The Fourth of July signifies American independence, barbeques, celebration, fireworks, and unfortunately many frightened dogs. In addition to the obvious refrains about keeping your pets safe and secure, let’s talk a little about what you can do to help minimize your pets’ distress.
First, let me point out that each individual is different, and you need to figure out what is best for yours. For some there may be little choice other than heading out of town, for some pharmaceuticals may be effective, for others a Thundershirt may be useful. There is no single right answer, so you need to try a few options and find a combination that is most effective for your pet. And if you have a great technique, by all means share it in the comments below!
That said, here is the technique I have found to be most effective with many dogs:
A couple of nights a week, for the next several weeks, go into whichever room in your home is most soundproof, and turn up a stereo as loud as you can without causing your dog any stress, introduce a strong scent (peppermint perhaps), and then play a rip-roaring game of fetch, tug, race, wrestle, rollover, etc. Play to all of the dog’s strongest drives and make the game fun. Try to make it the most upbeat, engaging romp possible, although not so over the top that it becomes frenetic or stressful. Have a very high rate of reinforcement—lots of treats, praise, cheering, throwing, tugging… If possible, have a colleague set of a few small noisemaking fireworks outside a distance away, or have someone in another room play a recording of fireworks. Have a container of super-treats sitting nearby, and periodically make a show of running to the treats and giving one, or more, to your dog, so that the act of running over to the treats becomes reinforcing as well. You should be laughing, dancing, sweating, and generally all having a blast.
On the Fourth, and in some places a few days earlier, before the fireworks start, go into the same room, crank the stereo, introduce the scent, and repeat the same exercise. Your dog will be somewhat trained to the desired behaviors, but even more he will be conditioned to a state of exuberance. Whenever you hear a boom over the loud music, do not react, but make sure a fun action occurs and run for a reward, so the booms start to seem like a precursor to the fun stuff.
The underlying notion here is that wild exuberance is a more immersive state than calm. Calmness tends to be fairly passive and fragile and easily interrupted by the first loud noise. Conversely, energetic play has great inertia and is difficult to interrupt. Exuberance also utilizes more similar chemical and neural pathways to fear, and so is more feasible when faced with frightening stimuli. And of course, the aural, visual, and olfactory cues that you have conditioned will all serve the secondary role of dampening the frightening stimuli.
Do not stress about the Fourth. Your dog will detect your anxiety which will compound his. Come up with a plan, ameliorate the noise as much as possible, and do everything you can to keep them safe and happy! Oh, and Happy Independence Day!
Note: before you panic about the image at the top, two things: one, do not try this at home, and two, it was shot in pieces and was very safe–there was one firework behind me when I was working the dog, and we were a safe distance and he was well acclimated. The angle makes it look closer, and then the others I photographed separately and composited in afterwards!