Prep Your Dog Now to Cope with Fireworks

5 mins read
A man holding a dog

Fireworks often result in scared dogs jumping the backyard fence or simply running into the street out of fear, resulting in straying and worse.

Independence Day is more than three months away as we go to press. But if you’ve got a canine who absolutely freaks out during Fourth of July fireworks, local dog behaviorist-trainer Linda Harris recommends that you begin preparing your dog now, not later. Harris says that dogs will require at least a couple of months of consistent reward-based training to tolerate the stressful noise of fireworks.

Harris points out that fireworks and their accompanying ruckus actually are a summer-long presence in our region, not restricted to a single day or weekend.

Here’s some of Linda’s background:

“I went to Animal behavior College and graduated in 2001. I did my internship at PETCO and taught several classes at Burbank.  I left dog training to raise my daughter and came back in 2020.  I have volunteered at Pasadena Humane, worked with my mentor training dogs in basic obedience, foundation of agility, confidence building and working with reactive rovers.  I am currently enrolled in Catch Canine Trainer Academy in a Master Trainer program.  I am just starting my own business and I am contracted as a trainer with One Up Pup.  I have volunteered during the public training classes for 1.5 years and I volunteer at Blue Man Dog rescue where I have assisted in launching a training program for the dogs and volunteers.”

Harris trains dogs with positive reinforcement that she calls “Fear Free Reward-Based Training.”

She explains it this way: “Fear-Free Reward-Based training does not believe in focusing on corrections and the use of them is very sparing.  The theory is based on rewarding the desirable behavior and ignoring or not rewarding the undesirable behavior.  Some dogs might steal a sock and people yell and scream (if the dog does not usually receive attention than at least this is something) but to modify behavior you should replace the negative with a positive. Instead of you dog stealing a sock, teach him to take a ball or some other approved item.”

She cautions that Positive Reward training takes time and patience. While electric shock (“E” collars) and barbaric-looking prong collars used in the practice of “tough love” dominance / Alpha Dog Theory as practiced by The Dog Daddy, self-proclaimed “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan and others typically get results faster, compliance may be temporary and cause deeper behavioral issues.

Harris says: “Second to the hot topic of coyotes in Pasadena and Altadena is the topic of fireworks and their effect on our pets.  For those of you that are new to the area our beloved area, our greatest-known landmark is the Rose Bowl which hosts concerts with fireworks.  But you can prepare your dogs now by using counterconditioning and desensitization.”

“Tough love” dominance / Alpha Dog Theory typically gets results faster, but compliance may be temporary and cause deeper behavioral issues.

“Counterconditioning involves changing the emotional response your dog has to a stimulus from negative to positive.  Once the stimulus or trigger is identified, you can begin desensitizing your dog, so the reaction is either reduced or eliminated. Desensitization will involve changing the relationship they have with the stimulus or trigger,” she says.

“Fireworks are a scary, unexpected sound, and to desensitize your dog, you will need to begin by presenting a very low-level sound and gradually increase the sound as your pup becomes more comfortable with the sound. This is a slow process and will require dedication, but if done right, the results can last a lifetime,” says Harris. 

“Most dogs will respond to yummy treats, but whatever is your dog’s highest value reward, you will need to it for these sessions. The most important thing to do as a dog owner and before you begin any training is to understand the body language of your dog.  I recommend “Doggie Language: A Dog Lover’s Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend” by Lili Chin.  It is easy read and the illustrations are an excellent example of how to understand a dog’s mind and emotions,” she says.

The reason it is important to understand the body language is you need to know when your pup has had enough. The purpose to change this to a positive and not create a negative response to the training session or a greater negative response to the stimulus.

“What is your part?  Patience and calm,” says Harris. “These exercises should be set up so that the dog succeeds, and that means not pushing the dog farther that they can go, remember this is not a track race but an emotional challenge. Your energy before, during, and after the training will need to be positive so that you keep the dog interested, and slowly build their confidence.”

“To move forward, it is best to identify a response substitution,” she says. “If your dog typically rips up pillows due to the sound of fireworks, what do you want them to do?  Do they have a crate or mat where they feel comfortable?  The important part of using behavior modifications techniques is to provide a dog with alternative behavior that they will be rewarded for. If your dog does not have a “Zen place” then it may be time to develop and train around that as well.”

“What is your part?  Patience and calm.”

Linda Harris

In order to change the behavior and create successful training sessions, Harris recommends beginning and ending each session on a positive note. Watch your dog’s body language.  If they begin to pant, lick their lips, scratch excessively, try to escape or no longer accept the reward, stop the session. 

“If you do not stop, you could possibly increase the negative reaction to the stimulus,” says Harris.

Harris recommends the following training steps:

1 – Get ready

  • Identify the trigger.

  • Identify the desired alternate behavior.

  • Identify the reward that will change the emotional response – the most delicious treat.

  • You will need to manage two things: the volume of noise, and the distance to the sound.

2 – Practice

  • Start with a 5-minute session.

  • Identify a firework sound video online (there are many).

  • Bring your dog into a room where they usually receive treats or a meal.

  • Put the volume on very low.

  • Present the treats while asking the dog for a sit or down and reward your dog using the highest value treat – if all goes well, stop and come back tomorrow.

  • Monitor your dog for signs of stress. The goal is to stop before you notice signs of stress. However, if your dog scratches, licks their lips, or shakes, then stop.

  • To end on a high note, stop the fireworks, ask the dog for a behavior, and give your dog an extra special treat. Provide your dog with a frozen treat, a lick mat or sniff mat to raise the dog’s endorphins and lower stress.

  • First, increase the duration of the training. When your dog remains calm for 15 minutes, slowly increase the volume of the sound.

  • There are a variety of exercises/tools to keep your dog engaged while you increase the difficulty of the practice (i.e., louder, longer).

  • “Jackpot” (double-up!) your dog’s favorite treats – give them a handful – if you typically reward with one treat, give them more than usual – then they will focus on you more than the irritating sound.

  • Use a frozen lick mat or Kong: take peanut butter or canned food and mix it with kibble.  You can present this on a lick mat, in a Kong, or a slow feeder bowl.

  • In the beginning, remain close to your dog, and then leave them alone. Remember that they will hear fireworks when you’re not home.  The goal is for them to develop independent coping skills so they are successful whenever they hear the sound.

  • Increasing the sound too fast or too high can make the reactivity worse.  To know what to expect of your dog, check out Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning | VCA | VCA Animal Hospitals ( If you are not having success, especially if your dog has a bad reaction, contact a trainer to assist you.

Linda Harris, Progressive Paws Wholistic Training, 626-394-2478

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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