Fireworks are part and parcel of ringing in the new year, but for our dogs the flash of lights and loud noises are often anything but celebratory. Some dogs don’t seem to mind them, but fireworks—and loud music and New Year’s Eve revelry in general—send others into a blind panic. A dog can interpret the pandemonium as a full frontal assault on his world; some have gone so far as jumping out windows or bloodying their paws trying to escape Armageddon. Is your dog one of them? Here are a few simple strategies to help calm your dog and keep him safe on New Year’s Eve.
- Exercise your dog. Take him for a run or go to the park for a vigorous play session in advance of the New Year’s Eve event: exercise him as much as he’ll reasonably tolerate. A tired dog is more likely to relax in a stressful situation.
- Take your dog outside on a leash. Feed him before the festivities begin, leash him, and walk him outside to take care of business. Even if your yard is fenced—if there is the remotest chance for neighborhood fireworks—use the leash; never leave your anxious dog to his own devices. A panicked dog may try to find a way out of his enclosure.
TIP: NEVER leave your dog outdoors on New Year’s Eve, and if your plans take you elsewhere, hire a sitter to help keep him calm in your absence.
- Make sure your dog is properly I.D.’d. This may seem like silly advice if your dog’s already inside on New Year’s Eve, but anxious dogs can still make a break for it during fireworks. All it takes is one careless partygoer who leaves a door open, and a determined pooch. Keep him in a personalized collar with I.D. tags and make sure his microchip contact info is current.
- Give your dog his own “safe” spot indoors. If he is crate trained, he already sees his crate as his sanctuary, and this may be the best place for him during the fireworks. Place his crate as far away from windows, doors, and rowdy neighbors as possible.
But if he isn’t crate trained, now is not the time to try it: this exercise may induce enough panic he’ll go mad trying to escape. Instead give him his own room as isolated from the noise as possible, remove anything that could hurt him, and draw the curtains or blinds. If you’re entertaining, place your dog in remote room and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
TIP: If you are leaving two dogs alone, separate them. Never crate them together or leave them in the same room where a food toy is available. You can crate one and leave the other out of the crate, or place them in adjoining rooms separated by a dog gate.
- Distract your dog. Make sure he has access to food and water, but also distract him with a long-lasting toy or treat; a puzzle toy is a great way to keep him occupied. Or stuff a couple of your dog’s favorite chew toys with something he loves (peanut butter, yogurt, kibble soaked in chicken broth) and freeze them a couple of days beforehand. The frozen concoction inside the toys will occupy him for a long time.
If you have no New Year’s Eve plans you can also try to distract your dog with play. But if he is so distraught from the noise that he refuses, forcing him will only make him more anxious.
- Calm your dog. When you crate your dog or place him in his own room for New Year’s Eve festivities, turn on some soothing classical music, or download one of the bounteous recordings made specifically to calm a dog. If there’s a television show or channel your dog likes, flip it on for him. Adjust the volume to a level that distracts him from the other noises, but not so loud it disturbs him.
Some dogs respond well to a compression shirt, which is thought to induce calm by “swaddling” the dog. These jackets are available commercially, or you can make one yourself with an ace bandage. Developed to calm anxious dogs during thunderstorms, they are also known to help with fireworks and other loud noises.
You can also try a lavender oil preparation, which has been found to soothe travel anxiety in dogs (look for the terms, lavandula angustifolia, or lavandula officinalis on the label). Massage the oil into his skin, let him sniff it, or spray it on his blanket (do NOT let him ingest it). Tryptophan is another calming agent and comes in a chewable or syrup for canines. And a number of pheromone sprays are available to help calm mildly nervous dogs.
TIP: Consult your vet about an anti-anxiety preparation for your dog, but don’t wait ‘til New Year’s Eve to do it: most vets will not hand you a prescription at the last minute. Instead discuss a course of treatment for your dog’s anxiety as part of his routine care so a solution is ready when you need it.
- Stay with your dog. Stay home on New Year’s Eve if you know your dog is likely to panic in your absence; however badly he reacts to fireworks when you’re home, it will be worse when you’re away. Dogs often draw comfort from their humans; put on a good movie and invite your pal up onto the sofa by your side for a belly rub. Just being in your presence might be enough to convince him the fireworks are okay.
If you’re entertaining and your dog enjoys the company of other people, let him mingle with your guests, at least for a while. This is reassuring to him and tells him everything’s okay. Some dogs eventually learn that being near you is always safe, no matter what kind of noise is going on around you; others will always need your reassurance, and it’s important to show it.
- Take a trip with your dog. If you can’t make the noise go away, then get away from the noise. If you live in a warm climate, camping with your dog is a nice way to welcome a new year. Or try an overnight at a dog-friendly hotel: order room service and enjoy a mini-holiday with him.
- Condition your dog to loud noises. Choose a time when there’s nothing going on to undertake this exercise, well in advance of July 4th or New Year’s Eve celebrations. Use recorded thunder, or music—the Star Wars soundtrack is an example—and treat your dog when he stays quiet during the nosie.
You can try to desensitize your pooch on the day of the festivities by making loud noises throughout the day in the hopes that by nightfall he’ll have gotten used to it, but this is a strategy that does not work on all dogs. It’s better to take a long view of the problem instead of waiting ‘til the last minute.
January 1st and July 5th are busy calendar days for animal shelters, and for one reason: they’re bustling with runaways who went missing in an attempt to escape the noise from celebratory fireworks. Remember that your dog’s reaction to fireworks is one of fear. Imagine how that must feel. Knowing this, make sure your response to it does not make it worse. Your dog needs to know you have his back, on New Year’s Eve, and every other day in the new year.