I’m OK. Are you OK?

The little dog, some kind of terrier mix, nervously paced back and forth in the shopping cart at the pet store where I was in between class sessions. I had been called up by the cashier to talk to them about their dog’s behavior problems at home, where he was destructive and had house soiling challenges, though he’d been previously housebroken. As I began to talk with the couple, I could already sense the hostility between them. Then, like a volcano, it erupted. At the tops of their voices, they shouted at one another. Shoppers heading to the cash registers turned 180 degrees to find other things to buy rather than continue to approach. I was stuck there, looking down at the now trembling little dog, desperately wishing to send him a telepathic apology, “I wish I could help you, but I can’t”. What this couple needed was a marriage therapist, not a dog trainer.

While this true account is an extreme example, the gist of the problem is not unique in the work of a dog trainer or dog behavior counselor. Periodically, I work with families trying to draw me into their disagreements, with comments such as “can you tell (a family member) that she has to (fill in the blank)”. On other occasions, I’ve arrived at sessions that were supposed to include all family members only to have someone blatantly missing from the meeting, or clearly annoyed by my presence. This is the least enjoyable part of my work, and at such times I wish I could just hand them the business card of a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist to contact instead.

Anthropologist, Brian Hare, recently demonstrated in studies that dogs are masters at reading human social cues. While many of us who grew up with dogs already knew this, it is nice when someone does a scientific study that validates what we know in our hearts. While there are many benefits of this, including the ease of training and the connections that this allows us to make with our canine companions, there are pitfalls as well. Specifically, dogs that have close connections with their humans will be affected by their emotions, whether positive or negative.

When I was in high school, my German Shepherd Dog, Nick, was particularly attuned to my ever-changing adolescent moods. One day, when I was sad about who knows what, I took him for a walk in the park. Once off-leash, he ran full speed toward a puddle of water. The puddle turned out to be deeper than he’d thought, resulting in his stumbling and getting his entire face wet. When I giggled lightly, he stopped, looked at me, and then proceeded to repeat this behavior several times until I was heartily laughing out loud. Laughing is good, sad is bad. Any dog with a close human relation understands this.

Smile and the world will smile with you...

This being the case, we have to consider that our dogs may be affected by our other emotions as well. My Border Collie, Claire, leaves the room whenever there is football on TV, because in her 12-1/2 years of life, my San Francisco 49ers have unfortunately had more bad years than good years. She doesn’t like it when I yell, even if it’s at the TV.

But what is there to do? We can’t change what we feel, or suppress our emotions just for the sake of our dogs, right? Of course not, but I do recommend doing what you can not to have loud screaming fights in the presence of your dog if you can avoid it. More importantly, try to be aware of how your behavior and routine affects that of your dog. A change as seemingly minor as a job change, which we may think is transparent to our dogs (we still get up, go to work, etc.) can actually affect our dogs if they sense that our mood has changed.

If you are having problems with your dog’s behavior and you think that it may be at least partly due to challenges you are facing yourself, consider the possibility that a personal counselor or a life coach may be as worthwhile an investment as a professional dog trainer. In less stressful times, try to remain diligent about continuing your dog’s physical and mental exercise routines to reduce his or her stress level. Playing games can be mutually beneficial, whether it is a nice game of ball retrieving, a hearty tug of war with a favorite toy, or your favorite dog sport.

I read a reminder recently that, in a plane going down, it’s important to first make sure that your own oxygen mask is securely in place before you can effectively assist others. Using the same principal with regard to your dog can go a long way to keeping everyone’s stress levels at bay. Do what you can to improve your mental and emotional stability, and your dog’s behavior should reflect this positive change.

Music to Calm the High Drive Dog

I had the privilege of meeting Lisa Spector a couple of weekends ago at the Tervuren Fanciers Agility Trial in Palo Alto. I recognized her and her dogs, camped just up the field from us, and introduced myself as a big fan. For those who do not recognize her name, she is the musician and composer behind the Through A Dog’s Ear series of music designed to calm dogs in a variety of settings.

Music, you ask, to calm the beast?

Well, it’s not just a myth, but has been demonstrated to be effective in studies conducted by the team at Through A Dog’s Ear and by others with doctorates in psychoacoustics, psychology and animal behavior. More recent studies continue to support these findings.

Relaxing on a rainy afternoon

So, how does this music work, and how is it different from any basic classical music? In the preliminary studies that they conducted, they found that the “instrumentation and tempo of the classical music can produce marked differences in results. Solo instruments, slower tempos, and less complex arrangements had a greater calming effect than faster selections with more complex harmonic and orchestral content.”

Lisa Spector writes the arrangements for optimum calming effects, using slower cadences and lower tones, aligning with what they learned in the studies. The result is music that is not only beautiful, but has the effect of calming those who listen to it, in particular, the dogs.

Real Life Experiences

Over the past several years, I have used Through A Dog’s Ear music in a variety of ways to calm my own pack, as well as recommended it to help calm my clients’ their nervous or high energy dogs.

  • My first experience with their original CD was as a test. I had a lovely client with a very nervous, recently rescued cattle dog mix, with whom we’d tried a wide variety of exercises and treatments to help her relax. I heard about this music through a colleague, and recommended it as an adjunct to our training. My client was a fan of classical music, and open to trying it out. Her report to me after the first trial went something like this: “I put the music on in the afternoon, when (the dog) is often most nervous. Then I went to the other room to read. Next thing you know, the dog, my two cats, and I were all asleep for a nice nap.” I learned then that the music calms people as well as dogs.

    Cats and dogs, sleeping together

  • In classes, I performed an informal test shortly after the above event. In Week 1 of beginning training classes, people and dogs are typically nervous and fidgety. I started class normally, then about 10 minutes in, I put the CD on as background music. Within minutes, I observed both dogs and people visibly relaxing. Unsure of whether it was my imagination, my observations were confirmed by my assistants, who were amazed to see the dogs taking deep breaths and lying down, while the humans’ shoulders were dropping as they relaxed as well.
  • With my own pack at home, I play this music during thunderstorms and fireworks shows. This is significant, as two of my dogs developed fairly severe thunder phobias after a large (100+ foot) tree landed on our house one night while they slept in their crates. I could work with them to recover from these phobias, but since thunderstorms and fireworks are both rare in our area I have found it most effective to use the music, along with the air conditioner or house heater to drown out additional outside noise.
  • I also use the Driving Edition on road trips to flyball, agility and other competitions. My dogs, being high drive types, get very excited when they realize that we are going to an event. They love to run, and while they initially settle down for long car rides, they used to get very excited and agitated as soon as we pulled off the highway, in anticipation of the games. I first used the Driving Edition music on the way to a local competition, about 2 hours away from home. My teammate and I were amazed when we arrived with a carload of quiet, mostly sleeping dogs that had not already expended much of their energy prior to running. And we enjoyed a peaceful conversation along the ride – double bonus!
  • Finally, on a human note, when my daughter was just over one month old, we had to move. In this stressful time, she was having a hard time going down for her nap in the afternoon. On a whim I put on one of the CD’s in a stereo near her. She was asleep before the end of the first song!  She is two now, and I still use this music around bedtime to help her settle down.

    Even babies are calmed down


There are many ways to help calm or even just “tone down” a high drive dog. And while all dogs still require plenty of physical and mental exercise to be well-adjusted and content, the Through A Dog’s Ear series of music could be a great addition to the high drive dog owner’s toolbox.