Train away firework/noise phobia? Yep!

 

Yaaayy! I trained my dogs to like fireworks.

Train Away Firework/Noise Phobia

Like many trainers, I regularly use desensitization and counterconditioning with my clients’ dogs. Whether it’s barking at door knocks, reacting to dogs on leashes, or getting nervous around strangers, I use these methods to help. Dogs notice a stimulus and respond with conditioned emotional behaviors. Sometimes, the response is so intense that the dog shuts down and can’t respond to reinforcement. With distance and other factors, we can often train around these triggers, slowly desensitizing and counter-conditioning them. The emotional response can switch from reacting negatively to being more attentive and calm. That’s exactly what I did with my small pack of four dogs. This is a story of how I was able to train away firework/noise phobia.

This article was originally written seven years ago in my last residence in Costa Mesa, CA where we endure a month-long fireworks season. Locals blast M-80s and illegal mortar-style fireworks every evening, leading up to and continuing for weeks after the Fourth of July. This period used to be extremely stressful for small animals with noise phobias. After dealing with their anxiety and fear for years—and trying different meds like Acepromazine and Xanax, which might have worsened the situation—I realized I had to take action if I wanted to help my pets. I started using a natural CBD mixture to ease their anxiety. This natural oil, derived from hemp, works as an anxiolytic without the side effects of traditional medications.

Desensitizing and Counter Conditioning to Fireworks

With the CBD in their system, I waited with a bag of delicious treats on my coffee table for any hint of a firework. I used pieces of freeze-dried raw dog food as snacks, so they got their meals at the same time. When the first whistle or pop happened, I leaped from my couch, yelling “YAAYY!!!” and threw dozens of treats on the floor.

We did this overkill routine for the first few days. Though they still reacted with barking and vigilance, they eventually started eating the food. My dogs have been trained to eat food well—no picky eaters here. This might sound funny, but I believe it’s due to how they perceive food and our relationship with it. Eating is an operant behavior that’s highly reinforced.

We repeated this routine every day, as much as I could feed them without stuffing them too much. Boom! Jump up, “YAAYY!!!”, and throw treats all over. While I couldn’t prevent exposure without the “YAAYY!!!” or the food all the time, we did it enough to see progress. I didn’t condition “YAAYY!!!” to mean treats beforehand like a clicker or other conditioned reinforcer. The game was primarily classical conditioning. My “YAAYY!!!” eventually got conditioned, but it initially distracted them, almost as much as the fireworks did. That’s why I made such a big presentation.

After a week or so, I noticed their reactive, distressed behaviors from the fireworks marginally subsided. Progress plateaued a bit as the fireworks increased in size, number, and frequency leading up to the Fourth. We continued the process with post-Fourth firework stragglers. With daily CBD and training, the reactions to the fireworks were noticeably less severe than in previous years, where they ran away, hid, hyper-salivated, and shook. They were still scared but more manageable.

Seeing Results and Moving Forward

Last year, we had some success. This year, I planned on the same routine. I gave them the same CBD oil, followed the same ritual, and barely got one week in when we had our breakthrough moment. Chablis, my most reactive and noise-sensitive dog, heard a firework, did nothing, and then looked at me for a reward. I was so happy.

Meat flew from the heavens for my little girl. Not long after, an unexpected organized firework show started in the park behind us. It went on for 20 minutes and even had a finale. Initially, I was mad, thinking my dogs weren’t ready. But they surprised me—they handled it with no problem, not even one bark.

For the next few days, I faded the “YAAYY!!!” and the treats, reserving them for the really close mortars and M-80s, the ones that scare everyone when they go off nearby. The Fourth of July passed, and we had a whole new experience. I didn’t expect to achieve this so quickly. I credit my commitment to get up and be animated. My dogs don’t have resource-guarding behaviors over food, and they burn off calories easily.

I plan to continue using CBD oil next year, which also helps with other anxieties like car travel. This might not work for every dog with severe noise phobia, but I wanted to show that with commitment, it can be done. With some creativity and perseverance you can train away firework/noise phobia.

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