Our Animal Friends and Fourth of July Fears

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At this time of year, one of the most frequently asked questions I get relating to our animal friends is about the 4th of July holiday celebration and fireworks. Most often the question relates to dogs and the fear of loud noises. I am amazed at how many people must sedate their dog friends just to get them through this experience every year. If you are one of those folks or know someone who is, this article is for you.

First, let’s be sure you know what not to do. None of us likes it when our dog acts fearfully and most of us, even though we have the best of intentions, do exactly the wrong things. For example, let’s say you are with your dog when thunder bangs loudly. The dog startles and then begins to cower in fear. The response is usually to try to calm and sympathize, “Oh poor baby, it’s okay, calm down, it’s only thunder, mommy doesn’t like it either, kiss, kiss, kiss” while petting and stroking the dog. If you do this, you are acknowledging the fear, communicating to the dog that they are behaving appropriately and rewarding the fearful behavior. Their fear will actually become stronger and more deeply seated psychologically.

Martha Norwalk

Martha Norwalk with her Golden Retriever, Robbie

Instead of doing that, remember that dogs are pack animals, you are the leader and must set the appropriate example. Dogs do follow the leader and tend to be monkey see-monkey doers. They also tend to be pretty simple minded. If you have a good sales pitch, you can convince them of almost anything. In order to pull this off, you will need to drum up the actress or actor inside of you and you will need a jolly routine, which takes a little preparation time.

A jolly routine is a word or a phrase, that when you say it, automatically makes your dog think of something wonderful and happy. You can have more than one jolly routine and can create them by reinforcing specific trigger phrases. Before you do things your dog loves to do, add a trigger phrase ahead of the activity, like “Oh boy, let’s play ball” or “Oh boy, let’s go for a walk or a ride” or “Oh boy, cookie or treat.” Repeat the phrase several times before beginning the activity, giving the treat or playing the special game. Practice this religiously until you see your dog start to get “goofy” while you are speaking the phrase before the activity actually begins. Have all of the members of your family do this.

Then when you hear fireworks, immediately go into a jolly routine. Now, here’s where being a good actress or actor comes in. Put on a good show as you are the leader and must be convincing to make a positive association with the noise. Happily repeat the trigger phrase over and over and give the treat or get out the favorite toy if necessary (you do not have to go for a ride or walk). It won’t take long before your dog will hear the fireworks and begin doing the jolly routine before you have a chance to. At this point, you may congratulate yourself for a job well done, but do not totally eliminate the jollies. Do them occasionally as a reminder that big sounds are good and especially if the sound is extra loud, new or unusual.

If you have always sedated your dog during the Fourth of July, I suggest you get the tranquilizers but prepare for and then use your jolly routines. You may find yourself returning the sedatives after the 4th because you didn’t need to use them.

Another trick I learned from a vet friend of mine, is if your dog has severe fear of loud noises and you think he is reacting to the sound more so than the vibration, you can put a few drops of mineral oil in each of his ears. It dramatically reduces the sounds and causes no harm.

If you are raising a young dog and this will be their first 4th of July, it is important that you be prepared to do jollies on general principles whenever fireworks happen so your dog develops a positive feeling about them.

These techniques also work well with other animals (with my horses, I used “Oh boy, carrots”) and small children. If they do not work for you, your dog may have some physical/hormonal problems (the Plechner endocrine/immune imbalance) that need to be addressed and/or you may have work to do on your own fear issues.

I want to add that in most cases, I think it is best to exclude your dog friends from 4th of July celebrations with fireworks as accidents can and do happen. Leave your dog at home, inside with some soft music playing in the background. If you must take your dog with you, make sure a responsible adult is supervising the dog and always keep the dog on leash around fireworks. If you are planning to leave your dog in a car, I want you to know that on a 70-degree day, in a car, even with the windows partially rolled down, it only takes 10 minutes for the interior temperature to get hot enough to kill your dog. I want you to have a great holiday and lots of fun but I also expect you to be ultra responsible where your animals friends are concerned.

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About Author

Martha Norwalk is an animal behavior therapist and host of Martha Norwalk’s Animal World, Sunday mornings, from 9 a.m. to noon on Alternative Talk AM 1150. She can be reached at Martha’s Canine, Feline and All Creature Counseling at (360) 217-7258 or www.marthanorwalk.com. For a free, no obligation telephone evaluation or to make an appointment for Martha to work with you and your animal friend, give her a call. 

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