[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tartling at loud noises is a normal survival mechanism for animals, because loud noises are often associated with danger. In most cases, when an animal is exposed repeatedly to a noise without anything ‘bad’ happening (painful or fearful experience), the animal will habituate to that noise, meaning he will learn that it does not mean anything and so it no longer causes fear. In some dogs this does not seem to happen and instead of getting used to the noise, the dog becomes increasingly fearful and even develops a noise-related phobia.
In order to know how to help your dog, it is important to be able to tell whether he is having a normal, healthy fear response as opposed to being extremely fearful or phobic. If your dog has never heard fireworks before, it would be normal for him to startle at the first bang. If, once there have been a few bangs, he seems to realise that they actually don’t mean anything and carries on with whatever he was doing when the noise started, then that would be a normal response to a startling noise and you needn’t worry. However, if your dog becomes increasingly agitated (panting, pacing, drooling, dilated pupils, incontinence, refusing food, trying to escape or trying to hide away), then he is experiencing extreme distress and needs help.
If your dog is highly agitated and cannot seem to find any way to relieve his fear, then it would be negligent not to seek help from your vet in the form of medication.
Management and safety is also very important for dogs who have extreme fearful reactions. Where possible, dogs should be kept safely indoors where escaping and getting lost is not an option. They should also be kept away from sliding doors or large windows, as panic may cause them to run right through these.
Finally, it used to be said that ‘comforting’ a fearful dog ‘rewarded’ the behaviour and so taught a dog that it is good to be scared. This is nonsense – fear is an emotion and you cannot reward an emotion! While we should not fuss and act strangely so as to alarm our dogs, there is nothing wrong with giving physical contact where it is sought or talking to our dogs in a reassuring manner.