Month: March 2020

Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

That’s a serious question on my part, not clickbait. I don’t know the answer. And I’m not talking about fear; I’m talking about being bothered. I’m wondering about it because of a recent experience.

My little Zani is clinically sound phobic of high-frequency sounds such as beeps and whistles. Because of meds and careful application of desensitization and counterconditioning, her default response these days to hearing any sort of digital beep is a positive one. She turns to me or even runs to me to look for a treat. Take a look/listen.

Caution: the following before/after movie has digital beeps in it.

Once in a while when she will still melt down if she hears something quiet in the distance that’s within her “scary” category It might be a bird, an alarm, or even some kind of clicking. And we still haven’t tackled the low battery chirp of the smoke alarm. But even with the remaining scary things, her recovery time is minutes, rather than the hours or days it used to be.

She has never been afraid of thunder or fireworks (except the whistling kind). She has an apparently normal startle response to unexpected loud noises, but doesn’t stay in a fear state.

Even though she isn’t bothered by booms and roars, what happened the other day surprised me.

What a Lovely Day To Get Some Sun!

This scene is not as peaceful as it looks.

Looks pretty idyllic, right? It was a lovely spring day. And as much as I’d like to leave the punchline inside the movie, here’s a spoiler for those people with dogs who are afraid of roaring engines. There is a terrible noise of that sort in the video.

That noise, my friends, is the neighbor’s generator. It has not one, but two unrelated low frequencies that spin off a pack of unlovely overtones. You probably can’t hear the lower frequencies if you watch it on a handheld. If so, you’re lucky. The full effect is extremely unpleasant—although apparently not for my dogs. Go figure.

Response To Noise: Fear Vs. Irritation

Most studies about noise affecting animals deal with either sounds that are loud enough to be physically damaging, or sudden sounds that evoke a startle response. There is at least one study about the response of dogs to noise. It took place in a shelter and centered on barking. In the kennel environment, the sound was chaotic, varying, and loud enough to cause hearing damage. That’s a crucially important welfare issue, but it doesn’t fit the situation I’m curious about: lower level but constant/repetitive noise.

My teacher reminds me now and then to watch for dogs “voting with their feet.” If something bothers them, they will often leave.

But thinking back, the only time I see them do that is when they are afraid, or when they are being hassled by another dog. (Of course I intervene but I’m not as quick as a dog!) I’m sure it happens when dogs are being bothered by humans or other species as well. But those all qualify as space invasions, either tactile, or via body pressure, or through staring.

Have I ever seen a dog leave the scene because of a sensory irritation? Have I seen them leave in response to an ongoing repetitive noise, blinking light, or even an overwhelming odor? I don’t think so. I’ve seen the equivalent of an “eww” response when a dog sniffed citrus, but they just backed off a little. They didn’t leave the room.

This is especially interesting given the sensitivity of dogs’ noses. We are warned not to overwhelm them with odor. But given the comparative strengths of our olfactory senses, we probably overwhelm them all the time.

Response to Obnoxious Odor

I don’t use many scented products. I don’t use incense (dated myself there!), room sprays, plugins, or scented laundry products. There’s but one exception. I make melt and pour soap, and I do have some small amounts of high-quality essential oils. I sometimes scent the soap lightly. A while back I made some bars of soap, and I accidentally dumped way too much violet essential oil into a batch. The odor was so “loud” it gave me a headache.

I hate to waste stuff. So I tried to get the odor out of the soap. I left the completed bars of soap out in a closed room for a few days to air out. Didn’t help, and the odor in the house was still strong. I let them sit in the sun on the back porch for a few days. Didn’t help. Finally, I remelted them, which the soap mavens say gets rid of fragrance. We’re told that the oil will vaporize before the soap melts. I even let it boil for a while. This did help, but it only took the fragrance down from headache range to obnoxious. But at that point, I was able to bag them up and put them in a drawer, and that was tolerable. The house returned to normal (per my olfactory sense). I take them out one by one to use. I’ll probably never use violet fragrance again after I use them up.

Now, what did my dogs do during this assault by odor? Nothing. They didn’t come in the kitchen saying, “What the hell?” And whenever they were in the kitchen during a bloom of violet odor, they didn’t leave. They didn’t ask to go outside. As far as I could observe, they didn’t respond at all. This seemed like just another stupid human-related occurrence that was irrelevant to them.

What Have You Observed?

Hark, the song of the generator!

I am making no claims about dog behavior in this post. I don’t have enough information. But I’m curious. What have you observed? Have you ever seen a dog leave the scene in response to an ongoing (not sudden) visual, auditory, or olfactory stimulus when they weren’t afraid of it? Have you seen the equivalent of the human irritation response? The “I can’t listen to that incessant scraping/roaring/rattling noise for one more minute!” response?

How about you folks with border collies? Just asking, grin.

I do wonder if it’s a difference in cognition. A lot of the stimuli humans don’t like are repetitive, my neighbor’s generator included. And our irritated response is functional. Noise that is well under the threshold for human ear damage has been shown to have negative neurological and cognitive effects on humans.

I have used brown noise to mask scary sounds for the dogs, but it is not something I would choose to leave on otherwise.


We do habituate. But case-by-case, it’s hard to predict whether we will habituate or sensitize to a stimulus. I don’t mind the repetitive swell of cicadas in the summer, that is, when I’m inside. For those who haven’t heard them—they can be loud. When you are out there with them, it’s hard to hear anything else. That’s another possible function of irritation. I am awed by huge waterfalls and crashing ocean waves, but I confess that the masking effects bother me. I don’t feel safe because I can’t hear other things in the environment. That’s another effect my neighbor’s generator has on me, but apparently not on my dogs.

The song of the generator

Competing Reinforcers

Some astute folks are going to point out that perhaps the dogs found being in the sun so pleasant that they were tolerating the noise. That’s possible, but it’s a big yard with lots of places they like to bask. From their behavior, it seems to me that either they really don’t mind, or they don’t know that they could escape at least some of the continuous noise by moving to a different sunny place in the yard. As a friend said recently, “Don’t you wish they could tell us?”

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

I don’t know how she did it. How could anyone write a book so comprehensive, so authoritative, and so readable all at once?

Book cover: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

I was privileged to be an early reader of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, by Zazie Todd. It’s a revolutionary book. Dr. Todd identified the major aspects of caring for pet dogs and shared with us what scientific research says about how to do it best. Why do I call it revolutionary? When we consult the research, most often we seek research about dog training. Even though we want to train humanely, we are often seeking the best ways we can get dogs to change or do stuff for us. This book covers training, of course, but the theme is using the existing research to cover what we can do for our dogs, not the other way around.

I believe a whole, evidence-based book about this is unique in all the literature.

This book is comprehensive. I won’t replicate the table of contents here, because you can (and should!) check it out using the “Look Inside” function on the Amazon page for Wag. It covers the major topics you would expect, including how dogs learn, their relationships with people, training, diet, and enrichment. But there are also some things that might surprise you, like the chapter on sleep.

The structure of each chapter is the same. It opens with a gentle story about one of Todd’s dogs. It transitions smoothly (more on that later!) into the research on the topic. Then it ends with bullet points on how to use this information to allow our dogs to express their doggy-ness in our human world. All while keeping them safe. There are generally one or two quotes from subject experts that add even more liveliness to the research. And this structure is all presented in one beautiful, smooth arc. I bow down in admiration to that feat alone.

Zazie Todd’s Writing Voice

Head shot of Clara, a tan dog with a black muzzle,  happy on an outdoor walk
Happy Clara

Dr. Todd’s voice is consistent, whether she is telling a funny story about her dog, summarizing some interesting research and how it can apply to our own dogs, or gently reminding us that positive reinforcement training is the wisest choice.

She writes with compassion for both dogs and humans. I might write a post that is a virtual shaking of the shoulders of people who share dangerous dog and baby interaction photos on the Internet (no, I’m not going to link to it). But Todd writes in her chapter on dogs and children, “What does it feel like to be in a household with children from the dog’s point of view?” What follows are not horror stories or loud admonitions. Rather, an empathetic approach, and plenty of information we can use to help dogs be safer and be happier in their interactions with children.

Because of her comfortable writing style, you don’t realize at first that throughout the book, virtually every single thing she says is evidence-based. And if she opines or extrapolates from that evidence, she makes it clear. That’s another thing. She never overstates what the research says. For example, in the chapter on enrichment, she describes a study that tested whether dogs enjoyed solving a problem for food or whether they just enjoyed getting the food. The outcome is yes, indeed, dogs probably enjoy solving the problem for food. Her summary statement:

This study shows that having control over a situation and being able to solve problems is good for dogs’ welfare. 

Todd, p. 155

How many authors might have instead claimed the study “proves” dogs would rather work for food? Or that control is a primary reinforcer? It may well be, per Paul Chance, but it’s a hard thing to show in a study. It’s only now appearing in behavior science textbooks as a possibility.

It is so refreshing to read a book that is calm, even soothing; authoritative; and not riddled with the hyperbole so common in the dog blogosphere.

Example Chapter: Dogs and Children

The sections in the chapter about dogs and children give you an idea of Dr. Todd’s evidence-based, practical approach.

Dogs and Children

  • The Benefits to Dogs of Interacting With Children
  • How to Recognize When a Dog is Anxious Around Children
  • Teaching Children to Interact With Dogs
  • Preparing Dogs to Interact With Children
  • How to Apply the Science at Home

That last section could be life-saving for both children and dogs. The instructions are concrete and practical and yes, evidence-based. For instance, she recommends teaching children not to approach stationary dogs (sitting or lying down). Earlier in the chapter, she explains why the evidence supports this recommendation. Think of all those YouTube videos where a toddler is lying on a dog, putting her fingers in the dog’s mouth, pulling ears, etc. If infants and toddlers were prevented from approaching dogs, then taught not to do so as their cognitive abilities matured, those interactions wouldn’t happen in the first place.

In fact, the “How to Apply the Science at Home” sections at the end of each section are priceless. These lovely summations are so practical, and they are presented in jargon-free plain language.

Sable-colored dog Summer, showing a happy wag of her tail
Happy Summer

Questions This Book Can Answer

OK, I probably shouldn’t have said “answer.” But this book can provide strong evidence about these topics.

  • When might play be a bad thing? (Chapter 6)
  • Can dogs tell whether we are happy or sad? Does it affect them? (Chapter 7)
  • What’s a “growl ball”? (Chapter 6)
  • If a dog “runs” in their sleep, does it mean they are dreaming? (Chapter 12)
  • If you are planning to get both a dog and a cat, which should you get first? (Chapter 6)
  • What are some characteristics of a good puppy class? (Chapter 3)
  • Is it OK to comfort a fearful dog? (Chapters 6 & 13)
  • Why is positive reinforcement the best approach for training a dog? (Many chapters!)


Small black and rust hound dog lying down in a relaxed way and wagging her tail, looking very happy
Happy Zani
  • Most of us have heard it by now: one difference between dog and wolf DNA is that dogs have genes related to the digestion of starch. But what I didn’t know before was that this was in an area of DNA associated with important survival traits. A lot of the genes in the area have to do with brain function, but here were these genes related to digestion as well! It makes sense that anything to do with what a dog can get nourishment from is a survival trait. But this information changed my perception from starch being an ancillary food for dogs. Perhaps it is now, but there must have been significant populations of dogs during their history with us who had to get nourishment from starch to survive. It was strongly selected for. The fact that Siberian Huskies do not have as strong a genetic indicator of starch digestion as other dog breeds is interesting but non-surprising. Up until recently, Siberians have lived in human communities with a strongly meat-based diet and the need to digest starch would not have been selected for.
  • The chapter on senior dogs has more details on the physiological changes that dogs go through as they age than I have read elsewhere. These are at once fascinating, a little sad, but extremely helpful to know.
  • It was fun to learn that sleep appears to help dogs with memory consolidation, just as it does with humans, and to read about the implications this can have on training.
  • On a related topic, I so appreciated her assessment of the well-known study comparing different training schedules for dogs. The schedules compared were daily vs. once or twice a week. This is another study that is generally presented in a slightly misleading way, and for which she cuts through the hype. It’s easy to come up with a headline like, “Dogs Learn Faster with Less Training!” We might assume from such a title that in a given week, then, a dog trained only once learned more than a dog trained multiple times. Wow! But that’s not how the comparison works. As Todd puts it, “The results found that the dogs taught once or twice a week performed better than those taught every day (although obviously it took longer for them to have enough training sessions to learn the task).” Thank you for the parenthetical remark! It makes all the difference.
  • Here’s a quote from the chapter on fear that shows how Dr. Todd speaks about the dangers of aversive training. “Forcing your dog to face their fears will likely make things worse. If you have been using aversive methods to train your dog, stop, because this adds to your dog’s stress.” So calm, so matter-of-fact. The science tells us we should be living in a post-aversive training world. There just aren’t good arguments for it. Her writing regularly makes that clear without any harsh words or finger-pointing. (This in itself is an evidence-based approach.)
  • In the same chapter, she has an absolutely stunning section titled “It’s Worth Getting Help.” This section is about dealing with dog behavior problems—but also human behavior problems. She approaches both with the same gentle empathy combined with practical, evidence-based information that is typical of the whole book. I’d like to just copy the whole section for you here, but of course, I can’t do that. So see below.

Why You Should Buy This Book

  • It is a great resource. It has 280 references in it! How can she even do that and still have such a pleasant, readable book? Also, you can bet that she checked a whole lot more references than those 280! Those are the ones that made it through the “what’s most important?” filter.
  • It’s fabulously written.
  • You can win arguments. Or at the very least, have evidence at hand for many of the common ones circulating in the dog world. For instance, is somebody saying dogs shouldn’t play tug because it will make them dangerous or “dominant”? Pick up your copy. She’s got a study showing otherwise in the chapter on enrichment.
  • That unique voice. Gentle, empathetic, precise, and clear.
  • Wag is good reading during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t say this lightly. But I think it’s important to note the low-stress approach of the book. While it covers a lot of topics that are highly in contention among the different schools of training, there is none of the stress caused by discussions of these topics on social media. There is just Dr. Todd’s calm voice explaining, and not overstating, the evidence. I should note my own biases and life experience here, though. I suppose it could be stressful for someone who strongly disagrees that evidence from science should be a basis upon which we make decisions. But they probably wouldn’t be reading it in the first place. For the rest of us, it’s a way to learn about a topic we are passionate about. We can follow paths into scientific literature or just sit down and enjoy it.

Where You Can Buy the Book

Just Wow

I am a fast reader. I’m usually a gobbler. I go through several books a week. But I chose to read this book over several weeks. It was just not possible for me to read a book with so much information in it without stopping to think—a lot! And to look at the studies myself. I finally broke down and kept a Google Scholar window open on my laptop because I kept investigating the wonderful trails she laid.

One example of such a trail: dogs’ neophilia. She discusses a shelter study about dogs’ responses to old and new toys. There was some tantalizing information in there that led me to check out the study. I learned that one probable difference between novel and “used” toys is the presence or absence of the dog’s saliva. I do rotate toys—now I’ll be sure to wash them before I put them away.  So as thorough and information-packed as this book is, every paragraph is the tip of another iceberg of information about dogs! Talk about enrichment! This book is a banquet.

I try to include criticism when I review books. I want to distinguish my reviews from the paid/affiliate sort that rave about everything. But this book is deserving of rave and I’m hard put to find a flaw. At first, I thought it didn’t have an index. But silly me. It absolutely has an index! I was reading an advance copy. Indices are always created last, because of page numbering. So strike that. I’m afraid I have no criticism of this book!

As a dog blogger, I know how hard it is to write non-reactively. There are hundreds of us out there writing every day about bad-and-wrong things that catch our attention. At times I have specialized in that approach, to my dismay. Then comes this pure pearl of a book. Dr. Todd shares with us the very best practices, the best ways to give our dogs a great life, and how to help them be happy. Think about it: how many evidence-based dog books have you seen with the word “happy” in the title? Not just exercised, not just well-fed, not just kindly trained, not even just enriched, although those are all included. But happy. Kudos to Zazie Todd for writing the most helpful, kind, and loving book possible about dogs.

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Text (except for quotes from the book) and the dog photos copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

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Cape Town, South Africa