Preventing Star-Spangled Barkers

Robert Starr

While we, the humans, may sit in awe on Fourth of July, admiring the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, many dogs don’t feel the same patriotism. It’s not difficult to see why — if you lived a life of relative ease, with your days largely consisting of meals, chew toys and licking yourself, an unending series of loud, booming noises might shake you up a bit.

Enter science with two techniques which can be used together to help calm anxious dogs and restore peace to neighborhoods.

The first is very simple: playing sounds of fireworks in preparation for the big day. By gradually acclimating dogs to the sounds of recorded explosions in the home, they won’t be as surprised when exposed to real life ones.

There are plenty of commercial options for this available on CD or as a digital download, but they’re probably not necessary. Research hasn’t suggested that sound quality has an impact on the result, so a long playlist of firework videos on YouTube should do the trick just as well as anything you can pay for.

The problem with this approach is that it requires a lot of preparation — perhaps as much as two months worth — for what amounts to only a few days out of the year at most. That leads to the other option: Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP), also known as Adaptil, which is a synthetic version of a chemical naturally produced by mother dogs three days after giving birth.

The chemical causes relaxation in puppies, but works on adult dogs as well with results suggesting that dogs will bark less out of fear after several days of DAP exposure.

But as with any other medication, especially those that act on behavior, DAP isn’t a miracle cure. Different dogs respond differently and one needs to look no further than the Amazon review page for various Adaptil products to see that, while the hormone works wonderfully for some dogs, it doesn’t for others.

The scientific literature suggests that though dogs can bark just as loud on DAP, they don’t bark as loud as often. Additionally, if a stranger approaches in a friendly manner, offering a hand to be sniffed, dogs on DAP respond more positively than those in a control group. But when a stranger stood by the dogs’ cage in a neutral stance, avoiding eye contact, the presence of DAP did not affect the dog’s reaction.

Most relevant to the Fourth of July, however, is that DAP does produce an observable effect on dogs’ reaction to fireworks, reducing the amount that they bark or displaying other fearful behaviors. It works better than a placebo, is odorless and can be purchased from pet stores without a prescription in various, unobtrusive forms. The pheromone’s simplicity and lack of significant side effects might make it worth trying if your dog is particularly skittish.

But, it still might not work, so keep some extra treats handy and have an apology ready for your neighbors on the morning of July 5th.