Desensitization & Proactive Exposure Training for 4th of July

German Shepherd in patriotic sunglasses in front of USA flag

The Fourth of July can be a stressful time for dogs, with fireworks causing anxiety and fear. To help your dog get accustomed to these loud noises, it’s crucial to start training them well before the holiday. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to desensitize your dog to fireworks sounds and pair these noises with positive experiences.

Before You Begin

If you suspect your dog has firework noise phobia, it’s essential to confirm the fearful event is indeed fireworks, not the sight or smell of gunpowder. Each separate stimulus would require additional training

In addition, basic obedience training is essential. Your dog should look to you for leadership, providing them the trust they need that you will provide a safe and secure environment. Make sure your dog knows “sit”, “stay” or “place”, and “come” before you begin proactive exposure training. If possible, we always recommend finding a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or rewards-based certified dog trainer to implement these techniques successfully.

Start Early

Because your dog is currently conditioned to display excessive fearful response to a given stimulus, we recommend using a technique called Counter Conditioning and Desensitization. The technique that we recommend is Counter Conditioning and Desensitization. The plan is to undo this learned fearful behavior and replace it with a more relaxed, calm behavior. This is called Counter conditioning. To Desensitize your dog to the fear-inducing stimulus, the goal is to gradually expose the stimulus in a controlled manner such that the fear-behavior does not occur.

This entire process could take weeks or months because it takes time for your dog to get used to the noise. Thus, begin this training as early as possible. Waiting until the day before the holiday is not effective.

What You’ll Need

You’ll need recordings of fireworks. You can ask Alexa to play fireworks, play this firework soundtrack by CalmPet on Spotify or AmazonMusic. You can also find recordings of fireworks on the Pupstanding App or Through a Dog’s Ear, which are available for streaming on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. This YouTube Video has a variety of fireworks noises and there are plenty more on YouTube too. If the sight of fireworks also proves a fear response in your dog, you should use a visual stimulus with your training. Try playing videos on a TV, computer, or iPad.

Lots of treats, ideally high-value treats your dog enjoys a lot. Make sure the treats are cut into small pieces, which you’ll use as rewards. Choose whatever your dog enjoys most, just be sure to account for the calories. You may have a usual training treat, but a high-value treat is something your dog really goes crazy for. You could use bacon, small cut pieces of cooked deboned chicken, leftover steak, blueberries, chopped carrots, pieces of cheese, or anything else your dog loves.

Steps to Desensitize Your Dog to Fireworks

1. Identify Calm Moments

The best time to start noise desensitization is when your dog is relaxed and content. This will make the training more effective and enjoyable for them.

2. Introduce Fireworks Sounds at Low Volume

Play the sounds of fireworks at a very low volume. It’s essential to start quietly to avoid startling your dog and causing them to become fearful of the noises. The volume should start low enough that it could barely be heard.

3. Monitor Your Dog’s Reactions

Closely observe your dog while the fireworks sounds are playing. If you notice any signs of fear, stress, or anxiety, lower the volume or stop the sounds altogether. Understanding dog body language is key to this step. If your dog shows any signs of fear, do not punish the dog. Allow your dog time to relax again, then reinforce calm behavior with high-value treats. Some signs of fear you might observe: tail tucked, pupils dilated, ears back, hunched or crouched body position, taking treats in a more forceful manner, salivating, panting, trembling, lip licking, or stopping taking treats entirely.

For more help understanding your dog’s signals, you can check out the DogDecoder app or

Eileen and Dogs for lots of video examples. For a simple guide on dog body language, check out this resource.

4. Pair the Sounds with Positive Experiences

While the fireworks sounds are playing, engage your dog in enjoyable activities. This will help them associate the noise with positive experiences. Here are some activities you can do:

  • Conduct a fun training session with high-value treats.
  • Play games with their favorite toys.
  • Give them a gentle massage, scritches on their favorite place, or snuggle.
  • Feed them their breakfast or dinner.
  • Engage in any other activity your dog finds rewarding and positive.

5. Keep Sessions Short and Frequent

Limit these training sessions to up to ten minutes at a time, and repeat them several times a day. This frequent exposure helps reinforce the positive associations with the sounds.

6. Always End On a Good Note

Make sure your dog ends the session relaxed and readily taking treats. Research also suggests dogs retain more during training sessions when they engage in play afterward. Research indicates that dogs retain more during training sessions when they engage in play afterward. Play enhances memory retention and learning by releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine, which strengthen neural pathways involved in learning. It also keeps dogs motivated, reduces stress, and reinforces positive experiences, making learned behaviors more likely to be retained. Studies have shown that post-training play leads to better recall of tasks and commands, promoting neural plasticity and overall cognitive function in dogs.

Remember the goal, to counter condition your dog so that instead of displaying anxious or fearful behaviors, it performs calm, relaxed behaviors like lying in bed or going to its crate.

7. Gradually Increase the Volume

As long as your dog remains calm and happy, you can gradually increase the volume of the fireworks sounds. For instance, start the first session at a volume level of 1. In the next session, increase it to 3, and then to 5, and so on. Always proceed at your dog’s pace and only increase the volume as they become comfortable.

Additional Tips

  • Consistency is Key: Regular practice will help your dog become more accustomed to the sounds.
  • Use High-Quality Treats: Reward your dog with their favorite treats to strengthen the positive association.
  • Patience Pays Off: Every dog is different, so be patient and go at your dog’s speed to ensure a successful desensitization process.
  • Take It Outside: After working on desensitization inside for a while, progress your training everywhere you go including your yard, the car, or even on walks. This is essential because you never know when or where someone will set off fireworks. You’ll want to prepare your dog for every possible occurrence.

By following these steps, you can help your dog feel more at ease during fireworks displays, making holidays less stressful for both of you.

Fireworks Vs. Thunderstorms 

Noise Phobia is a fear-induced stress response to loud external stimuli, which might include fireworks, thunderstorms, gunshots, vacuum cleaners, or any other loud noise. Anytime we offer advice about helping pets stay calm during fireworks, we also get asked whether these same techniques are effective for thunderstorms. Unfortunately, desensitizing your dog to fireworks is significantly easier than thunderstorms.  This is due to the fact that thunderstorms trigger changes in barometric pressure, in addition to their loud booms. Your dog can detect changes in barometric pressure, which signals that a loud noise is coming. That’s why thunder-phobic dogs often show signs of stress before a thunderstorm.

Where Can I Learn More?

Find out more about how to keep your pet calm:

  • Watch Dr. Douglas Dean’s 4th of July recommendations here.
  • See WoofDoctor on Wheels recommended
    • Calming products for dogs here.
    • Enrichment products for dogs here.
  • Read How to Create a Safe Space for your dog here.
  • Read How To Get Your Dog Ready for 4th of July here.

If you’d like to schedule an appointment or discuss medications for your pet, please call us at (843) 966-3362.

References

Pereira, P., Briefer, E. F., & de Oliveira, R. F. (2020). Post-training positive reinforcement increases the duration of training effects in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 226, 104979. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7895348/

Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner-dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3-4), 169-177. http://cdn-origin-etr.akc.org.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/01164443/2011-Training-Methods-and-Owner_Dog-Interactions.pdf

Wright, H. F., Mills, D. S., & Pollux, P. M. J. (2012). Playful interactions benefit adult dogs: the association between training sessions and subsequent play. Animal Cognition, 15(3), 497-504. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031938411004689?via%3Dihub

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