16 tips for keeping your dog calm during fireworks on bonfire night

Bonfire night has, in recent years, turned into Bonfire week, with people setting off bangers from October 31 all the way through to the weekend after November 5.

This can be a really tough time for some dogs who struggle with the loud noises and bright lights of whizzbangs through the window – with the RSPCA revealing that around 45% of dogs show signs of fear at fireworks. Our previous staffie, Lyla, would destroy the living room in a bid to crawl under the sofa during displays – even making herself sick.

Last year, professional displays were cancelled due to Covid-19, and to make up for last year, many are claiming displays will be ‘bigger and better than ever’. The cancelation of last years’ events also saw a rise in members of the public – often inexperienced – setting off home displays, meaning your nearest fireworks display was literally be in your neighbour’s garden – ours was, anyway.

However, there have been some positive moves, with huge event organisers like Trentham Gardens cancelling their display in a bid to protect local wildlife and those who might find fireworks frightening. In a statement, they said: “There is increasing evidence that firework displays have a significant negative effect on wildlife and the more vulnerable in society.

“As a site of significant importance for biodiversity and horticulture, and a major attraction in the area, we have made the decision not to host a fireworks display this year and rather invest in a more inclusive and holistic programme for the autumn season to add some sparkle and be more inclusive for our visitors.”

Similarly, supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has banned the sale of fireworks to the public, and stated: “We regularly review the products available in our stores and we are no longer selling fireworks based on a range of factors.

“Customers can continue to choose from a range of seasonal products, such as glow sticks and light-up spinning wands.”

But, fireworks during Autumn are to be expected, so it’s better to be prepared and help soothe your anxious pets to make the period as stress-free as possible. It could be some dogs’ first experience of fireworks, so those who welcomed a dog into their home during the pandemic should take extra caution.

We’ve put together a list of top tips from IMDT accredited dog trainer and Pro Dog Trainer Michelle Caisley, from Freddie and Friends, as well as pet food brand Lily’s Kitchen resident vet – Rodney Zasman, online store Treat Your Dog and BBC Breakfast’s Rory The Vet.

1. Don’t walk your dog in the evening

Fireworks events can start any time from around 6pm when it goes dark, so to avoid unexpected fireworks, walk your dog in the morning – if they usually have two walks, make your second trip out before it goes dark.

Earlier this year we had a horrific accidental run-in with some fireworks when England played the Euro 2020 final as we walked the dogs home from my brothers’ house after the match. There were dozens being set off on the playing fields by our house, and it was extremely distressing for Phoebe, who is particularly sensitive.

To avoid unexpected fireworks, Michelle says: “Forget about late afternoon or evening walks – it won’t kill them to miss out. Exercise your dog early in the day if possible.”

Rory the Vet added: “Take dogs for an early walk and avoid anywhere with public firework displays and when taking them out for a wee, make sure to did it in a sheltered environment where there won’t be fireworks.”

2. Chip check and ID on the collar

Make sure your dogs microchip details are up to date and their ID tag is on their collar. Some dogs may bolt out of the door if, for example, a firework goes off just as you’re collecting a parcel from the postie. Similarly, if you have decided to go on a walk after tea, a firework could spook your pooch.

It may also be worth jazzing up their collar with a flashing tag, or something similar. Lily’s Kitchen – who have been campaigning for public fireworks events to be restricted to one hour from 7-8pm – added: “This is a great chance to jazz up your pet’s collar and get them a shiny new, engraved one. And if your pet hasn’t been microchipped, now is the time to organise it so that you know where your pet is if they get spooked and run off.”

Don’t forget it’s now a legal requirement to have any dog over the age of eight weeks microchipped in England and Wales.

3. Long lasting chews

Michelle at Freddie and Friends recommends long lasting chews to tire your pup out. We have a few trusty favourites for things like this, from buffalo horns and coconuts, to beef tails and Anco roots. Michelle said: “Long lasting chews are amazing to tire your dog out. For dogs not too bothered about the bangs, give them to them while the noise is happening to create a positive response to the sounds.

“For dogs too scared to think about eating when the fireworks are going off give them chews during the day to tire them out so hopefully they will be tired and sleep through it.”

4. Desensitising

Weeks ahead of whizzbanger week, it can be helpful to get your dogs used to the sounds of fireworks by playing them on the TV or YouTube.

Lily’s Kitchen Vet Rodney said: “While owners might find the crackle and pop of fireworks exciting, they can be a bit scary for pets who don’t know what they are. In the days and weeks leading up to Bonfire Night, show your pet some firework recordings so that they know there’s nothing to be worried about.”

Treat Your Dog founder Heather Hiley added: “A helpful method is to train your dog to be desensitised towards distressing sounds. Using training sounds can help to ease your dog into becoming familiar with the sounds associated with distressing situations such as fireworks.”

5. Brain games

Another way to tire your pet out so they’ll sleep through the displays is to use brain training – a method that Michelle uses a lot at Freddie and Friends. She said: “Puzzle or slow feeders tire them out. Kongs, Lickimats, snuffle mats, snuffle boxes or hiding their dinner/toys around the house all tire out those brains. These are great to do if you are at work and can’t exercise them much in the day.”

Heather at Treat Your Dog added: “Sometimes your dog can be easily distracted from the fireworks with a food puzzle. Some challenging food puzzle toys can keep your dog distracted for a couple of hours whilst they dig for whatever treats or food you decide to reward them with. This will distract them long enough for the fireworks display to take its course.

“This can encourage your dog to focus on something more positive to create a calmer environment. Speaking calmly can also help to keep your dog distracted through assurance.”

6. Crank the heating up

I don’t care what dad says – crank up that thermostat or whack the fire on. Michelle recommends getting out the blankets and get cosy for the night. A warm and relaxing atmosphere will help your pet feel safer – and who doesn’t love a snooze in a warm room after their tea?

7. Build a den

Create a safe space for your dog to take themselves off to when everything feels a bit much. Rory the Vet recommends getting big heavy blankets and literally building a fort.

He said: “Get a big heavy blanket and throw it over the top of a table so that it covers two sides and a blanket to cover half of the front, place the bed under the table and give them a long-lasting chew or bone to keep them occupied. Chewing behaviours release happy endorphins, which can keep them relaxed and chilled.”

Lily’s Kitchen added that letting them hide with all their favourite things will help them feel settled – and their popular Bedtime Biscuits can also naturally soothe a stressed pooch.

Heather at Treat Your Dog suggested adding an item of your clothing into their bed or crate. She said: “Sometimes allowing your dog to hide and feel safe is the best way to calm them down. Forcing your dog out of their safe space can increase their stress and cause further discomfort. Even if their safe space is behind the sofa, giving your dog the space they need can help.

“Do not restrict your dog to a single room, if they do not want to be in that room, they will become even more uncomfortable. Let them choose their safe space. A further tip – add an item of your worn clothing to their safe space. The familiarity of your scent can help to calm them down.”

8. Drown out the sound

Put the TV or radio on and drown out the sound, and whack that volume up to mask the sound of the fireworks. Heather at TYD said it’s important to mask the noise with calmer sounds like the TV, radio, or dedicated doggy audio.

According to Rory the Vet, reggae is the genre to play for your pooch if they’re feeling stressed by the pyrotechnics outside. He said: “The best genres of music to play are reggae or classical music, which has a calming effect. Reggae music mimics a resting, chilled heartrate due to the BPM, which means dogs often try to mimic that and remain calmer.”

9. Relaxing lavender

Who doesn’t love a lavender pillow spray or roll on to relax? It’s natural calming properties will help soothe your pet during the stressful fireworks period. Michelle suggests a room spray or lavender scented wax melts.

10. Cover the windows

The bright flashes can be as frightening as the bangs. Close the blinds, draw the curtains, or even put blankets up to block out the light. If your pet likes their crate, also cover this with a blanket to help them feel secure.

Lily’s Kitchen’s Rodney recommends keeping pets indoors with doors and windows closed to avoid them making an escape.

11. Pop on a lead

Michelle suggested popping your pets lead on if you have to let them outside to use the loo. She said: “Unless your garden is super secure put their leads on when letting them out before bed. Even dogs not scared of fireworks can become scared if they’re mid wee and one goes off! So many dogs go missing at this time of year after being scared by fireworks. Being over cautious is fine if it keeps your dogs safe.”

12. Make fireworks fun!

But how? By giving them a jackpot reward when they go off. Dog trainer Michelle suggested: “For young dogs new to fireworks, for dogs that are fine with them and for those that are just a bit worried by the noises – make them a positive experience.”

Imagine it’s a drinking game, but instead of taking a shot for every scary bang, give your dog something they really love, like peanut butter or cheese!

She added: “You hear a bang and something tasty appears. Think cheese, chicken or sausage. We want a positive emotional response to the noise.”

13. If needs must – take a chill pill

My local independent pet store Hounds are a Dorwest stockist and will always be happy to help work out what supplements your pet needs. Michelle recommends Scullcap and Valerian compound for this time of year.

We bought the Valerian Compound back in summer to help Phoebe with her reactivity, and Frank with his nervousness out of the house, and it works a treat.

Dorwest recommend starting the tablets 10 days before Bonfire night, and double it the night before. They say: “Split the daily recommended number of Dorwest Scullcap & Valerian Tablets across AM and PM and double this amount on the day that a scary event is anticipated. Don’t forget to have our Valerian Compound for Dogs ready to give as a fast-acting top-up, if needed.

“For situations where you are ‘caught-out’, for example, thunderstorms or an unexpected fireworks display, our liquid Valerian Compound for Dogs is a great short-term and quicker-acting option.”

Rodney at Lily’s Kitchen added: “There are some dogs and cats that still exhibit extreme anxiety despite all you do, and as a last resort your vet will be able to prescribe the most suitable medication for your pet.”

14. Play time

Michelle at Freddie and Friends said: “If they’re not too scared, play a fun game with your dog, again making the bangs something positive. Of course all dogs will be different so if they don’t want to play then that’s fine.”

15. Cuddles are okay

Some people say you shouldn’t cuddle a dog that’s frightened of fireworks, but Michelle and Rodney have bust that myth. Michelle said: “It’s okay to cuddle them if they want a cuddle. Years ago people said don’t cuddle them you’ll make them worse. We now know that’s not true and in fact, you can’t reinforce fear. I’d say that you being calm is the best thing as if you’re anxious they might pick up on that, but if they want comfort give them comfort. Don’t overly fuss but do what you need to do to help them out.”

Rodney added: “Like they always say, pets are like their owners; so if you stay relaxed your pet will too. Play with your pet if they come with you for cuddles, but be aware they might want to stay in the safety of their little hideaway you have created. And never tell them off if they’re whining, barking or meowing as this may increase their stress.”

16. Beware the day after

Dogs that are scared by fireworks can spook at noises days after the event. If they’re off lead on a walk the next day and they hear a bang in the distance that’s not even related to fireworks they could bolt. Michelle suggests using a long line leash and making sure they have a tag on, checking that chip is up to date!

She concluded: “For those dogs that nothing seems to work do what you can to help them and then please contact me for training to help you prepare for next year. Just think that next year things could be different.”