For the past seven years, I have been training dogs in one of Chicago’s busiest areas: the South Loop. Year after year, it seems like the city is growing: new construction, a larger population, and more dogs. And it strikes me the bigger the city gets, the more the dog population wears it. I believe our dogs are a reflection not just of who we are but also of their environment. When I meet a dog who suffers from hyperactivity, I can see him carrying traffic, bikes, strollers, strangers, dogs, construction noises, screams, the sound of the barking dog across the hall, the sound of people coming in and out of the elevator, the squirrels and rabbits, and the sounds of children and people talking, laughing and running. It’s a heavy load for such a small creature. The stimuli that surround the dog are greater than the dog himself. Similarly, when I see a reactive dog, I can see his arousal level skyrocket the moment he is outdoors. Is it the city causing all this, or is there something else we’re overlooking?
City life is not easy for a dog or a human. As scientists begin to examine the effects of the city on the human brain they are beginning to see how damaging it can be. Research has found that it doesn’t take years, months, weeks, or days for the urban environment to have an effect on our brain; it takes just minutes, and not a lot of them. It only takes a few minutes of walking through a crowded street for the brain to be able to hold fewer things in memory and suffer from reduced self-control. In their parallel world, dogs are less likely to respond to our self-control exercises outside than they are in the training room or at home. Even the simplest exercise that requires them to focus and be calm becomes a struggle when they’re out and about in the city. If cities dull human thinking, why would we think it wouldn’t also dull our dogs’ thinking? Whether your dog gets excited or scared in the presence of a stimulus, its body is responding, making it even more challenging to process information such as your obedience cues. If you live in an area where a new stimulus is presented every second, then every second of your walk is making your dog less balanced and less attentive.
Data collected by Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, found that factors in the urban environment–such as crowding and unpredictable noises–can lead to an increase in aggression in humans . Is it coincidence that leash aggression among dogs is such a common behavioral problem in the city? The research is substantial regarding the effects of the city environment, but it’s not so much what the city has that is causing many of the problems but what it lack: nature. Cities are loaded with stimuli we constantly have to tell our brains to ignore; nature, on the other hand, doesn’t require the same cognitive effort, leaving the brain more room to relax. A relaxed brain leaves room to concentrate and make better decisions.
Study after study has shown the positive impact nature has on us. One study showed that people who took a walk through nature were not just in a better mood but scored higher on tests of both attention and memory. A second study showed people who looked out a window after a stressful situation experienced the quickest drop in stress and the most dramatic decrease in heart rate. That same study also measured two other groups’ responses to a series of stressful situations: when the stressful events were over, one group viewed a TV monitor with a picture of a natural setting, while the other group stared at a blank wall. Surprisingly, both groups showed the same results: there was no difference in stress reduction between the two groups. The actual interaction with nature proved to be more powerful than its visual representation on a screen.
In my travels, I am always amazed by the differences between the dogs in Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, and the dogs in the city. The main difference I see is how much more balanced these more rural dogs are. Is it due to the reduction of stimulation, the increase of a natural setting, or both? Even among my urban clients, I can see a significant difference in rates of training progress between dogs whose primary form of exercise are walks in the forest preserve versus short walks in the city or even long days in urban daycare settings. While I am not suggesting we all flee the city permanently, I am suggesting that we make the effort–at least once a week–to drive to a forest preserve or other wild area and take a nice, quiet walk with our dogs (in addition to training). Give them a chance to balance and shake off some of the city. I am also suggesting that we stop blaming our dogs for their lack of focus. The next time you’re upset at your dog, don’t jump to the conclusion that he is being stubborn or stupid; just look at your surroundings and try to see beyond your dog. What exactly is affecting your dog’s ability to respond? And remember: there are some things that are just greater than your dog.
“The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” by Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan.
“The Psychology of Nature,” by Jonah Lehner.
“How the City Hurts Your Brain,” by Jonah Lehner.