You spend Independence Day slurping vodka out of a watermelon, asking the grill-master to make yours medium rare and showing off your cannonball. Dogs, on the other hand, spend it cowering in the corner and covering their ears whenever there's a bang or a pop in the vicinity. Their fireworks-induced freakouts make sense: Dogs have sensitive hearing and are completely thrown off by the unexpected explosions shooting through the sky. Frightened of the fracas, how can pups keep calm (and log their daily 12-to 18 hours of sleep) while you get your fireworks on?
According to Pete Scheifele, a US Military researcher who runs Fetchlab, an animal audiology lab, fireworks are a common trigger for noise phobias and reactivity, which may afflict up to half of all dogs. But you can take measures to lessen the stress of celebrating the birth of our nation for your dog. With help from Scheifele, we came up with this guide to getting dogs through America's birthday.
How to Tell When Your Dog's Afraid — And Understand How it Perceives Sound
To help your dog, you need to be able to tell when it's distressed. Some signs of fear are obvious, such as fleeing, whimpering and shaking. But your dog may also tell you its scared through more subtle physical changes. Look for "whale eyes" (when the whites of the eyes are larger than normal) and anxious ticks such as paw-licking or yawning.
Now, some dog hearing 101: In general, pooches have more sensitive hearing than humans, but not because sounds are "louder" to them. Actually, we have roughly the same audible range as our furry friends. But they're much more sensitive to sounds that register at higher frequencies. Explosives (including fireworks), surprisingly, aren't particularly high-frequency, which means that dogs should find at least some of those whiz-bangs and pop-sizzles only slightly more bothersome than we do.
For the sake of safety, according to Scheifele, we should all stay about 8,000 feet away from the blast-off site, a distance that helps keep the noise level below 85 decibels. But that rule doesn't account for a dog's individual disposition, experiences and physiology.
"Every dog (and human) has a different and personal sensation level of hearing," said Scheifele. "The owner must just be vigilant then as to how the pet behaves in differing noise levels. If [one person] lives, say, two miles away from the fireworks and is indoors but their dog is reacting, then it must be [assumed] that the dog is susceptible even to that amount of noise."
So what can you do to lessen the discomfort?
1. Designate a Safe Place
Scheifele recommends designating a "safe place" in your home, where dogs can retreat during bad weather, fireworks or whenever they need some canine alone time.
"With specific regard to noise and your pet," said Scheifele, "find the quietest room and make it a well-known and comfortable place for your pet to be." Top on the list would be somewhere inside that's carpeted and comfortable, such as a basaement or bedroom. "If the dog is used to being there with its people," says Scheifele, "then it's more likely to be comfortable there. Some soft, soothing music in that place is also very helpful and calming perhaps even a hoodie or snood or thunder shirt (see below). Place items that your dog likes within the room for enrichment. Stay with or visit your dog often."
2. Invest in Protective Gear
There are a number of options available to protect your dog from invasive sounds. Such devices as dog-specific headphones "may provide some modest amount of protection" for your dog.
While most devices won't weaken sounds below 1000 Hz well (or at all), Scheifele contends that "any protection is good protection, as opposed to no protection." Here are a few options to consider.
Protective Clothing: Humans and canines alike respond to the anxiety-relieving impact of compression wear. (See: swaddling, weighted blankets, Temple Grandin's hug machine.) We like: Thundershirt Sport - Patriotic, $45; thundershirt.com
Ear Muffs. The noise-reducing headphones were originally developed to help canine co-pilots survive life in the cockpit. But, they muffle noise on the ground, too. Behaviorists may not recommend them for a practical reason: Many dogs won't wear them. Easing dogs into them is key, per Scheifele. "Pre-training is important as dogs generally do not take well to inserting things into their ear canals or even wearing muffs if they have not been exposed to the devices." Try: Mutt Muffs, $60; safeandsound.com
Pheromones. Products that release synthetic "appeasing pheromones" are used to manage anxiety (as well as other behavioral problems) in dogs and cats. Pheromone-releasing sprays, collars, plug-ins and diffusers (a la air freshener) are supposed to mimic natural compounds secreted from the sebaceous glands of female dogs during lactation. Try: ComfortZone with Adaptil Collar, $16; drsfostersmith.com
Classical music or white noise. The idea here is to drown out or balance one, unpleasant sound with another, more positive source of auditory stimulation. In one 2015 study, veterinarians exposed kennel dogs to seven days of classical music, and tracked the dogs' behavioral and physiological responses throughout the experiment. Compared to Mozart-deprived dogs, the auditory stimulation group exhibited increased heart-rate variability (which is a good thing) and calmer behavior.
3. Look into Pharmaceutical Fixes
If a fear of noise materially affects your dog's functioning or quality of life, head to your veterinarian, who might recommend training or prescribe "human" psychoactive drugs (or refer you to a specialist in behavioral pharmacology) to help manage their distress. Depending on the nature of the condition, experts might prescribe a quick-acting drug that induces calm within an hour-or-so (e.g., xanax, valium, clonidine) or longer-term treatment that takes up to six weeks to kick in (e.g., buspar, puppy prozac).
But, dogs don't respond uniformly to drug treatment, and may even have an adverse reaction to new medication. Behavioral pharmacology requires a devoted owner who can closely track their dog's progress. Often, veterinarians have to change drugs and tinker with dosages to find a good fit.
4. Trial, Error and Treats
"No human knows exactly what any animal actually hears and processes for sound," said Scheifele. "We do know how the brain (theirs and ours) processes sound and at what frequencies and levels (via years of research)."
We can love our dogs. We can even monitor their brain activity while they catch whiffs of us. But we still can't get into their heads, which makes it hard to predict how they'll react to explosions in the sky or the remedies we use to protect them.
"Plenty of factors inform how a dog responds to noise," said Scheifele, including "where does the dog usually live, what noises are they normally exposed to (hunting versus city dwelling dogs), the individual dog’s audiology, number of ear infections in its lifetime, training and on and on."
So there you go. The bottom line? Don't wait until the sparklers are lit to tackle your dog's fireworks fear. And may the Fourth be with you.