How to Help an Anxious Dog Deal with July 4th Fireworks

Lulu the dog wearing her Thundershirt to calm her downLulu the dog wearing her Thundershirt to calm her downMy dog Lulu has issues traveling by car, but loud noises don't seem to bother my 8-year-old pooch. But Fourth of July festivities can be stressful for some cats and dogs. If your dog has trouble embracing the concept of bombs bursting in air, take measures now to help make the holiday more tolerable. Certified dog behavior consultants Amber Burckhalter and Chris Redenbach offer a few training tips for calming anxious pets.

Music matters
Desensitize anxious dogs by introducing music or similar sounds. Redenbach has been introducing loud music to prepare her Bouvier des Flandres for a potential parade of cherry bombs and Roman candles. (Fortunately, no neighbors live close by.) She also notes that desensitizing anxious pets can take time, so start early. Trial and error is part of the process.

"There are some DVDs and CDs you can buy for dogs that are firework-phobic and gunshot-phobic," says Redenbach, owner of The Balanced Dog Academy in Tucker, Ga. "For some it works; for others it doesn't."

At K-9 Coach Bed and Bark in Smyrna, Ga., Burckhalter says that music does help calm the anxious beast. She expects a full house on the Fourth of July, and pooches will spend the big day chilling to soothing tunes from a music series called "Through a Dog's Ear."

"It's music that's made for dogs," she says. "It uses different tones of music that cause a dog to feel calm and secure."

Also see: Animal psychologists discover the music that dogs prefer

In a 2002 study, psychologist and animal behaviorist Deborah Wells found that classical music had a soothing effect on dogs in animal shelters. Veterinary neurologist Dr. Susan Wagner led a separate 2004 study that discovered, "solo instruments, slower tempos, and less complex arrangements had a greater calming effect than faster selections with more complex harmonic and orchestral content." As a result of that research, "Through a Dog's Ear" CDs ($14.98) feature calming classical music such as Rachmaninoff's soothing "Vocalise" (listen to it here); there's even a "Driving Edition." (Perhaps it's time to swap Beyonce's "Bootylicious" for Bach's "Prelude in D" during car rides with Lulu.)

Create a soothing environment
Burckhalter recommends closing all the curtains, doors and windows to shut out holiday festivities. Plenty of products also help keep pets calm without adding stress to the situation. An herbal supplement called SedaplusVet is often given to puppies that fly overseas, says Redenbach, who recommends administering it an hour ahead of time to help dogs relax. Products that contain DAP (dog-appeasing pheromones) also can serve as natural stress relievers by replicating pheromones secreted by nursing mothers. DAP-laced air diffusers, collars, and sprays provide a quick, drug-free approach to help dogs manage fireworks displays or thunderstorms. Burckhalter adds that clients have found success using Thundershirts on anxious pets. These snug-fitting garments create a calming sensation that resembles swaddling a baby. Thundershirts are available for dogs and cats.

Also see: Does the Thundershirt really work?

"Put it on before the fireworks - about an hour before - and allow pets to go to a place where they feel safe," she says. "If they feel safe close to you then let them do that. There's a lot of belief that if you pet them when they're nervous that will make it worse. That's not always the case."

Call the vet for reinforcements
If your dog has a severe case of anxiety, Redenbach says consult your vet about options. In some cases, they may even prescribe Xanax, Prozac or other drugs. "When dogs have anxiety problems, it tends to get worse with age - just like it does with people," she says. "I always start with something gentle, but some dogs are so panicky that they can really do themselves harm."

If you determined to bring your dog to a fireworks show

Prepare an exit strategy:
If you absolutely, positively must bring your pet to an outdoor fireworks show, Burckhalter recommends having an exit strategy in place. "Be prepared to leave if they need to," she says. "Dogs that become frightened can become very aggressive because they want to get away. They may bite. They may slip their collar and flee."

Take the crate: If your dog shows any signs of distress, it helps to have their crate or carrier nearby. Remember that a hot car can be deadly. Never leave pets unattended in a vehicle.

Bring the dog gear: Make sure your dog has up-to-date ID tags and keep it on a leash at all times. Microchips add a bit more insurance that your scared pup will be returned if it runs off to get a closer view of the rockets' red glare.

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