next spate of storms or fireworks occurs, pull out the “relax” practice and see how that helps. (Read more about the benefits of dog massage in our post How to Tell Your Dog You Love Them).
- Treat and Toy Training: I laughed when I first read Stephanie Reimer’s study suggestion to give dogs treats during fireworks or storms. I mean, a dog in a state of frenzied anxiety isn’t interested in anything but escaping the inescapable storm or fireworks display. No matter how food or toy motivated Phoebe is, she will have nothing to do with either during her panic attacks. But then we tried it with her favorite bully sticks during a minor storm. AND IT WORKED! Now, I keep favorite treats in my pocket at all times, and whenever a loud noise occurs, we create a big-deal mini-party, have treats, and praise her. According to the Reimer studies, that should lessen Phoebe’s negative reactions to storms and fireworks.
- Over-The Counter Fireworks Meds. Reimer’s study showed that, for most dogs, nutraceuticals are really no better than placebos for improving fireworks fear. But we actually swear by Holistapet CBD Oil (150mg for dogs under 20 pounds). It simply takes the edge off Phoebe’s storm and fireworks anxiety. That CBD, combined with our relaxation and distraction techniques, has helped improve her symptoms.
Will We Need Prescription Drugs to Stop Fireworks Anxiety in the Future?
This weekend is the test.
The more I learn about the way anxiety can worsen overtime, the more willing I am to take medical steps to support Phoebe with her fireworks and storm reactions.
On the one hand, we have Scout, who actually laid in my arms last year watching the massive explosions on display from our patio. She was wholly relaxed. She was, in fact, shameless, splaying her four legs to ensure every millimeter of her belly was available for rubbing as she enjoyed the show.
And on the other hand, we have Phoebe. If our new relaxation and treat/toy distractions aren’t enough, I’m calling our wonderful vet and asking for a prescription anti-anxiety medication.
Life is too short, especially for our dogs, to suffer such terror needlessly. I’ll keep you posted.
Does Your Small Dog Have Fireworks Anxiety?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What do you do for your pup’s storm or fireworks fear?