The 4th of July is all about fireworks, grilled noms, and a panicked last-minute scramble through your closet to find a red/white/blue outfit suitable for a BBQ party. Independence Day is a fun summer break for us, but can seem like the end of days for the pups in our lives. According to the SPCA, there is a 30% increase in lost pets each year between July 4th and 6th, with the 5th being the busiest day of the year for shelters.
To help prepare our pooches for the holiday, we sat down with Teacher’s Pet Dog Training owner, Nicole Berthiaume. As a certified professional dog trainer with 17 years of experience, Nicole’s dealt with many an anxious dog (and owner!), so we knew she’d have the best advice for ensuring a safe July 4th (or, as our dogs Dudley and Fox refer to it “ArmageddonOhMyGodTheWorldIsEndingTimeToPoopOnTheFloorAndHideUnderTheCouchWhyIsThisHappeningToMeWhereIsMyMomIsSheOkayWHYYYYYYYYY”).
How can you prepare your pet for the 4th?
If you know your dog has a fear of fireworks, there are a few things you can do in advance to help get them cope:
1) Buy a calming pheromone-based plug in diffuser. There are several brands of these available at pet stores and on Amazon. The synthetic pheromone in the diffuser mimics the pheromones mother dogs emit when nursing their puppies to comfort them. These plug-ins do help, but the time it takes for them to be effective can vary. I have seen some dogs react to them almost immediately, whereas others need at least 3-4 weeks of exposure before there is a notable difference. They may not noticeably help dogs with very extreme fear.
2) Try a Thundershirt or snug t-shirt/sweater. The idea is that the dog feels ‘’swaddled’’, giving them a sense of security. For years before the Thundershirt came on the market, trainers would wrap nervous dogs up in Ace bandages like a mummy for the same effect.
3) Create a ‘’Zen room’’ for your dog to hang out in on the 4th. Many dogs who are afraid of loud noises will hide in a small space during a thunderstorm or fireworks. My Mom’s Pekingese used to hide in her closet; I have a photo of just his little rear end sticking out where the door was slightly open! Small, cave-like spaces are comforting for some dogs, which is why enjoy being in their crates. A space away from windows is ideal, so the sounds of the fireworks are as muffled as possible. A fan or white noise machine can help mask the sound.
What reactions are normal for a pet to have during fireworks?
Some dogs (who have perfect hearing) have absolutely no reaction to loud noises. My last dog had zero reaction to fireworks, storms or even earthquakes, but would howl like a tiny 10-lb. wolf when he heard a baby crying. Dogs commonly howl when they hear loud noises, others may shake, cry or hide. Some dogs will pant and drool excessively when they are afraid. In extreme cases, dogs may run to try to ‘’escape’’ the noise. At many shelters, July 5th is known as ‘’D Day’’ by the staff because of the massive influx of escaped pets who fled out of fear through a door or gate left open during a 4th of July celebration. If you’re having guests over, it’s always important to make sure your dog does not have access to any gates or doors that may be inadvertently left open by a guest.
Sometimes people misinterpret a pet’s behavior. How can we actually tell that they are calm or anxious?
Sometimes anxiety cues are not as obvious as shaking and crying. To us humans, anxious dogs sometimes look ‘’cute’’: their eyes are big and wide, and they’re panting with short, shallow breaths, which can look like they’re ‘’smiling’’. If you know your dog and this is not normal behavior for them, they may be experiencing anxiety.
Our instinct is to often hold a pet if they’re anxious. Is this right way to calm down an upset pet?
While your natural instinct to pick up or hold your pet when they are anxious or fearful, it will actually make the problem worse. By coddling your dog, you are sending the message that the loud noises ARE in fact dangerous. From your dog’s perspective, you are reinforcing their fear by physically protecting them: ‘’Mommy is guarding me, I knew those noises meant something bad is happening!’’ or ‘’This is really bad if Daddy is scared too!’’ It’s more helpful to behave as if nothing is wrong, instead of adding your anxiety to theirs and confirming their (irrational) fear.
You mentioned that lots of dogs get lost on the 4th. Is there anything besides a dog tag and microchip to help id your pet?
July 1st is National ID Your Pet Day, a good reminder to make sure that your furry family member has up to date identification tags and microchip info. I always advise my clients to also include their address on their dog’s tags,
along with their phone number(s). I have often come across lost dogs and called the number on their tags repeatedly, with no answer (their owners might be at work or have their phone on silent). If the tag has an address, I can at least take them home and put them back in their yard with the gate securely closed. I don’t have a microchip scanner, so without an address I sometimes have to take them to the Humane Society, which can be traumatic for the dog and will cost you a fee to have them released.
If you know your pet is a ‘’bolter,’’ consider getting a GPS tracker that attaches to her collar. It’s worth the investment to save you and your pet a lot of anxiety and heartache, and possibly your pet’s life.
If you come across a runaway pet, what’s the best way to approach them?
I have unfortunately been in this situation maaany times. So many times in fact, I now keep a slip leash in my car and have the local Humane Society on speed dial. Some lost dogs (and cats) are so friendly, they will come right to you, in which case you can slowly and gently attempt to pick them up or guide them by their collar. Some dogs will even jump into your car on their own when you open the door. (I try this even with pets that look skittish. Sometimes they jump right in out of habit!) Other dogs will just RUN, even if I have treats with me. I have learned - the hard way, multiple times - that these dogs are not worth chasing if you can’t catch up to them within a few minutes. They are faster and more slippery than humans, so it is likely a pointless endeavor to try and catch them. In this case, I call the local shelter or animal control, following the dog in my car if possible to give them updates on the dog’s location. I hate having to drive away without rescuing these dogs, but calling animal control is preferable to leaving them to get hit by a car or attacked by wildlife.
Great, we got the pooches covered for the 4th of July...and other tips for helping them the other 364 days of the year?
The BEST thing you can do if your pet has any type of anxiety or behavioral problem is to get help from a qualified professional trainer or behavior specialist. Look for trainers with CPDT-KA or -KSA after their name. This means that they have been Knowledge-Assessed or Knowledge-and-Skills-Assessed and certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. There is currently no governmental regulation or licensing for dog trainers, like there is for hair stylists or massage therapists. Anyone can claim to be a trainer or behaviorist. Choosing a trainer that has been evaluated by the CCPDT is the best way to ensure that your dog will get help from an educated, experienced professional using proven positive reinforcement techniques.
Thanks to Nicole, and have a safe 4th!
We’ll be googling “Human Thundershirt” in between hot dogs and pool parties (you know, just so our dogs, Dudley and Fox, won’t feel self-conscious as the only ones wearing them).
Nicole Berthiaume, CPDT-KA has worked as a professional dog trainer and behavior counselor in the Los Angeles area since 2001. Over the years, Nicole has trained many therapy dogs, show dogs, and service puppies-in-training, as well as countless cherished family pets.
Nicole can be reached through her website www.teacherspetdogtraining.com and at (626) 841-1327.