July 4th Safety tips for pets

24June 2017

The Fourth of July is coming soon and with it comes some terrifying sounds for your dog.  This month’s Trainer Tip is focused on keeping your dog safe during the holiday and helping ease his anxiety and/or fear of the sights and sounds.

Have ID on your pet:
This is the number one most important thing!  More pets run away on July 4th than any other day of the year.  Be sure that your pet has proper identification tags with updated contact information.  On the 4th, be sure to keep your pet on a leash and keep a close eye on him when out and about.  

The best thing to do for a dog that gets nervous, anxious, or fearful during fireworks is to properly prepare BEFORE the day arrives.

Desensitize your dog to firework sounds:
One of the best things you can do is to prepare your dog before the 4th by desensitizing him to the sounds and sights of fireworks.  There are several places online that have video and audio downloads.  

To desensitize your dog to the sounds of fireworks, download one of the many free samples online.  Start by playing it near your dog at low volume while doing normal every-day activities and/or during feeding time.  If your dog seems comfortable, slowly turn up the volume while continuing to do activities.  Be sure NOT to stare at your dog when you play the video/audio clip.
Engage your dog in activities he enjoys while playing the clip in the background.  This can include short training sessions for treat rewards, or maybe a game of fetch.  Be sure your dog appears comfortable and seems to be enjoying himself.  Use high value rewards:  whatever your dog likes best.
If your dog is still feeling comfortable, continue turning up the volume to the max.  Remember to use very high rewards for calm and good behaviors.

Try Lavender Oil:
Lavender is a naturally calming scent for both humans and dogs.  I have recommended lavender in the past for dogs with arthritis.  To use lavender for your dog, take some time to give your dog a massage and give some good petting.  Put just a little dab of lavender oil on your hands before massaging your dog and/or petting him in his favorite spots.  Use nice, calm, slow strokes.  Slowly massaging the outsides of the spine from the neck down is another proven approach.  Be sure not to use a lot of lavender.  A little dab will do just fine.  You do not need a lot to get the smell, and we do not want to have dogs licking excessive amounts of oil off themselves.  The point of this exercise is to associate the smell of lavender with a nice calm, relaxed state of mind.  You should do this for a few days (or more) prior to the fireworks on July 4th.  Your dog will build an association to the smell of lavender and being relaxed and calm.  Before the fireworks begin, put your dog in his “safe place” with the scent of lavender.

Have a “Safe Place” for your dog:

For many dogs the thing that makes them feel best and most safe is to be able to get as far away from the sights and sounds as possible.  Have a spot ready that your dog will enjoy and be comfortable in.  Make it somewhere far away from outside walls and windows.  This will make it easier for him to relax.  The best thing would be a kennel or crate.  Dogs generally enjoy den-like enclosures, and having your kennel or crate set up before the 4th will help them have a nice spot to go.  It is also helpful to place sheets or towels over wire crates to help block sound and lights.  Be sure to take the temperature into consideration.  It is summer and things get hot quickly.  Do not make your “safe place” uncomfortable for your dog by making it too hot.  You are most looking for a den-like area for your dog to feel safe.  If possible feed and/ or treat your dog in this area prior to the 4th.  Make sure the area is lined with a bed or comfy blankets for your pup as well.
Also remember to try and give your dog something he enjoys to help occupy him such as a chew bone or Kong filled with some yummy treats or peanut butter.

This is not something I would generally recommend.  Sedating a dog during fireworks may not have the effect the owner wants.  Sedation may actually make a dog more anxious or nervous.  If this is an option you are considering, please talk to your vet.

Communication & Energy:
If you will be around your dog during the fireworks, the best thing you can do for them is to remember to remain calm and feel like the fireworks are no big deal.  Dogs react to energy.  If your energy is telling your dog that you are calm and not at all worried about the sights and sounds, your dog will feel that it is okay for him to relax as well.
Remember Body Language:
Energy is important, but always remember you also communicate with your dog through body language.  There are three things on your body that are rewarding to dogs.  Touch, talk, and eye contact.  This means that any time you touch a dog, talk to a dog, or look at a dog, you are basically rewarding whatever behavior they are doing.  This is important because we do not want to unintentionally reward bad behavior.  
That means during July 4th fireworks, if your dog appears fearful, anxious, or nervous, do not do any of these 3 things.  Do NOT pet your dog and tell them its okay.  By doing this, you are basically telling your dog to continue being scared.  Obviously this is not what we want.  Instead encourage or lead your dog to their “safe place.”  Remain calm.  Ignore any nervous or fearful behavior and only reward calm, relaxed behavior.

Exercise your Dog before Dusk:

A fantastic way to help your dog is to thoroughly exercise him before the fireworks begin.  Be sure to get your evening walk in before it starts to get dark.  The less energy your dog has, the less energy he has to put towards being fearful.  A tired dog will be more comfortable and will be able to more easily ignore the sounds and sights of the night.

Other Helpful Tools:
There are many other helpful tools on the market that you may want to try.  These include soothing dog sounds, and shirts/ vests that are supposed to help keep a dog more calm.
Soothing Dog Sounds:
There are many places online where you can download free or cheap music sounds that have been proven to help calm dogs.  Many people use these sounds or even leave on the radio when their dogs are left home alone.  These soothing dog sounds might be useful to help drown out the scary sounds coming from the fireworks. 
Thunder Shirt:
The primary use for this product is for dogs who get nervous during storms, but it may also be helpful for July 4th.  The Thunder Shirt applies gentle, constant pressure to the dog.  It is similar to swaddling an infant.  It is supposed to help sooth the dog and make him feel more safe.  
Calming Cap:
The Calming Cap is a tool used to help block out possible sights that may make a dog nervous or fearful.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP):
DAP is a synthetic chemical based on a hormone produced by lactating female dogs that helps keep her puppies calm.  It may help relax your dog during fireworks.