Treating Fear of Storms and Fireworks in Dogs

How are fireworks or thunderstorm fears and phobias treated?

Behavior modification and medication are regularly used to treat fears and phobias related to fireworks and thunderstorms. The best behavior modification technique to reduce fear is called systematic desensitization and counterconditioning.  Counterconditioning directs a dog’s emotional response to stimuli from negative to positive. Desensitization gradually adjusts a dog’s emotional response to stimuli (see handout “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning”).

How does desensitization and counterconditioning work?

Using counterconditioning, a dog learns to associate a positive emotion with something that has triggered a negative emotional response in the past. In most cases, a food reward is used to create a positive emotional state. A common counterconditioning strategy is rewarding a dog for engaging in a specific behavior: sitting, staying, down/settle.

When using counterconditioning to treat fear of noises, it is helpful to condition a fully relaxed posture (settling on a mat). Conditioning your dog to settle on a mat or bed will teach him to relax as soon as you present the bed, or ask for a "settle". Ensure that your dog can relax on cue before beginning any purposeful exposure to the triggering stimulus (see handout “Dog Behaviour and Training: Teaching Settle and Calm”).

"While your dog is enjoying the reward, you can present the trigger stimulus at a very low level."

Once this conditioning has been completed, you can begin desensitization training. In a desensitization and counterconditioning program, your dog will receive food rewards for engaging in the conditioned behavior (siting or settling on the mat). While your dog is enjoying the reward, you can present the trigger stimulus at a very low level.

As sessions progress, the level of the stimulus can be very gradually increased. Try to identify your dog’s favorite treats and save those for the desensitization sessions. Your dog should ultimately look forward to each new exposure.

When training, consider a location where your dog may be comfortable when storms or fireworks occur. If possible, try to find a room where sounds are naturally muted.  If there is no single ideal location, training your dog to relax on a mat will allow you to move the mat to different areas. This is helpful if you travel with your dog.

A mat inside a crate can be a safe haven for some dogs, and can be used for training. However, many dogs panic and could seriously injure themselves if confined during loud noises. If you are unable to monitor carefully, do not confine your dog during fireworks or a storm (see handout “Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and Confinement for Puppies and Dogs”).

When is the best time to start treatment?

Ideally, it is best to begin this training at a time of year when fireworks or thunderstorms are not likely to occur. For a desensitization technique to be effective, exposure to full intensity should be avoided until treatment has been completed.

How do I organize desensitization?

Before you begin, download the sound that triggers your dog’s fear response (thunder or fireworks). Consider connecting to a Bluetooth speaker for the best sound quality. Desensitization may begin once you are confident that your dog will remain relaxed on cue (sit, down, stay, or settle onto its bed). Plan to have sessions that last about 30–45 minutes.

At the start of each session, spend a few minutes practicing the conditioned relaxed response (settle on the mat, sit, down, stay). Next, introduce the sound at a barely audible level. It is important to start with the noise at a volume that does not elicit any distress. Put your dog on the “relax” command and have an assistant praise your dog, reassuring him for staying calm. If the correct response is not achieved, you may need to go back several steps until you can get your dog to “sit” and “relax,” which is the first part of the program.

After two sessions at a very low level of sound, if you dog remains calm, you can progress to a third session. Begin the third session at the very low level of sound. After a few minutes, increase the volume very slightly. Continue at this pace until your dog is able to relax while you play the sound at full volume.  

Keep in mind, it can be difficult to reproduce a realistic firework or thunderstorm event when retraining. Components of these events - darkening skies, pelting rain, flashes of light, changes in barometric pressure - can all contribute to increased fear. Though many of these components can be added to the desensitization program, dogs unable to fully respond to retraining may greatly benefit from medication.

How often should sessions be done?

It is important to schedule regular training sessions. Without regular training, your dog can regress. It is helpful to train every day when possible. Progress may be very slow if training is only done once a week.

How long will this training program take?

A desensitization program can take several weeks. Eventually, your dog should remain relaxed at full intensity noises. Once you have reached this point, it is important to continue the exposure on a regular basis. Plan to play the sound at full volume at least once every week throughout the year. Also, practice the relaxation protocol so your dog is able to settle when asked. As your dog improves, he may begin to completely ignore the sound. For variety, at this stage, you can change your approach. During some sessions, you can request a relaxed settle, and for others, do not guide your dog to engage in a specific behavior, just let him "be himself".

What should I do if I don’t appear to be making any progress?

If progress is not steady, consult your veterinarian for further advice or help. Sound sensitivity may be exacerbated by concurrent medical or behavioral conditions.

What happens if I haven’t managed to get my dog trained in time for the storm season?

Medications or pheromones could be helpful if your dog is not fully desensitized before the season for storms or fireworks. See the handout “Helping Dogs with Severe Phobias During Storms and Fireworks” for additional information.

How can drugs be helpful?

There are many applications for anxiety-reducing medication. In preparation for the storm or firework season, your veterinarian may recommend using medication on a daily basis, such as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. The ongoing medication may reduce the fear response during an unexpected event, and can also help dogs that are not responding appropriately to the desensitization and counterconditioning training.

During the off-season, medication can be used when a storm or fireworks display is anticipated.  Most anti-anxiety medications need to be given at least an hour prior to an anticipated event. These medications may also be used as a supplement to the daily medication during the storm season.

Are there other products that might be useful?

There are many non-pharmaceutical veterinary products used to reduce anxiety in dogs. Examples include Solliquin®, Anxitane®, and Zylkene®. These products are very safe and can often be used with traditional medication. Some dogs respond well to melatonin. Be sure to tell your veterinarian about any medications (including vitamins, supplements, or herbal therapies) your pet is taking.

Anxiety wraps such as the Thundershirt™ are designed to help dogs relax and are worth trying. Pheromone products such as Adaptil® can reduce anxiety and are available as diffusers. They can also be applied directly to your dog’s bedding.

For further discussion on why fears and phobias develop and how they might be prevented, see the handout “Fears and Noises in Dogs”.