New Year’s Eve, Bonfire Night and Halloween, certain other specific dates and organized events and also sometimes, quite random dates and times can result in fireworks being let off in your local area, and this can cause untold problems for many dog owners whose dogs react very poorly to such stimulus.
How dogs react to fireworks can be highly variable, and of course, some dogs are not particularly reactive to them at all; either because you’re simply lucky in that respect or because you or a prior owner put a lot of work and effort into reducing your dog’s reactivity to fireworks in the past.
But for dogs that do react badly to fireworks, they might hide, become aggressive, lose control of their bladder or bowel, panic and attempt to run away, or behave in any number of alarming and potentially dangerous ways that indicate terror in the dog, and are of cause for both practical and emotional concern for the dog’s owner.
A lot is written about how to make nights when we expect fireworks to be let off less stressful for pets, and of how to reduce your dog’s reactivity to fireworks as well; but far less attention is paid to exploring and explaining why dogs as a whole are so commonly and instinctively scared of fireworks in the first place. Some aspects of this are of course self-evident; even we humans have all been made to jump at the sound of a loud, unexpected firework going off nearby, even on nights when we fully expect this to happen.
However, there is more to why dogs are scared of fireworks than just the obvious, and understanding why fireworks frighten dogs in more detail can be very useful.
With this in mind, this article will attempt to answer the question “why are dogs scared of fireworks?” By covering all of the various aspects you need to bear in mind. Read on to learn more.
Starting with the obvious. A loud bang, crack or other piercing, loud or unexpected noise can and frequently does scare us as people as well as scaring the dog! This is because such sounds generate an evolutionary survival instinct in us that triggers our senses to be alert to danger.
Many people get the same response to thunder and lightening, which have a lot in common with fireworks in many regards and can have an equally acute effect on your dog.
Simply the obvious loudness, closeness, and unexpectedness of the sound of fireworks in and of itself affects dogs on an instinctive level. However, that’s not all there is to it…
What your dog hears when a firework goes off is different to what you hear. Dogs have a different range of hearing to ours, and they’re able to hear far more high-pitched sounds than humans, as well as hearing sounds more acutely and clearly.
It is not just those crashing, banging fireworks that can affect your dog, therefore; the ones that make whining or whistling noises can have just as large an effect, or even more so. Your dog might well hear them before you do, hear them more sharply than you do, hear things you cannot hear at all; and may even find some such sounds painful or uncomfortable.
Flashing lights, bright burning lights and strange lights from fireworks can all interfere with our own vision and make us see spots and stars, and the same is true for your dog. However, whilst we humans know why this is happening and that it will pass, your dog does not; and such stimulus can interfere with and compromise their vision, and they do not know that this will pass in a few minutes.
Suddenly losing or being unable to rely on one of our senses is alarming and disorienting, particularly again for an animal that doesn’t know why this has happened and that it is transient, at a time when they are likely to already be unnerved and on high alert and potentially approaching a fight or flight reaction.
Dogs also see a different spectrum of lights and colours to us as humans, and so we cannot really be sure what dogs actually see when they see different types of fireworks.
Their eyes take in and process light differently to us, and so once more, firework flashing lights can be disorienting and potentially even painful to dogs.
Fireworks that are set off in the air with an audible crack or those going off or landing in the ground with some force produce tremors and vibrations that we as humans can occasionally feel, but which dogs can feel much more commonly and clearly.
This again generates an instinctive state of high alert in dogs, due to the evolution of their survival instincts to warn them about all sorts of things such as an impending earthquake to the approach of a stampeding herd of larger animals!
Fireworks are of course unexpected for dogs; even for us humans, knowing that fireworks are in the offing, even right down the minute (such as on the countdown to New Year) doesn’t mean that they don’t make us jump.
The unexpected and sudden nature of fireworks is particularly alarming to dogs, and again, hits their survival urges hard, causing them to make instinctive decisions about how to protect themselves and what the danger is, which don’t apply in the modern world like they do in the wild but that are present nonetheless!
Fireworks are outside of the dog’s natural frame of reference too. Humans are unique as a species in many odd ways; we enjoy fireworks and bangs and flashes that frighten virtually all other species; we go to haunted houses and watch horror films because we like to be scared; and we ride on rollercoasters and go bungee jumping to trigger an adrenaline rush.
These are all things that would seem insane to other species of animals, such as dogs; their only frame of reference for fireworks and all of its associated stimulus is danger, risk, upheaval and so on, and so they respond accordingly.
At its simplest, fireworks are read by dogs as a threat, and trigger the dog’s fight or flight instincts. These are called “instincts” for a reason; no logical thought is involved, and as is the case for any human who has had their own fight or flight instincts triggered at some point too, your dog, like you, has no way of knowing which of these two vastly different instincts will come to the fore within any given situation.
This is a deeply ingrained, primeval survival instinct in the dog, and one that millennia of life alongside of humans has yet to negate!
Finally, dog owners often make their dogs responses to fireworks much worse, by trying to help them in the wrong ways.
If your dog is scared or particularly, acutely terrified, this generates empathy in us as owners and our instinctive response there is to comfort and reassure the dog. But we often do this in such a way as to make it worse rather than better!
To make a dog less afraid of fireworks means letting them know there’s nothing to fear, and this in turn is achieved by leading by example; behaving normally and not pandering to irrational fears. Making a big fuss of your dog makes them feel that the threat is real.
After all, if your toddler was terrified of a monster under the bed, you would not leap into bed with them and hold them and tell them you’d protect them from the monster; this will make things worse.
Instead, you’d show them the space under the bed, be rational about explaining it, and be empathic without actually making them feel that their dread was warranted!