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Arf! Do fireworks send your pup into a panic?

Everyone, everywhere wants to talk dogs: my boss, my best friend, total strangers. Like the canine version of neonatal classes, experienced parents in dog parks help me prepare for dog ownership. One worrying thing: The city is noisy! What if my TBD dog spooks at all those sounds found in an urban setting, from festivals, crowds, street parties, summer thunderstorms - and the big one, fireworks?

Apparently I'm lucky not to own a dog quite yet. While the upcoming long weekend means backyard barbecues, relaxation and a day off for most, dog owners are often occupied with a cowering canine at the first boom of firework displays.

One new dog mom, my good friend Dalia Lucchetta, has just rescued a boxer/spaniel mix named Flo. One-year-old Flo is gentle and relaxed, until she hears unusual noises: horns, fire trucks, doors slamming.

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"Thunderstorms? Forget about it. She's frantic," says Ms. Lucchetta. "Spooked, panting, darting around, searching for somewhere to hide."

"It's going to be a very different Canada Day," says Ms. Lucchetta, whose birthday is also on the national holiday. "I'm just hoping she's not hiding under the couch the entire night, having a panic attack."

Naturally it was the first question out of my mouth when I met the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, last week. "What not to do," he replied in his best TV voice, "is what everyone does. They feel sorry for the dog."

He starts to wiggle and climb on me, imitating a pitied puppy. I freeze. Thankfully, he stops, and lays down his action plan.

Introduce the offensive sound as far in advance of the event as possible, he says (for instance, download fireworks sounds, start them quietly, then turn up the volume slowly). "On Canada Day, humans are already in party mode. No one wants to be a dog whisperer on July 1."

Mr. Millan recommends setting up a "virtual rehabilitation centre" with firework sounds and visuals, and a treadmill in the centre to keep the dog's brain in perpetual motion.

Treadmills and I have a troubled relationship, and I certainly don't own one.

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Mr. Millan recommends lavender oil as another option. "If you can engage the dog's nose, you can engage the mind."

And he suggests a doggie wrap called a Thundershirt that's "like a really tight hug." It controls the pup's chest and slows his breathing. "What it does to the body changes the state of mind."

Your dog's ability to relax relies on owner vibes, says veterinary behaviourist Gary Landsberg, who runs a clinic in Thornhill, Ont.

Imagine being afraid to fly, he tells me, and sitting beside someone who constantly reassures you. "If they say, 'Oh, we're going to be fine, plane crashes only happen a few times a year, relax, relax, relax!' chances are good you'll get more worked up."

Instead, be the passenger who offers a distraction. "Play with your dog, give him his favourite chew toy, turn up the radio, do what you have to in order to get his mind off the fear."

Firework fears are sparked by nature and nurture, he says. Some dogs are more predisposed, but there's usually a bad experience that sets it off. "It gets worse with age, depending on how the owner handles it."

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If the fear is consuming your pooch - or you - Dr. Landsberg suggests talking to your vet about anti-anxiety medication (doggie valiums "will relax but not sedate your dog," he says.)

He cautions, though, that if my future dog has noise fears or phobias - and about 10 to 15 per cent do - I should be prepared for drowning out long-weekend celebrations instead of enjoying them.

"It's your dog. He comes first."

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About the Author
Editor in the Opinion section

Amberly McAteer is an editor in the Opinion section at The Globe and Mail. She has been a homepage editor, online editor and community editor in Features - including Life, Travel, Style, Arts and Books. She's written columns about her quest to run a 10K and find the perfect dog. More

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