Are We Listening to our Dogs?

It’s 4 am and there is only one reason I am awake. My dog heard something outside and started barking. I live in a rather rural area surrounded by wildlife. One of the benefits of not having neighbors close by is the peace, quiet, and tranquility that comes with the territory. I think it’s also been good for my dog. No longer are the days where he is stimulated with all the people walking by with dogs and other distractions in my old neighborhood. But, then there is the occasional deer, skunk, raccoon, in the middle of the night that gets his attention and he finds it urgent to wake me with loud barking. No complaints. Sanchez is a fabulous watch dog - he barks, finds me, we check it out, I reassure him all is safe, and he stops barking.

It makes me wonder though what else my dog is telling me when he doesn’t speak so loudly. Since dogs hear 100 - 500% better than we do, it is to our advantage to watch their body language and reaction to sounds. I often wonder what he thinks when the microwave beeps, the cell phone alerts me of a text message, the phone rings, the alarm goes off, the tea kettle whistles, etc. These are all sounds that I can orient and understand. And, just because I know what they mean, it doesn’t mean that all of those sounds are good for me. It just means that I don’t have any fear associated with them. But does my dog?

Sanchez doesn't appear to be very sound sensitve in general. It's probably a combination of his breeding and his early puppy training when he was praised when he desensitized himself to sounds. As a puppy, he was a Guide Dog in training and I was his volunteer puppy raiser. (Now he wears a plaque on his collar that says, “Proud to be a Career Change Dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind”.) When he was only 6 months old, I was walking down the street with him in San Francisco and when an ambulance drove by, I would plug my ears and praise him for not reacting to the sound. I remember wanting to cover his ears as well, since his hearing is so sensitive. But praising him for being quiet was all that I could do. (Now I sometimes reward him with a treat too.) However, later, after we were back home and he was resting after a long training session, I made sure I played music that I would describe as “simple sounds” for him, either live on the piano or recorded. 

In the book Through a Dog’s Ear, Using Sound to improve the Health and Behavior of Your Canine Companion, the authors suggest taking a sonic inventory  of your environment. The sonic inventory is a way of raising awareness of the noise in our dog's environment. The authors, Joshua Leeds and Susan Wagner, DVM, MS believe that many anxiety behaviors common in both the American people and their dogs may be the result of cumulative sensory overload, starting with the sound environments in which we live.

With the observation of National Dog Week, I commit to paying even more attention to listening to my dog. It may be just as much for my benefit as for his.