There is lots of good advice around about how to cope with dogs that are frightened of fireworks. However, one common element seems to be “ignore your dog if he is showing signs of fear during fireworks night, or you will REINFORCE HIS FEAR”. Words to this effect appear all over the place. But this statement doesn’t make sense from a scientific perspective, and potentially creates problems from a dog welfare one. In this blog, I explain why.
Attention does not reinforce the fear response
Lots of dogs become frightened of fireworks – our research has suggested that almost half of owners report behavioural signs indicative of anxiety or fear to loud noises, and 82% of these react to fireworks1,2. Fireworks are very loud, very bright and completely unpredictable for dogs – so it is unsurprising that so many develop a fear response. In trying to find a behavioural strategy to cope with the fear induced by the noises, dogs will try a range of different behaviours3. These might include hiding behind the sofa, running about, or climbing in a cupboard. Many dogs react by going to their owner and seeking reassurance. They do this because the social contact with their owner reduces their stress and helps them to cope with the scary noises. Social contact therefore helps mitigate their fear response to the noises – not reinforce it.
Attention reinforces a coping strategy
Although giving attention will reduce a dog’s anxiety in the short-term, it is not necessarily a good thing in the long-term. Cuddling a fearful dog reduces their stress, but in doing so teaches him or her that coming to their owner is a good strategy to cope with loud noises. In other words, giving attention doesn’t reinforce the fear, but does reinforce the coping strategy of seeking attention. This is fine as long as the owner is at home and accessible – but will make things much worse for the dog if the owner is out when loud noises subsequently occur. This means that by reinforcing attention seeking as a way of coping with loud noises, owners are setting up their dog to be even more distressed if noises happen when their dog is alone.
So to cuddle or not cuddle on fireworks night?
Well, with fireworks night imminent in the UK – it is very important to not ignore a frightened dog that is already reliant on owner attention. It is the wrong time to try to change a coping strategy when there are fireworks crashing and whizzing outside – this will just cause the dog to be distressed. Owners need to give dogs which seek reassurance as much attention as normal FOR NOW, get through the fireworks season, and THEN think about changing their dog’s coping response.
Dogs which choose to move away and hide, on the other hand, should be left alone – their strategy to cope with noises is different and they may become more anxious, or even aggressive, if approached when trying to hide.
Other aspects of owner behaviour
Dogs are very sensitive to their owners, so acting differently from normal can increase anxiety. This means that dog behaviour can be influenced by owners reacting to fireworks. It is best for owners to try to do normal things at normal times. Jumping up and down checking for fireworks can direct dogs’ attention to what is going on outside. Where owners are overly concerned about their dog, this can also impact on their dogs’ anxiety.
Changes needed in the longer term
In the long-term, it is important to change a dogs’ coping behaviour away from seeking attention. Teaching dogs to hide in an enclosed ‘den’ area when they are worried ensures that they have coping strategy that doesn’t depend on the owner being present. Dogs also need to learn that firework noises are not scary, with a programme of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. More information about what to do for dogs with noise fears is available on my web-site4.
As ever, prevention of noise fears by habituating young puppies to household and potentially aversive sounds like fireworks is important to reduce this problem in the future5.
- Blackwell, E.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. and Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
- Fear responses to noises (noise phobias) in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/noise-fears-in-dogs.html
- Signs and development of noise fears in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/17-signs-and-development-of-noise-fears-in-dogs.html
- What do I do if my dog is frightened of loud noises?: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/18-what-do-i-do-if-my-dog-is-frightened-of-loud-noises.html
- Habituation of puppies to household and potentially aversive noises (an except from the supporting materials for the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding’s Breeder Standard): http://vetbehaviour.info/images/PDFs/Dog-Advisory-Council-Prevention-of-Noise-Fears.pdf