In this time of New Year celebrations with fireworks (here in the Netherlands, a lot of this is happening in December), the loud bangs cause anxiety for many dogs. I occasionally come across the question of whether you should comfort your scared dog. This could be a very short blog because the answer is simple: do it!

There was a time when we were taught not to “reward” fear by “petting into it.” Fortunately, we now know better. Fear is an emotion, not a conscious act. Individuals can do all sorts of things out of fear, and the behavior you may see can vary enormously. Coping styles are different from individual to individual. But the underlying emotion is not something we reinforce by being kind; quite the opposite.

Imagine you are terrified of spiders and have to walk through a dusty corridor where you see spiderwebs hanging from the walls and ceiling. If you are with someone who says, “Come on, don’t be so silly; those things are much smaller than you, just keep walking. Nothing to worry about!” Would that make you feel at ease? Probably not…

If that same person says, “I see that you’re scared, stay close to me. I’ll guide you through; I know we’re safe,” the chances that you are able to walk through that corridor are much better, and you’ll feel much more comfortable. So, we do our dogs a great favor by supporting them and not ignoring them.

There’s a social phenomenon that likely works between us and our dogs: co-regulation of emotions. Through our attitudes and feelings, we can influence the feelings of individuals in our immediate surroundings without the need for a conversation. We have unique nerve connections in our brains for this: mirror neurons. (Dogs probably have them too.)

By regulating our breath and consciously calming our nervous system, we can be an anchor for our dog. You can support your dog by saying that you see he’s scared and that you understand. If he wants contact and to be close to you, offer him that as much as possible. Try to find as much safety as possible during this time, whatever that may look like for you and your dog.

Fear of fireworks is a complex situation and is not easily solved – if only that were true. If your dog is part of the large group of dogs affected by this (I recently read that almost half of all dogs are somehow affected), I wish you a lot of strength and calmness. Talk to your vet about possible medication if it’s severe. Fear of fireworks can be treated (up to a point), but that requires extensive and expert training. Ideally, this should start as early as February. (Make it a plan for next year!) In December, we can’t do much more than manage the situation and limit the distress as much as possible. Supporting your dog in that process is essential. So yes, please do comfort your dog if he is scared. Your heart tells you that is what you want to do anyway.

I wish you a peaceful, enjoyable New Year’s Eve and a very happy 2024!