A few weeks ago, I was having lesson with a pregnant couple and, obviously, their dog. The couple wanted to be responsible pet owners and prepare their dog for what was coming. The dog, was a small, cute-as-a-button fur ball with many fears. As part of their training plan, I had recommended the couple start playing a recording of a crying baby at the same time they played calming music. This would help the dog associate the sound of a crying baby with a calm emotional state.
The soon-to-be mom was all for it and thrilled with the idea. To be honest, she’s a dream client. Since day one, she has understood every explanation of her dog’s behavior and has even made connections herself. If only they were all like her (pause for a small day dream)… but back to my story. After giving her the assignment she made a comment that got my wheels turning. She noted that this will also help her prepare for the baby. She had read that it is in a woman’s nature to feel stress at the sound of a baby in distress–which makes total sense. As women, we need to be sufficiently stressed by our babies’ crying to motivate us into helpful action. If we’re successful, we are richly rewarded: the baby stops crying.
This got me thinking: What does the bark of a dog do to our emotional state? Is there a physiological reason we feel so bad about our dogs barking in their crates that it makes it hard for us to let them “bark it out”? Why is it so tough for us to stay relaxed and ignore our dogs when they bark for attention? Why does it drives us wild to hear dogs bark? Why, despite my continuous reminders to my clients to stay calm when their dogs bark, do they seem incapable of doing so? Is there something greater than our own free will that is making it tough for humans to remain calm at the sound of the bark, and to then respond appropriately? As a behaviorist, I wanted to explore this from a physiological angle.
In the natural world, wolves will only bark as a warning. Remarkably, through literally thousands of generations of domestication, our dogs have evolved their elaborate vocalizations to communicate with us. So it’s no surprise that more and more dogs are barking-but why are we still so affected by it? If you have yet to see the PBS special, Dogs Decoded, it’s truly must-see TV. In this program, we learn about new discoveries about our unique bond with our dogs. You might be surprised how bonded we really are: according to Professor Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, the same hormone that is responsible for maternal bonding is responsible for our bond with our dogs. Uvnas-Moberg had a theory and to test it he took blood samples from dogs and their owners before and during a petting session. His study not only supported his theory but revealed a great discovery; Blood samples showed there was a similar peak of the hormone oxytocin in the adult human between a dog-petting session and a mother breastfeeding her baby. Blood work taken from dogs also revealed a similar burst of oxytocin. How crazy is that!?! Given this strong physiological response to compassionate contact, our strong connection with our dogs begins to make a lot of sense. We can start to understand why we become so sensitive and protective over our dogs.
In 1990, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that people who own pets make fewer visits to the doctor. Owning a pet also reduces visits to physicians in times of stress. In 1995, the American Journal of Cardiology reported that patients with pets were significantly more likely to still be alive one year after a heart attack than patients without dogs. It us undeniable that the bond between us and our dogs brings great positive benefits to our health.
If dogs have such a beneficial effect on our health, then it’s only fair that we explore the other side. What does an “aggressive, barking” dog do to our health? What happens to us physiologically when we witness our dogs lunging at people and other dogs during walks? Or barking incessantly in their crates? Or rushing the door, barking at the sounds of a person in the hallway or coming off an elevator? Or–even worse–when we witness our dogs actually attacking a person or another dog?
Research has shown that human listeners are able to distinguish barks independently of their previous dog experience. Most people can distinguish between barks that are happy, attention-seeking, distressed, or aggressive. If we hear a distressed or aggressive bark, how would our body naturally respond? Have you ever noticed that your body gives a little jump after the sound of a barking dog, followed by a sudden sense of tension? The sounds waves created by the bark are picked up by the hair cells of our ears, which in turn are reported to our brain. Our brain then stimulates our automatic nervous system, making us feel tense. Since our entire brain is connected to our body, we might also see other side effects of such tension: your pulse might quicken, you might momentarily hold your breath (or start to breathe in short, shallow breaths), or you might tense up your muscles in a quick “freeze” response. The bark also affects our endocrine system, which is responsible for the physiological coordination of the body. The endocrine system helps with balance and secretes certain hormones according to our emotional state, and is regulated by the part of the brain that responds instantly to primitive threats and messages of anxiety. The endocrine system provides us with what amounts to an extra dose of agility and speed in emergencies. It physically prepares us for emergencies, but hinders our operant state. Therefore, it makes it tough to make logical decisions versus instinctual ones. Logically we know we shouldn’t let the dog out because he is distressed in the crate, but we let him out, anyway.
I often see this with my clients who have reactive dogs. In the beginning of my first lesson, they share they have grown tense when walking their dogs as their result of the reactivity. Most of these clients will start to speed up, and tense up their shoulders, their voice, and their grip on the leash. As time goes on, they become tense at the sight of the trigger (for example, when the human sees another dog approaching), even before the bark begins to bark.
All of this also happened to me when I started training my own reactive dog. The most interesting thing for me to observe was that even though I was already calm when working with many other people’s reactive dogs, staying calm took longer when I was working with my own dog. I guess we can blame that on the oxytocin that caused our amazing bond and the love I have for my dog, reactivity and all. J
I challenge you to observe your psychical response to your dogs’ barks. How does your body react, and how does the barking make you feel? Recognizing these changes is the first step in trying to relax and stay calm. Remember, a calm person is more likely to make better decisions and guide his or her dog properly. As for us dog trainers, this information can help us understand why it’s so tough for our clients to relax and follow our instructions, or stop yelling at their dogs, yanking on the leash, or generally getting upset. In these situations, we all need to be aware of our bodies’ responses and train ourselves to relax– just like we teach our dogs to relax.
-Csanyi Vilmos, Miklosi Adam, Pongracz Peter & Miklosi Adam (2005). Human Listeners Are Able to Classify Dog Barks Recorded in Different Situations. Journal of Comparative psychology, Vol. 119, No.2, 136-144
-Guidelines for Community Noise. World Health Organization (Geneva, Switzerland, 1995)