Dogs and fireworks: The fear isn't all in their heads

For many Americans, the Fourth of July means fireworks. For many dogs, those fireworks mean nothing short of terror.

People who have seen their otherwise good dogs cower in fear at the thunderous claps or whistling sounds that accompany modern pyrotechnics will probably not be surprised to know that about 45 percent of dogs have a fireworks phobia, according to a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Add to that the rollback of many state restrictions on individuals setting off fireworks, and it’s enough to traumatize just about any pup.

The Conversation reported last year that only three states ― Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey ― banned residents from purchasing any type of fireworks. Since then, New Jersey has loosened its restrictions to permit non-exploding, non-aerial fireworks, like sparklers, smoke bombs and party poppers.

From 2000 to 2017, The Conversation said, use of fireworks in the United States doubled. That’s certainly not good news for a fireworks-sensitive dog.

Meanwhile, animal shelters have reported that their busiest days are July 4 and 5 because animals who have run off because of fear of fireworks are turned in and many panicked owners are searching for their pets.

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Animal behaviorist Corey Cohen, who is based in Pennsylvania, writes in his blog Path of Friendship that dogs have a biological response to the loud sounds that accompany fireworks.

“When our dogs are exposed to sudden loud sounds, there is a release of adrenaline and an increase of the hormone cortisol, as well as changes to their amygdala, hippocampus, and parts of the frontal cortex of their brain,” Cohen says. “In other words, brains change as a result of loud, anxiety producing noise. Our dogs are especially vulnerable to this effect during the summer months when thunderstorms prevail and during Fourth of July celebrations, where fireworks are set off in some neighborhoods all day and night.”

So how can you help your dog get through the holiday?

“The best thing we can do for our friends when they are stressed is to allow our dogs the dignity of choosing their own coping strategies that will help them, as long as they aren’t harming themselves,” Cohen says. “Our dogs are intelligent, self-determined beings that can find coping strategies to help them deal with fearful situations and regain a sense of homeostasis.”

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For some dogs, the coping strategy may be to hide in a den-like space, perhaps under a piece of furniture. For others, a distraction, like playing with a toy or ball, may help alleviate the stress. Dogs who consider their crates to be safe spaces may feel better in them, although Cohen says that not all dogs will find their crates comforting.

“One of the best ways we can help comfort our dogs is through touch,” Cohen says. “Gentle, easy massage is a great way to stimulate oxytocin, which is a natural antidote to adrenaline. Technique is not that important. It’s just the close, loving physical contact that helps.”

Cohen says there is a bright spot in all of this. When you connect with your dog while trying to help alleviate the stress and fear, “you may find that sharing this experience brings you a closer, more trusting relationship. By helping each other through this tough time, you further deepen your friendship.”

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.