So it was the Fourth of July this past weekend, Independence Day, with all the challenges that brings for pets and their people.
I was traveling with Mindy, the guide dog in training, and we did fireworks. With flying colors (terrible pun intended).
Mindy has heard both distant gunfire and thunderstorms without concern — tasty treats during introduction can do that — but fireworks combine both the storm’s visual display and the gunpowder smell of shooting, so they can require some extra care.
My plan was to get Mindy back into our hotel room, with the shades down and some soothing background white noise, before we went out to watch the fireworks display. Important note: I was reasonably sure, given Mindy’s experience with storms and shooting, that this would be sufficient to make her comfortable during the evening. If I weren’t sure, I would have sacrificed the display to stay with her.
Earlier in the day, as we hit several small-town festivals, she’d been started by a bunch of firecrackers set off by nearby kids. We had to get some distance before she could focus and work for treats again. But it seemed the problem was mostly in their sudden appearance, as when we came back down the street, we heard more firecrackers, and Mindy had no problem approaching them. Once she knew they were there, we could get closer and eventually pass them without concern. (And of course I was treating her blasé attitude!)
So I was reasonably sure that she would be fine once cocooned in the hotel room. But dinner was delayed, and by the time we were in the car to run her back to the hotel, the show was starting.
We pulled into a parking lot and the others got out to watch. Mindy had been fine with the early fireworks in the car, but once we got out, she was disturbed by the crashes of sound and color. It took only a few seconds to see that she wasn’t going to be happy — she didn’t want treats, which is a huge stress sign. (One of the reasons I prefer to work with food rewards for anxiety and aggression is so I have that additional barometer of stress levels, along with body language and behavioral response, of course.) So we stayed behind, hopping back in the car, with the door open.
Once in the car, she relaxed immediately. “Oh, yeah, bangs outside. We’ve been doing this. Can I have a kibble?” We did a few basic exercises, sits and nose targets, for treats.
Back into the parking lot. Bang produces kibble. Light explosion produces kibble. Back into the car. Kibbles, but fewer.
Wait a minute, Mindy said. Why are there more kibbles outside than inside? What’s up with that?
We hopped out again, and Mindy could sit and nose target and down for kibbles as fireworks exploded overhead. We got back into the car, and opportunities were less frequent. Mindy decided she was cool with getting out of the car again.
Once I saw that she was really relaxing and focusing through the fireworks, we went to join the others on a grassy landscaping slope. Mindy sprawled beside me, eating kibbles with nearly each boom. I went through close to two cups of kibble during the display! but she stayed quite relaxed.
It was hard to get pictures, due to the lighting, and frankly the video just isn’t worth sharing, as it’s basically a black screen with occasional color bursts. But here’s a few snaps with flash that show how she was handling the show:
Needless to say, I was ridiculously pleased with her.
Again, I need to emphasize that this was based upon a lot of foundation work and I knew already how she could handle thunder, shooting, the flash of lights in the sky, and the drifting smells of explosive chemicals. I would never just start with this! And frankly, most pet dogs don’t need to be able to handle a whole fireworks display, so this might be one of those areas where you train enough to prevent distress and then concentrate on other areas where your training will be of more everyday use. I like the idea of a service dog having already seen nearly everything, so it was worth the extra effort here — but even so, my Plan A was to have her safely tucked away.
Also a good moral to take away: Always carry more treats than you think you’ll need, just in case. I’d planned to have Mindy put away, so what if we’d gotten caught in the fireworks without treats? Don’t risk it — as the commercials say, What’s in your (treat) wallet?
If your dog isn’t comfortable with loud noises, changes in the air, or explosions in the sky — and that’s pretty typical — then check out the Storm Watch & Storm Success series on helping dogs to relax during thunderstorms and similar stimuli.