Carlo Siracusa, director of Animal Behavior Service at Ryan Hospital, part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, offers some tips on how to make your pets feel safe during thunderstorms and fireworks. Click here for additional suggestions and some more in-depth information.
Why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms and fireworks?
Many dogs are afraid of loud, sudden, unpredictable noises, not just thunderstorms and fireworks. Occasionally, storms cause real damage to the dog’s environment: Trees fall on houses, lightning strikes, power goes out, or flooding occurs. Fireworks have many of the features of thunderstorms, including various explosions and other strange noises, plus flashes of light. Whether because of years of frightening experiences or decreased tolerance, these fears often appear for the first time in adult or senior dogs.
What are the signs of this kind of fear?
For a thunderstorm, the behavioral signs often begin before a storm arrives. Generally speaking, such signs include panting; pacing; whining; salivating; trembling; urination and defecation (including diarrhea) in the house; digging and clawing at floors and walls; chewing household objects, woodwork or walls; attempts to hide or escape (which may include digging and chewing); running away if escape occurs; and attempts to stay near a family member.
Some dogs exhibit redirected aggression to other household dogs because of their fear. This can result in dog fights with injury, as the fearful dog attacks another dog in the home. There is also a danger in multi-dog households that another dog will attack the dog behaving fearfully. This is not an attempt to “correct” the behavior; it is an emotional response to the behaviorally agitated state of the fearful dog.
What are some behavioral management options?
Because fear is not an operantly conditioned behavior, it can neither be effectively punished or rewarded. The goal of managing this fear behaviorally is to change the dog’s emotional state from frightened and distressed to neutral or even content. Though limited, there are a few options. First, do not ignore your dog during storms or fireworks. Ignoring a fearful, panicky dog deprives him of whatever comfort and psychological support you can provide. It also leaves him without any information about what he should be doing instead. Also, never punish a dog acting fearfully. Punishment only inhibits behavior; it does not calm. For puppies and young dogs, it may be helpful to try to do pleasant things with them during storms or fireworks, in an effort to prevent fear from developing.
Some dogs are able to direct their anxiety to destroying “sacrifice items” such as cardboard boxes or paper items like old phone books. This destructive behavior can function as a way to displace the dog’s anxiety onto a pleasurable activity. If there is an activity your dog can’t get enough of, do this during storms and fireworks. This can include fetch, chase games, even cuddling and petting, or holding the dog firmly next to you. If the fear-inducing activities are occurring at night, some dogs can be comforted by being allowed in bed with you.
What are some environmental management options?
Some dogs respond well to having a “safe haven” where they can hide and be reasonably secure and comfortable. This can be a room, a large closet, even a basement. Some dogs prefer a bathroom, especially the bathtub or shower. During storms and fireworks, keep dogs who are aggressive or targets of aggression separate from other household dogs. This can make it more complicated to find an appropriate safe haven for the fearful dog. Some dogs cannot overcome their fear with just environmental changes and therefore, it might be appropriate to discuss medication options with a veterinarian.
Carlo Siracusa is a clinical assistant professor of behavior medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.