“I like animals better than people”

If you’ve ever said something like that, or even thought it, then this post is for you. I’ve heard that sentiment a lot over the years. (Perhaps it’s an occupational ‘hazard’ for a vet.) I’ve even said it myself — and I’m not the only vet who feels this way. In fact, I suspect that there are many of us… Not long after graduating from vet school, I did a locum (fill-in) job for a vet who scandalised my young mind at the time when he told me that he wanted to hack a path through the jungle, build himself a little house, and then let the path grow over behind him. More recently, a vet friend fantasised out loud about having a moat around her house, filled with crocodiles. I joked that all she needed to perfect the picture is an air patrol of pterodactyls. Naughty me! 🤣

Animals make sense to me (even crocodiles and pterodactyls), because they remind me of Popeye when he said, “I am what I am.” (Well, it sounded more like “I yam what I yam” when he said it 😆)

Animals are what they are; no pretence, no dissembling, no false flattery, no lies. While individuals have their own personalities and their own life experiences which may dictate their specific responses in various situations, you can still expect a horse to act like a horse, a dog to act like a dog, a chicken to act like a chicken, and so on. Humans, on the other hand, are baffling to me. Just baffling! I love Agatha Christie novels because Agatha is an absolute master at exploring and explaining why people say and do the things they say and do. Same goes for Jane Austen; she cut through all the costumes and customs to the nature of the people beneath, complete with all the confusions and contradictions that mark our species.

For many years I thought of myself and others like me (who prefer animals to people) as misanthropes. I was also led to believe that my dislike of people (or, at least, of what they say and do) must mean that I dislike myself, and that I must be damaged or deficient in some way. But that’s simply not true. I don’t hate humans (the basic definition of misanthropy), I don’t mean anyone harm, and I like myself and enjoy my own company. In addition, I have friends and family whom I like; some I even love. So, misanthropy is not the right label for at least this one person who prefers animals to people.

Perhaps some of us are genuinely misanthropic. But speaking for myself, and I suspect for all of the people I’ve known who have expressed that title sentiment, I think each of us is simply what clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr Elaine Aron, describes as a highly sensitive person. If that’s so, then it’s rather important for us to control the amount and type of disturbing stimuli in our field of view and experience, even when (and perhaps especially when) it involves what other people say and do.

As I’ve matured, I’ve discovered for myself that it’s perfectly fine to prefer animals to people, given how screwed up people are as a group — i.e., our profoundly dysfunctional society. But it’s equally important for me to find a place of equanimity about other people. Letting people be whoever they are is essential for my health and well-being, for my peace of mind and my creativity and enjoyment of life. After all, I can’t change anyone but myself; it’s pointless to even try.

Sorry, Babs, but I must disagree: people who need people are not the luckiest people in the world; they’re tragic! 🤣 It’s we people who need animals in our lives who are the lucky ones. Animals are who they are, simply themselves, and how refreshing that is! Some of us are lucky to have friendships with animals who love us unconditionally, and they metaphorically hold up a mirror to show us not just our weaknesses but also our strengths, not just our vulnerabilities but also our value. Who could ever doubt their essential worth who has been loved and adored by a dog?!

Spending our time in activities that make us feel good is the secret to success, because by changing our mindset from ☹️ or 😖 or 🤬 or 🤯 … to 🙂, we change our perspective so that we’re able to see possibilities we couldn’t even imagine when we’re upset by something someone said or did. We’re also able to find our way into that mysterious slipstream that I think of as ‘the way of ease’, where hard work and frustrated effort is replaced by inspired action that is a timeless and effortless joy.

Dealing with other people in our daily lives is often challenging for us highly sensitive people, and for many of us our animals, and even other people’s animals, are a balm for our troubled minds. This is not a good thing; it’s a great thing! Animals are wonderful, and they’re especially wonderful for those of us who struggle to keep our equilibrium in a profoundly disordered society.

Celebrate your ability to find your way in the rich and rewarding company of animals, and take a moment to feel sorry for those poor people who need people 🤣🤣🤣!

Equine Cushing’s Disease and Belonging

When I get a moment, I’ll write an in-depth article on the pathophysiology of equine Cushing’s disease (ECD), also known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), for my website. (It’s a fascinating topic, but rather heavy on the biochemistry… You’re welcome 😉) Here I want to talk about the metaphysical aspects of the disease, meta- being a Greek word root I’m using to mean ‘along with’ or ‘alongside’.

In my experience, an essential component of ECD is chronic social stress — in particular, a chronic lack of the sense of belonging. Another way of saying that is loneliness, but I prefer to focus on what’s needed, which is a sense of belonging, because therein lies the solution. While a lack of belonging may not cause ECD on its own, it’s certainly a contributing factor in the development and progression of the disease, and an element that’s often missing from the conventional approach to treatment (‘hormone replacement therapy’ using pergolide as a dopamine receptor agonist).

Horses are a social species. In their natural setting, wild or feral* horses live in small herds or ‘bands’, consisting of one stallion and several mares, along with their young (foals, weanlings, and yearlings). Weaning is typically a relaxed affair that occurs gradually and by mutual agreement sometime between 6 and 12 months of age. As the foals grow up, the fillies either stay in their ‘native’ herd or they go off and join another herd; the colts leave the herd, aspiring to have one of their own at some point and living together in ‘bachelor bands’ (all-male herds) in the meantime.

(* Feral horses are free-living horses who were once domestic horses or who are descended from those who were once domestic horses. For example, Australia’s brumbies are all descended from horses brought here by European settlers. Horses are not native to Australia, so we have no wild horses, as such; brumbies are properly called feral horses — although ‘wild’ sounds much more romantic 🙂)

For all that, herd life is not as idyllic as I may have made it sound. Equine interactions are often very physical, and there is plenty of fighting, particularly among the males; and for many free-living horses, the wild life is arduous and dangerous. However, the key element here is that horses are never on their own for very long. Even today, in countries where large carnivores (bears, big cats, wolves) are found, solitary horses are easy prey for predators, and this ancient vulnerability reverberates in every horse’s DNA. Togetherness is an essential survival strategy for horses, so it underpins their sense of physical and psychological (mental/emotional) well-being.

Given how most domestic horses are kept, it’s no surprise that stress-associated medical and behavioural problems are common. Here are the most common causes of social stress in horses:

  • isolation — keeping horses separated from each other, keeping just one horse, preventing horses from even seeing other horses
  • repeated disruption of social bonds — moving horses from place to place through sale or lease, relocation, boarding for training, travel for events, etc.
  • incompatible company — keeping horses together who don’t like each other, mixing horses who don’t know each other yet are expected to get along
  • bullying — bullying is a sign of systemic disorder; the entire group is stressed by bullying, not just the horses who are lowest on the ‘pecking order’
  • confinement — even in a barnful of horses, being confined to a stall or small paddock is stressful for a species designed to roam as a herd over vast areas of territory

The common thread is one of not feeling a sense of belonging or not being able to trust a sense of belonging because there is no control over one’s social situation, which may change at any time.

OK, but why would ECD be a disorder of belonging?

Unlike Cushing’s disease in humans and dogs, which is caused by a benign tumour in the pituitary gland (most common) or in one of the adrenal glands, the epicentre of the disease in horses is the hypothalamus — an area in the base of the brain that has been described as the ‘seat of emotion.’

Like the common form of Cushing’s disease in other species, the pituitary gland in horses with ECD becomes enlarged (although not by a tumour) and overproduces the hormone that directs the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, a “stress” hormone. However, the problem in horses with ECD originates not in the pituitary gland but in its master gland, the hypothalamus.

The biochemical processes involved are intricate and not what I want to focus on here. But I remember being struck when I realised that the specific pathology (dopaminergic neurodegeneration) in the hypothalamus of horses with ECD is identical to that in humans with Parkinson’s disease; it just happens in a different part of the brain (nearby, but functionally quite separate).

In Parkinson’s disease, the main pathology involves physical agency (control over one’s movement). Given the role of the hypothalamus in our experience and expression of emotions, might the main pathology of ECD be described as involving social agency (control over one’s social connections or emotional well-being)?

I first made the connection between chronic social stress and ECD with my own horse. Banjo was my first horse. We’d had horses and ponies for as long as I can remember, but I’d never had one of my own. When I was 15, I worked all summer in a factory and finally earned enough money to buy my own horse just before school started for the year. Banjo was an Australian stock horse gelding. He had one white sock, and like the horseman’s adage says, I kept him “till the end.”

If you have a horse with four white socks, send him far away.
If you have a horse with three white socks, keep him for a day.
If you have a horse with two white socks, give him to a friend.
If you have a horse with one white sock, keep him till the end.

Banjo was 7 years old when I got him, and he remained with my family until he died at 32 years of age.

Banjo in his younger years.

When he first arrived, Banjo and my sister’s pony, Reilly (a Welsh mountain pony who’d long been in residence here), fought for several months over who would lead their little herd of two. Reilly eventually one, and peace reigned. The two became inseparable — or, I should say, that Banjo was inconsolable if Reilly went out on a ride without him, and he would not stop running the fences and calling out until Reilly returned.

In hindsight, that’s a critical piece. “Herd-bound” horses are not suffering from an excess of bonding, but from a lack of stable social bonds or a lack of trust that the bonds they do have will hold (or will be honoured by us). Typically, horses are moved around many times throughout their lives, and they seldom get to remain in the same herd or stable social group for their entire lives. Some horses adapt well to these sudden changes in their social network and sudden breakage of the social bonds they’ve formed; others do not.

(I’m thinking I should write a blog post or series on the highly sensitive horse, to go along with the one on the highly sensitive dog…)

I don’t know anything about Banjo’s ‘formative’ years, but I do know that he’d been born and raised on a station outside of Biloela in central Queensland, and he ended up being sold by a horse trader in Brisbane, over 500 km from where he was born. There’s more than enough there for the fertile imagination…

Couldn’t resist throwing in another one; I just love that beautiful boy!

Eight years later, when Reilly died and was buried in the back paddock, Banjo didn’t make a sound. He stood silently over Reilly’s grave for about a week. My sister didn’t want another horse after Reilly died, so Banjo became an only-horse and remained so until he died, 17 years later. My sister kept goats instead, but eventually they too were phased out, leaving Banjo completely alone here except for his human caretakers. None of our neighbours had horses or other livestock, so it was a solitary existence for the latter part of his life.

After I graduated from vet school and moved away for work, I intended to relocate Banjo to where I was living, but by the time I felt settled enough, Banjo was a senior horse and I didn’t think the long trip from Queensland to Victoria (where I was working at the time) was wise, so he stayed put.

Staying put was a good thing for him, but knowing what I know now, I’d have made sure he had another horse or pony for company — and made sure it was someone he really liked.

Because somewhere along the way, Banjo began showing the classical signs of ECD, most notably the long, shaggy haircoat that was never shed in the spring. I’ve since seen any number of horses with ECD whose social situations I’d describe as “less than ideal.” Whenever their person has been able to improve the patient’s social situation by ensuring compatible company in a stable ‘herd’ (even if only a herd of two), the disease has been far easier to manage. And whenever I can intervene early enough in the process, the disease is reversible.

If I’m right, this disease may also be preventable. We used to think that, as ECD is a disease of old horses, every horse would develop pituitary gland dysfunction if s/he lived long enough. But those assumptions have been debunked. Equine Cushing’s disease is not just a disease of old horses; while most horses showing signs of ECD are in their late teens or older, ECD has been diagnosed in young adult horses. In addition, not all senior horses develop ECD nor even any laboratory evidence of pituitary dysfunction. Only some horses develop ECD.

Why only some horses, and why them? No doubt, genetic predisposition and management factors are the two big players. Within ‘management’ as a category, diet is hugely important. The microscopic lesion associated with ECD appears to be caused by chronic oxidative damage to the dopamine-secreting nerve cells (dopaminergic neurons) in the hypothalamus that control the intermediate part of the pituitary gland (the pars intermedia). So while the pathology is described as dopaminergic neurodegeneration, it is also described as oxidative neurodegeneration. A diet rich in antioxidants is an important component of both prevention and treatment. I have a lot more to say about dietary management, but that’s for another time.

An equally important component of ‘management’ is housing and turnout, particularly whether horses are kept separate or in groups, and whether those groups are stable and congenial or often-changing and not always congenial. Although few of us want to keep horses in an entirely natural way (roving band of stallion, mares, and their young offspring), the closer we can get to the core element — belonging to a stable, compatible group — the healthier our horses will be.

Life is characterised by change. Our lives will always include comings and goings, and occasional discord; the same is true for our horses. But change is far less disruptive and distressing when we enjoy a solid sense of belonging. Simply by realising our horses’ elemental need for each other and by respecting the social bonds they’ve formed with each other, we’ll do a far better job of serving their interests and meeting their needs. Then it’s far easier to get and keep them healthy.

Pollyanna and the art of seeing the whole picture

Have you ever been accused of being “a Pollyanna”? As in, “Oh, don’t be a Pollyanna!” Or “you’re such a Pollyanna!” Or worse, have you ever heard yourself say, “I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, but…”

OK, so the young Hayley Mills’ depiction of Pollyanna makes me want to slap the girl, but that ungracious (and wholly warranted 😉) impulse aside, I want to make the case for being a Pollyanna.

It’s clear to me that anyone who has a negative view of Pollyanna (and being “a Pollyanna” — Pollyanna-ism!) has never read the book or seen a faithful (i.e., unsentimental) screen adaptation of the story. Because if they had, they’d know what it was really about:

The Glad Game.

Before he died (and left her an orphan), Pollyanna’s father taught her the Glad game, which basically goes like this: anytime something bad happens, say to yourself, “even though [this bad thing] has happened, I’m glad that…” and then start naming some things you’re glad about. Before long, you’re starting to feel a bit better, and you start to get some perspective — and you start to see solutions that might not have even occurred to you in your ‘pre-glad’ state.

In other words, the Glad game is an acknowledgement that, yes, a bad thing has happened, and it may even be awful; but good things are happening, too — all at the same time.

The Glad game is about practicing the art of seeing the whole picture. It’s also about where you place your focus: on just the bad thing that’s happened or on the whole picture, including all the good things, which usually far outnumber the bad.

When you start playing the Glad game with animals, funny things happen… Whether it be a physical problem or a behavioural issue, it’s remarkable what happens when you start naming some things that are going right: you start to see more things that are going right. And when you start looking for the improvements that you want to see, you start to see them.

For example, when you start (gently and inquisitively) looking for good behaviour in an animal who’s been behaving badly (according to our preferences, at least), the animal starts behaving better. (The key here is gentle and inquisitive attention or curiosity; as the Buddhists would say, ‘nonattachment’ to any particular outcome.) Perhaps the behaviour is just a little bit better at first, but if you keep looking for good behaviour, and keep rewarding the little bit that you see, the animal offers more and more of the behaviour you want, and less and less of the behaviour you don’t want.

Is this merely an example of reward-based training or is the animal actively participating in improving the relationship between us?

Are we making things happen or simply noticing that they’ve already happened, that they were already there? Perhaps it’s both. The seeds of change were always there, but they may have needed a little encouragement to germinate and grow.

Either way, the change starts with us.

And it starts with us choosing to see the whole picture, rather than focusing just on what’s wrong.

Stories: quantum entanglement in the shower

For me, there’s something magical about the shower. It seems to act as some sort of portal between the seen and the unseen. (I’m kidding, of course. The shower is simply where my mind is usually most relaxed yet alert — most receptive, in other words.) The shower is one of the places where I get my best ideas, solve my thorniest problems, and have my greatest insights; and the shower was where I had my first direct experience of ‘quantum entanglement’ and a brilliant example of how interconnected we all are.

When I was a kid, there was a Chinese man who went to our church, called Sing Poi Hung. He was a tall, thin, quiet man who was married (as they do) to a very outgoing woman of generous nature and proportions. Mrs Hung featured prominently in my childhood, as she was an opera singer (married to a Chinese man — an oddity in himself) and she sang in our church choir, as did my mum. And for awhile, Mrs Hung gave me and my brother elocution lessons in her beautiful home, which was filled with all sorts of exotic furniture and artefacts. (I remember standing in her living room and reciting, with perfect diction, “Cats sleep anywhere; any table, any chair…”; and my brother’s favourite, the Tortoise’s Lament, “I’m tired of grass and cabbage leaves; I really am. I want ice-cream and ginger nut and strawberry jam.” Ah, the things that stay with us…)

The Hungs had two lovely boys, both a bit younger than me, but both very delightful. Mrs Hung and the boys were foremost in our experience of church and school life; Sing Poi, as everyone called him, remained very much in the background, an inscrutable Oriental curiosity to us little Aussie kids, with our fair skin, our freckled faces, and our completely Aussie outlook on life. Sing Poi was kind and he often had a bemused smile on his face, his eyes crinkled with silent laughter, but he said very little. In fact, I can’t recall whether he said a single word to me or even knew who I was beyond being one of the many King kids (there were six of us, and I once heard one of the adults at church say of us, “seen one King, seen ’em all”). In other words, I did not have a close relationship with Sing Poi Hung; he was just one of the many ‘bit-players’ in my childhood, more background than foreground.

Fast-forward three decades or so. I had moved to the US in my early thirties and was living in North Carolina when one day, while I was in the shower, Sing Poi Hung popped unbidden into my mind. I hadn’t thought about him in many years, probably not since I was a teenager. It was a pleasant memory, because I had liked him, but it was gone as quickly as it had arrived. I didn’t think anything more of it until a few days later when, in her weekly email to me, mum mentioned that Sing Poi Hung had recently died. I worked backwards and discovered that he’d died in Australia at the same time as his memory popped into my mind in the US.

Many years have passed since that day. I’m now back in Australia, living once again in my childhood home, and I still think of that experience with wonder and curiosity. For one thing, it makes me wonder whether my friends in the US can somehow feel ‘a ripple in the ether’ or if they spontaneously think of me whenever I think of them (and vice versa). If the passing of a childhood acquaintance could be felt by me all the way across the world, how much more influence might the loving thoughts of friends and family have, no matter the gap of space and time?

Might this be the sort of thing Rupert Sheldrake was describing in his book, Dogs that know when their owners are coming home, and other unexplained powers of animals? If so, then the thoughts we have of our animals when we’re away from them may well be experienced by them in some way. If so, then we could put our thoughts to good use by helping our animals feel safe and loved. Instead of worrying about whether they’re OK (and thus sending them worrying ‘vibes’), think of them with love and affection, and joyful anticipation of when you’re home with them again.

What have you got to lose? If nothing else, it’ll change your thoughts from worry to something far better for you. 🙂

Stories: Miss Lilly takes her time

Time is something that has tyrannised me for pretty much my whole life. “Hurry up!” “Wait!” “Don’t be late!” As a result, I hate to keep people waiting, and I hate to be kept waiting.

Miss Lilly didn’t bother with all that nonsense. She could move with lightning speed when she wanted; but she was just as good at going slow, or not moving at all. On our walks, I would usually go too quickly for her and I’d get impatient when she’d want to take her time and sniff every square inch of the way, veer off down a different trail, or ‘go bush’. And heaven help us if we happened upon a site where another dog had peed! We’d be there for hours (well, in my sense of time, anyway).

Most maddening was when she’d stand at the back door, deciding whether she wanted to be inside or outside… She loved to be outside, but she hated to get rained on. That was quite the dilemma when we lived in the Seattle area, where it rained for nine months of the year and dripped off the trees for the other three.

I’d long been of the view that I should be giving her as much freedom and choice in her daily life as I could manage under the circumstances. As we had a fully fenced yard, she had the choice of being inside or outside, whichever she pleased; she knew both words, so I would routinely ask her whether she wanted to be inside or outside. We didn’t have a dog door, though, so she couldn’t just come and go as she pleased; I had to be ‘on the door’.

On several occasions, I found myself standing at the back door, holding the door open for her as the chilly, wet wind blew in, impatient for her to make up her mind. I could see her weighing her options, because she would look in at the kitchen and then out again at the rain. Her eyebrows would lift and her ears would twitch as she looked at the rain, as if she was thinking “maybe it’ll stop soon.” Our house was cosy and warm, but outside was vastly more interesting than inside.

Then it finally struck me: she was indeed considering her options, but unlike me, who was entrained to the immediate responses (and expectations of immediate response) of human communications, she was making her choice as though she had all the time in the world. No, scratch that; as if time didn’t exist. Because for her, human time didn’t exist. Dog time did, and in dog time there are only a handful times: meal time, play time, walk time, nap time, bed time, and getting out of bed time.

Over the years, Miss Lilly taught me by splendid example the importance of letting my watch battery go flat and ignoring the clock on the wall, and instead eating when I’m hungry, stopping when I’m full, resting when I’m tired, going to bed when I’m done for the day, getting up when I wake up, and so on.

I’ve been without the live-stream of Miss Lilly’s Lessons on Life for over 3 years now, and I must admit that I’ve backslidden a bit. (Miss Lilly completed her mission in 2017, at somewhere between 16 and 17 years of age.) Remembering how she’d take her time with important decisions such as inside or outside has gotten me thinking about time, and how I’ve been rushing headlong through life toward some ill-defined goal, when what I should be doing is slowing down and smelling all the great smells and exploring all the interesting things one finds along the way when we just slow down.

The curious thing is that magic happens — for example, inspiration lights on my mind like a butterfly on my shoulder — when I switch from human time to dog time…

Stories: Miss Lilly plays fetch

Years ago, when Miss Lilly was young, I was playing around with the concept of using mental imagery to communicate thoughts to animals nonverbally and nonphysically. (Do you see me trying to wriggle out of using the word ‘telepathy’? 😉) I don’t recall exactly what I was reading at the time, but it was around about when I read The Field by Lynne McTaggart.

As well-loved dogs tend to do, Miss Lilly had a toy basket that was full of all sorts of dog toys. (Yes, I was one of those dog owners! 😂) One was a rubber ball, a little larger than a tennis ball, that had the pentagonal soccer-ball pattern on its surface, only it was orange-and-white instead of black-and-white. To her, there was nothing particularly remarkable about it; the ball had a good ‘mouth feel’ (i.e., it fit well in her mouth and it was fun to chew), but it wasn’t her favourite toy, by any means. She’d only play with it if I got it out and threw it for her.

She was no good at playing fetch; she just didn’t see the point! She loved to chase things — live things, in particular. But I think she reasoned that if I’d thrown the ball away, I must not want it anymore, so she wouldn’t bring it back.

So, that’s the background to my experiment, which began with me sitting on the sofa and holding out my right hand such that my palm was up and my hand formed a soft cup. I rested my elbow on my knee so that I could keep my hand in place, at Lilly height, for as long as it took. The toy basket was on the floor, to the left of the sofa from where I sat, and the orange-and-white ball was sitting near the top, in amongst her various other toys.

Miss Lilly, ever interested in what I was doing, was sitting on the floor in front of me. I imagined her going to the toy basket, selecting that particular ball from everything else that was in the basket, and then bringing it over and placing it in my outstretched hand.

Can you imagine what happened next?

Nothing. She just sat there, looking at me expectantly. Undeterred, I kept playing my little ‘mental movie’ of what I would like her to do, with no particular thought in mind other than “wouldn’t it be fun if Miss Lilly went to the basket, got that ball, and put it in my hand.”

After a minute or so (although it felt like hours), Miss Lilly got bored and walked away. I got discouraged and stopped for a bit. Then I figured that I had nothing better to do, and I would really like to crack this nut, so I began again.

Miss Lilly came back and stood in front of me again, but this time she was watching me intently. I just kept running my mental movie, with no particular urgency or need for anything to happen; I simply thought it would be wonderful if she acted out my mental movie.

After what felt like an eternity, but which was probably only another minute, Miss Lilly went to the toy basket, picked up that particular ball, and then walked over and put it in my hand, with a “well, that was too easy; what’s next?” expression on her face.

I don’t remember what we did next. I’m sure I made a big fuss of her ‘cleverness’, which would have baffled her no end. Such a simple thing to be praised for doing!

Many years have gone by since that day, and my mind is still blown by the result of that little experiment. I haven’t dared to replicate it — no doubt, for fear of failing! But ever since that day I have tried to remember to play little mental movies whenever I’m with animals. I show them what I’m planning to do or what I’d like us to do together, and I explain why whenever it would make sense to do that.

For example, I’d show Miss Lilly a little movie of us getting in the car and going to our friends’ place. She never liked travelling in the car, but she loved our friends and running wild on their farm with their dogs, so she was far more enthusiastic about getting in the car when I would show her where we were going and what we’d be doing there.

In my next Miss Lilly story, I’ll talk about the tyranny of time when operating in this way…

The highly sensitive dog

Is there a canine equivalent to the highly sensitive person (HSP)?  This term, highly sensitive person, was first coined by psychologist Dr Elaine Aron and is now called high sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) in research circles. Since reading her book (The Highly Sensitive Person), and answering an emphatic “yes!” to pretty much every question on her self-assessment test (a short version of which is available here), I’ve assumed that this phenomenon occurs in animals as well.

(Every time I read something to do with humans, I automatically wonder whether it’s applicable to animals. One might politely call it an occupational tic; the truth is that I’m more interested in animals than in people 🙂 )

When I read that 15–20% of the human population is considered to be highly sensitive, a roughly equal proportion to have very low sensitivity, and the majority to lie somewhere in between, I immediately thought that this breakdown probably holds true for animals as well. The research in many different species, from insects to fish to primates, has at least identified animals at both ends of the sensitivity spectrum (high or low sensitivity; “timid/shy” or “bold”; “uptight” or “laid back”).

I would add that, in my experience, some species (e.g., horses) are inherently more sensitive than other species; some breeds within a species (e.g., Arabian horses) are inherently more sensitive than other breeds; some family lines (here I won’t name names) within a breed are inherently more sensitive than others; and some individuals within those family lines are inherently more sensitive than others. But I digress…

So, is there such a thing as the highly sensitive dog (HSD)?  If so, what might that look like?  What behavioural traits might these dogs share or exhibit more than other dogs that we could recognise as group characteristics?

When I read Dr Aron’s checklist for parents of highly sensitive children, I was struck by how very well it translates to some dogs I’ve known, and especially to one I lived with for 15 years who was very sensitive to loud noises such as thunder, fireworks, and gunshots until she developed hearing loss in old age. (We’ll circle back to this particular profile in a minute.)

That’s all well and good, but such checklists are quite subjective. Is there any objective evidence for the existence of the ‘HSD’ or for any specific behaviours we might consider characteristic of such dogs?

Yes, there is.

Researchers in the Department of Veterinary Biosciences at the University of Helsinki, Finland, recently published a study which identified a likely genetic basis for two specific types of anxiety in dogs: noise sensitivity and fearfulness toward strange people or situations.

Here is a link to the paper, which was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry because of its implications for similar “neuropsychiatric disorders” in people. (Their words, not mine. The human research on HSP or SPS indicates that while HSPs may suffer more from anxiety in this culture that overemphasises the value of the highly insensitive individual, anxiety is not a characteristic of the HSP. Furthermore, high sensory-processing sensitivity is not considered a neuropsychiatric disorder, but rather a behavioural trait shared by a small but significant proportion of the population.)

The study

In brief, the researchers took blood samples from 330 German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) and used a canine whole-genome tool to look for specific genetic differences among the following groups, as identified by owner responses to a behavioural questionnaire:

  1. Noise Sensitivity (NS) group — dogs who are reactive to loud noises (thunder, fireworks, gunshots); 91 dogs
  2. Fear Reaction (FR) group — dogs who react fearfully toward strangers or new situations; 80 dogs
  3. ‘Control’ group — normal dogs, those who are not noise sensitive (NS Control; 210 dogs) or fearful (FR Control; 193 dogs, 180 of whom were also used for the NS Control group)

Reaction to loud noises included one or more of the following: salivation, defaecation, urination, destroying, escaping, panting, hiding, trembling, vocalising, freezing, holding the tail low or between the hind legs, and/or getting excited and barking when hearing thunder, fireworks, or gunshots.

Reaction to strange people included one or more of the following: withdrawal, barking or growling (with or without going toward the person), not willing to make contact, staying close to the owner (but not under any command), holding the tail low or between the hind legs, and/or some other behaviour identified by the owner as specific to this situation.

Reaction to new situations or environments included one or more of the following: wanting out of the situation/environment, barking, panting, trembling, holding the tail low or between the hind legs, staying still and not wanting to explore the environment, staying close to the owner (but not under any command), walking low, and/or some other behaviour identified by the owner as specific to this situation.

It’s worth pointing out that there was some overlap between the NS and FR groups. Of the 91 dogs in the NS group, 34 dogs (37%) were also fearful. Looking at this from the other direction, 34 of the 80 dogs in the FR group (42.5%) were also noise sensitive. So, as a broad brushstroke, about 40% of the dogs in either group were both noise sensitive and fearful toward strangers or new situations. That’s a substantial proportion of these ‘reactive’ dogs (about 4 in 10), and hopefully it’s of some comfort to those whose dogs have more generalised anxiety: you’re not alone! It might also be a bit of a relief for those with noise sensitive or fearful dogs, that things could be worse: some dogs are both.

All 330 dogs lived in Finland, all were at least 1 year old, and all were privately owned (i.e., they were not purpose-bred research dogs). Most dogs were from either working or show lines (a point I want to come back to later). According to the study authors, the German Shepherd breed was chosen “for its known large variation in reacting to loud noises, strangers and novel situations (shyness–boldness personality).” I take this to mean that they felt the German Shepherd breed was a good representation of the general dog population for this genetic comparison study, as it would be easy to find individuals at both ends of the shyness–boldness spectrum within the same breed. Whether their findings are applicable to other breeds and to mixed-breed dogs remains to be seen, but it is likely to be the case — particularly in light of the fact that the authors made repeated references to similar findings in humans and to the usefulness of canine models for the study of human neuropsychiatric disorders. In other words, the authors were assuming that inferences could be made about humans, so it’s not a stretch to assume that the same conclusions may be applied to the general dog population.

This study was focused on mapping noise sensitivity and fearfulness in dogs to specific chromosomes, and to specific regions (loci, or locuses) within the chromosome that have been associated with anxiety and other neuropsychiatric disorders in people. They mapped noise sensitivity to canine chromosome 20 and to a locus that contains several ‘candidate’ genes associated with neuropsychiatric and hearing-related characteristics, including noise sensitivity/intolerance and age-related hearing loss. (That profile describes my dog to a T!)

For example, one of these ‘candidate’ genes is the oxytocin receptor gene. Oxytocin is a hormone that, together with its receptor, is involved in maternal bonding, other types of social bonding, and related stress behaviours. In dogs, this receptor is involved in human-directed social behaviour such as greeting, proximity-seeking (wanting to be near us), and friendliness. This study tells us nothing about the expression of this gene in noise-sensitive dogs; it simply suggests we look deeper at this particular gene and others at this locus that are associated with normal behaviour and with known neuropsychiatric disorders in people. It also suggests we look here for a genetic basis to age-related hearing loss.

Perhaps not surprisingly, fearfulness toward strangers and new situations was much more complex, involving several different chromosomes (most prominently, but by no means exclusively, canine chromosome 7) and several ‘candidate’ genes, notably those involved in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in humans.

I think that’s an unhelpful and potentially harmful line to draw between the two species, because it risks branding these fearful dogs as ‘crazy’ in the eyes of the general public or as having a ‘neuropsychiatric disorder’ (read ‘medication deficiency’) in professional circles.

What if these dogs are simply highly sensitive individuals — or to use the scientific term, they have high sensory-processing sensitivity?  If so, then it is probable that they are simply more easily overwhelmed by novel situations, including unfamiliar people, which is a characteristic of HSP.

Does this high sensitivity make these dogs feel a little ‘crazy’ at times?  Probably; it certainly does me. But are they ‘crazy’ dogs?  Almost certainly not. (Not to head off down a side track, but we must leave room here for individuals with brain lesions. They are not ‘crazy’ dogs, either, but they may show very abnormal behaviour. Such dogs require proper diagnostic workups and whatever medical or surgical treatment is indicated as a result.)

So, this study provides objective evidence that there is some genetic component to these behavioural problems in German Shepherd Dogs, and this conclusion probably extends to other dogs as well. But how can this information help us better manage these dogs?

stay tuned…

The highly sensitive dog, part 2

Sticking with the study data for the present, it’s worth noting that most of the dogs in the noise sensitive (NS) group were mildly or moderately noise sensitive; only some were extremely reactive (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Noise reactivity scores for the 91 dogs in the Noise Sensitivity group. The median score (orange line) was 12, where 1 is slightly reactive and 60 is extremely reactive.
(The median is the value which splits the group into equal halves, so 50% are at or above this line and the other 50% are at or below this line. Even though it looks like there are more dogs on the right side of this line, 50% of the dogs had noise reactivity scores of 12 or less.)

In other words, all 91 dogs in the NS group were identified by the behavioural questionnaire as being abnormally reactive to loud noises, but there was a wide range of reactivity within the group, and most were at the lower end of the spectrum. (Note: all of the dogs in the Control group scored a solid 0 for their Noise Reactivity Score.)

Likewise, most of the dogs in the fear reaction (FR) group were mildly or moderately fearful toward strangers or new situations; only some were extremely reactive (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Fear reaction scores for the 80 dogs in the Fear Reaction group. The median score (orange line) was 2, where 0.5 is slightly reactive and 13.5 is extremely reactive.
(The scale of the fear reaction score is very different from that of the noise reactivity score because fewer questions were asked and fewer options were available for response, so the maximum possible FR score was much lower than that for the noise reactivity score.)

In statistical terms, neither of these two groups (NS and FR) were ‘normally distributed,’ meaning that the reactivity scores did not form the classical bell curve around the average score for the group. These data and their skewed distribution suggest two things: 

  1. Whether the trigger is loud noises or strange people/situations (or both!), ‘reactive’ dogs are not a homogeneous or uniform group of ‘misfits’ or ‘maladapts’.
  2. Most reactive dogs are likely to respond well to positive training, careful management of their environments, and, when needed, behaviour-modifying therapies. Even those who are extremely reactive can become much less so with these sensitivity-aware approaches.

These two points are interrelated, so I’ll discuss them together as we head toward practical strategies for managing these dogs. Let’s start with the notion that there’s something wrong with these ‘reactive’ dogs — that they’re genetic misfits or they’ve been poorly brought up or poorly trained.

Contrary to popular opinion, our genes are not our destiny. We are constrained by our genetic inheritance, but not as much as we’ve been taught, and not as much as we might suppose by looking only at the genes which code for the relatively immutable physical characteristics such as eye colour or hair colour. (That said, eye colour can change, particularly with disease; and as anyone over the age of about 30 can attest, hair colour changes over time. But I digress…) We remain physiologically and psychologically adaptable throughout life; this is a characteristic of all biological systems, and it’s where the rather brutalist saying “adapt or die” originates.

The activity of many — in fact, most — of our genes is very ‘fluid’ and contextual (depends on the context). Our systems are constantly perceiving and responding to our environments, inside and out, even while we sleep. Through this ability of our genes to alter their expression according to circumstances, our systems are both responsive (short-term) and adaptive (long-term) throughout our lifetimes.

In practical terms, while you may have a highly sensitive dog, the expression of that sensitivity can vary. It can be heightened by negative experiences (including punishment for reactivity), and it can be lessened by positive experiences (including praise for remaining calm). For example, noise-sensitive dogs will still be sensitive to loud noises, but the degree to which they are distressed and therefore react to loud noises can be lessened.

A useful concept here is the expanded definition of stress as being either eustress (‘good’ stress) or distress (‘bad’ stress). With eustress, the stressful event or situation is of a low enough intensity or duration that we are able to respond to it without harm, and as a result we adapt, thereby increasing our capacity to cope with such events or situations in the future. This type of stress is adaptive, so it may be seen as generally positive or beneficial. Distress, on the other hand, is stress of sufficient intensity or duration that it overwhelms our present capacity to respond. It may cause harm, and in so doing can actually decrease our capacity to respond and to adapt, as we hunker down in ‘defense’ mode and ride it out the best we can. The next time we encounter this stressful event or situation, we react sooner and with greater intensity, as a defensive mechanism. This type of stress is maladaptive, so it may be seen as generally negative or harmful.

High sensory-processing sensitivity has its positive aspects. For example, highly sensitive dogs generally make wonderful companions. The downside is that they are more easily overwhelmed than less sensitive dogs. The trick, then, is to manage the stresses that are inevitable in every life and ensure that, most of the time, the stress the dog experiences is eustress (tolerable, adaptive) and not distress (intolerable, maladaptive).

This Finnish study was designed, in some respects, as a canine model for human neuropsychiatric disorders. So, let’s turn that back around and take a look at these canine behavioural problems — and their possible solutions — in light of our human experience.

In my view, the essential premise of managing these highly sensitive dogs is this:

Respect your dog’s sensitivity, while gently working to reduce reactivity.

If, as this and other animal and human studies indicate, high sensory-processing sensitivity is an inherent behavioural trait rather than a disorder, then your dog will remain highly sensitive. However, your dog needn’t remain highly reactive.

Next, some practical suggestions.

The highly sensitive dog, part 3

In this third and final post of the series are some things that may help your highly sensitive dog remain more calm in stressful situations, and over time become less reactive (i.e., adapt).

1. Calm environment.

In my experience, the backdrop to managing high sensitivity is a calm environment, particularly a calm home. There can still be periods of activity that are lively and stimulating; in fact, I think there needs to be. Eustress (‘good’ stress, tolerable stimulation) is beneficial because it’s adaptive — and also because it’s the stuff of life; boredom is a kind of slow death for intelligent creatures. Home just shouldn’t be noisy and chaotic, which is to say, overstimulating and at times overwhelming for these highly sensitive dogs. (Such a home is not that good for humans, either!)

What ‘calm environment’ looks like for you and your dog will depend very much on your dog and your circumstances. Your home needn’t be like a monastery to serve your highly sensitive dog well. As a striking example of what’s possible, I have a friend who has several dogs, most of whom are highly sensitive (as a “soft” breed and as individuals). These dogs frequently go to group classes at a dog training centre, to dog shows, even some big national events, and to hospital and hospice facilities as therapy dogs. While their home is often lively and stimulating (it’s full of dogs, so how could it be otherwise?!), it’s seldom noisy or chaotic, and never so for very long. These dogs thrive because they are all well loved and well respected as individuals, and their person takes care that none of her dogs are overstimulated or overwhelmed for very long. These dogs are also well trained and know what’s expected of them. These are all points I’ll touch on again later.

Each dog is unique in its genetic inheritance and life history, and so is each person, so you’re the best person to figure out what works best for your dog. Incidentally, you may find that changes you make for your dog’s sake also benefit you and/or other family members, even if you’re not a highly sensitive person yourself (although chances are, if you’ve read this far, you are 🙂 ).

2. Social bonds.

Dogs are a highly social species, as are we, so when we keep dogs as pets, particularly a single dog, we become our dog’s primary or sole means of social connection and support; in essence, we become the dog’s family. Respecting the social bonds our dogs have with us, and making sure that love and respect flow freely in both directions, is just as important as providing a calm environment, because social isolation is to the psyche what oxygen deprivation is to the body.

A sense of security that’s rooted in a sense of belonging may be more important to the health and well-being of these highly sensitive dogs than we might like to think with our busy lives. This Finnish study obliquely referenced social bonds in its finding about the oxytocin receptor gene, but there is much more to be learned here. In the meantime, I think we can safely assume that a calm environment is a rather bleak landscape in the absence of stable, loving social bonds. It’d be a bit like living in a library… (might sound idyllic at first, but before too long…).

Viewed in this light, separation anxiety is not a neurosis; it’s simply a reaction to social isolation in a highly social species. It’s a distress call, not a disorder. It’s a deficiency of stable social bonds, not of anti-anxiety medication. Of course, not all dogs left alone all day exhibit separation anxiety — but that’s my whole ‘thesis’: if high sensitivity is a behavioural trait, expressed by a small but significant proportion of the population, then it’s best seen and managed as a normal variant, not a neurosis. Separation anxiety is completely understandable when the highly sensitive dog is entirely dependent on you, when you are the dog’s entire social support system. (While we’re at it, any dog left home alone all day is probably experiencing some degree of social stress. To what extent, and with what outward signs, depends on the dog, and probably on where the dog lies on the sensitivity scale I propose exists in dogs as it does in people.)

As kooky as it may sound, I always made a point of talking to my dog. (I’m currently in the strange, airless limbo of a dogless state, which is why I keep using the past tense when I talk about my dog.) When I had to go out and leave her at home, I’d tell her where I was going, why I had to go out, and approximately how long I’d be gone or when I’d be back. I would also tell her when guests were coming over, how many there’d be, how long they’d be staying, and so on. Same for when we went anywhere in the car (which she never liked).

I know she didn’t understand most of the words, but that wasn’t the point; she always seemed to understand what lay beneath them. (I would also make sure I held a picture in my mind or ran a little mental movie of what I was saying; but that’s a story for another time.)

Being a highly social species, dogs are highly adept at nonverbal communication among their social group — a skill most humans have long since abandoned or left to wither in favour of words. Your dog reads you like a book, so don’t try to bluff your way through with words or gestures that don’t match how you’re really feeling. Just be honest with your dog (if no-one else). It’s pointless trying to be any other way with a dog; and with a highly sensitive dog, the dissonance between what you think you’re conveying and what you’re actually projecting can be very unsettling for the dog.

Talking to your dog will help you get clear about what you want or what’s happening, which is important because we spend so much of our lives scattered (“multi-tasking”) and unfocused, churning over the past, fretting about the future, and never quite in the present or never here for very long. How can communication be clear and effective when the message is garbled?  So, talking to our dogs about what we expect of them, what’s planned for the day or simply for the next hour or two, what we do or don’t like about what they just did, etc. helps us get clear, which then helps our dogs feel more secure. From the dog’s perspective, home feels like a safer place when you know what’s going on and what’s expected of you. Distracted people are stressful to be around for these highly sensitive dogs.

While we’re at it, make sure to include and consider your dog during human gatherings that occur in your dog’s home or that you participate in elsewhere with your dog (e.g., picnics, hikes). It really bugs me to see people ignoring or only briefly and superficially acknowledging a dog’s greeting whenever there is another human around. We so readily default to verbal communication and ignore all else, including our dogs. We quite literally talk over the dog’s head and ignore the genuine, heartfelt, and necessary social interaction the dog is trying to have with us, which almost always takes longer than the perfunctory greeting we may give each other or the brief pat on the head we may give a dog. Perhaps it’s just because I prefer the company of dogs to most humans, but I make a point of acknowledging the dog’s greeting and stay with it until the dog has said all he wants to say and then moves on to the next person or the next thing that takes his interest. Talk to your dog — and listen attentively when the dog ‘talks’ back.

One other strategy related to social bonds is the use of dog-appeasing pheromone products, such as Adaptil [TM]. These products release a synthetic form of the natural hormone that mother dogs exude which helps keep their pups calm and well bonded with her. These products can work well in concert with the other strategies discussed here, although on their own they’re unlikely to be adequate.

In short, respect the social bonds between your dog and you, and prioritise a sense of safety and belonging through these bonds. This bond is also a necessary part of the next strategy for helping your dog cope better with the various stresses of life.

3. Positive training.

This strategy is about providing opportunities for your dog to experience new or otherwise stressful things incrementally (stepwise), in a safe and supportive environment, with lots of praise for calm behaviour. Put another way, the goal is to work with the adaptability of the system to gradually increase your dog’s capacity to cope with the ordinary stresses of life and with the occasional overwhelming ones as well. It’s important to stay within the current limits of what’s tolerated, while gently nudging up against the boundaries to gradually expand them. (It’s essentially the same principle as that used in sensible physical fitness training.)

As I mentioned in the first post on this topic, most of the dogs in this Finnish study were from working or show lines — two very different but both very demanding and stressful disciplines for dogs. This study didn’t examine the effects the humans (breeder, owner, trainer, handler) may have had on the dog’s early development, socialisation, and response to stimuli — i.e., on learned behaviour surrounding loud noises or strange people/situations. That wasn’t its purpose, so I don’t fault the researchers. It’s just that upbringing and experience matter — alot, as it turns out.

Two central themes are prevalent in the recent research on the highly sensitive person (HSP) or sensory-processing sensitivity in people. The first is the “differential susceptibility” in HSPs compared with less sensitive people. Simply put, while HSPs may suffer more than less sensitive people in response to negative stimuli (whether physical or mental/emotional), they benefit to a much greater degree from positive stimuli. That’s probably because HSPs process information more deeply than less sensitive people do, so positive stimuli have a greater calming and uplifting effect in HSPs. I wonder, too, whether they might also have a greater adaptive effect.

If the same is true in dogs, then even small improvements in the dog’s home environment, the strength and stability of social bonds, and the use of positive training that emphasises praise for good behaviour (rather than punishment for bad behaviour) are likely to yield much better results in highly sensitive dogs than in less sensitive dogs. In other words, there’s a bigger payoff for every positive change you can make to your dog’s environment and daily experience. Now, that’s worth celebrating!

The second theme of the HSP research is how important the parent’s, and particularly the mother’s, influence is on the highly sensitive child, for bad and for good. I don’t subscribe to the practice of infantilising dogs by using such terms as “pet parents” for their owners (legal term) or guardians (better but still not great). However, I think we can draw a parallel here. Because we are socially bonded with our dogs and they are reliant on us for their physical needs and psychological well-being, how we behave around and especially toward our dogs — particularly how we react when our dog reacts — makes a huge difference to how intensely our dogs react to negative stimuli, whether that be loud noises, strange people or situations, or any other specific trigger your highly sensitive dog may have.

For example, I became highly reactive when I first realised that my dog (adopted as a stray at 12–18 months of age) was dog-aggressive in certain situations. I never did figure out why she was fine with some dogs but not others, so I became very nervous and reactive about any and all encounters with dogs we didn’t know. Some went well, others didn’t, but in every case my anticipation of trouble didn’t help matters, and my reactiveness only served to amplify the problem in the moment and make such problems more likely in the future.

In one important study of HSPs, mindfulness — the simple practice of keeping your mind in the present — significantly reduced anxiety in HSPs. It certainly works for me in my personal life. In my professional life, I think I accidentally bumbled into adopting this approach when working with nervous horses. If there’s one species that’ll give you instant feedback on your own state of mind, it’s the horse! So, I can attest to the usefulness of this simple practice with horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, goats, chickens (‘chooks’) — you name it.

I’m speaking to myself as well here when I say that the way to help your highly sensitive dog remain or become more calm is to focus on the present yourself. Calm yourself if needed, then talk calmly and positively to your dog, and encourage and reward calm behaviour. Remember how much more responsive HSPs are to positive stimuli, and become a positive stimulus for your dog by using lots of praise for calm behaviour. Be consistent, and over time your dog will become less reactive.

In short, consistently praise calm behaviour, gently discourage reactive behaviour (e.g., barking or growling unnecessarily) — and while we’re at it, avoid using food as a reward! Food is food, and praise is praise; your dog doesn’t confuse the two, and neither should you.

4. Diet matters!

As goes the gut, so goes the brain. A disordered gut immediately affects mood and sensitivity (e.g., irritable bowel, irritable person), so pay particular attention to diet in your highly sensitive dog. This topic deserves its own post — a whole book, in fact — so I’ll just cover the most essential aspects here.

In particular, cut way down or cut out all starchy foods, especially grains and potatoes. The most common grains used in pet food include wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rice. They may appear on the label or in the food itself as whole grains or as flour/meal. All of these grains are high in starch, and all should be limited or cut out completely because fermentation of starch by the dog’s gut microbes can create a ‘leaky’ gut that leads to chronic inflammation and irritability. Also limit the amounts of sweet potatoes and legumes. Although they’re not as starchy as grains and potatoes, they do contain quite a bit of starch. While it may be difficult at first, base the dog’s diet on a wide variety of meats and veggies (avoiding the starchy ones). These days, there are some very good fresh-frozen raw dog foods available in grocery stores, so they’re a good place to start.

In the short-term, avoid any foods you know from experience cause flareups of digestive, skin, anal sac, or ear problems in your dog. In time, on a healthier diet, you may be able to feed these items occasionally without problems, but until your dog is on an even keel, it’s generally best to avoid them.

Also avoid highly processed foods (which includes kibbles and canned foods), other than as the occasional naughty treat or for emergencies (e.g., keep a can of dog food in the cupboard for whenever you run out of good food). Foods containing synthetic food colouring and flavour enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) are also best avoided, as they too can cause irritability.

Lastly, for now, give the gut microbes several days to adapt before deciding that a dietary change isn’t working or before changing anything else in your dog’s diet. Respect the gut microbes, or pay the price (which ain’t pretty!).

5. Limit triggers.

This one is mostly for noise-sensitive dogs, although any highly sensitive dog may benefit from the strategies that are aimed at calming an overwrought nervous system. As a long-term plan, limiting triggers such as strange people or new situations only serves to make your dog’s, and by extension your, world smaller and more ‘dangerous’. Those anxious or fearful dogs tend to do best with positive training aimed at expanding their tolerance, and therefore their horizons.

An important distinction here is that noise-sensitive dogs may be dealing with more sensitive auditory (hearing) systems than dogs who are not abnormally reactive to loud noises. Whether the underpinnings are structural or functional (or both), protecting the auditory system from potentially damaging frequencies or intensities of sound can help with the dog’s reactivity to loud noises and it may reduce the incidence or pace of age-related hearing loss in noise-sensitive dogs. (I said “may” because this Finnish study only posits a genetic connection between noise sensitivity and age-related hearing loss in dogs.)

Here are some things that may be useful in noise-sensitive dogs before or during thunderstorms, fireworks, and other noisy events:

* Ear plugs, such as a cotton ball in each of the dog’s ears. Lightly smear one side of the cotton ball with Vaseline so that it forms a better seal and makes it easier for you to remove the cotton ball later. If your dog objects, don’t force the issue; just draw a line through this one.

The goal is not to obliterate all sounds; just to lessen the intensity of the short-sharp sounds (thunder claps, explosions from fireworks or gunshots, pneumatic nail guns) that are so disturbing to noise-sensitive dogs.

* Basement or other ‘quiet’ room that reduces the intensity of outside noises. Again, the goal is simply to lessen the intensity of the offending sounds. Combined with positive training (e.g., praise for remaining calm or being less reactive than usual), sound attenuation with ear plugs or quiet room may help a great deal.

* Body wrap, such as a Thunder Shirt (snugly fitted vest) or home-made wrap. This is the solution that worked the best for my own very noise-sensitive dog. Rather than buying one of the vests, I dug out a couple of old stable bandages (leg wraps for horses) and wrapped them around her body as snugly as I could (see photos).

Applying a home-made ‘thunder wrap’ (an old stable bandage, wrapped snugly around Miss Lilly’s chest).
The completed thunder wrap, composed of two stable bandages (as one was not quite long enough for Miss Lilly’s body).

I would do this before dark on a night when fireworks were scheduled and also when a thunderstorm was forecast or already on the horizon. I’d leave it on her until the noisy event was over; sometimes it stayed on all night, although often by morning she was wearing it as skirt. It didn’t matter, because as soon as the wrap was on, she’d settle down and even curl up and sleep through the storm or an entire 4th of July extravaganza. Amazing, given how noise-sensitive she was!

This quick, simple, inexpensive, washable, reusable wrap worked very well for us, even when I didn’t manage to get it on her until she was already pacing and panting because she’d heard the storm coming long before I did, or because some idiot had been exercising his “2nd-amendment rights” (to be a gun-toting idiot). But I digress…

That raises an important point about any and all methods for calming your dog: they work better when started before the stressful event rather than during or after the event is well under way. All is not lost if you miss that window of opportunity, but make the most of it when you can.

Wrapping the body snugly, particularly the chest, is a technique that’s used in humans for calming the nervous system. There’s even a line of “calmwear” originally designed for autistic children. The premise is that applying uniform pressure to the body surface and underlying muscles reduces sensory input to the sympathetic trunk — a main highway, as it were, which connects the spinal nerves up and down the body, alongside the spine. These nerves belong to the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is best known for mediating the “fight or flight” response to danger, whether real or perceived. In highly sensitive individuals, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is chronically on high-alert unless careful attention has been paid to creating and maintaining a calm environment, stable and loving social bonds, positive training (in people, self-training such as mindfulness), and a healthy diet.

A third f-word that’s often added to that response is “freeze.” Animals (and people) may also freeze or remain still in the face of overwhelming stress, neither fighting nor flying/fleeing. You may have noticed that “freezing,” “staying still,” and “staying close to the owner” are behaviours used in the Finnish study as being common reactions in noise-sensitive or fearful dogs. Not all overwhelmed dogs act out; sometimes they act ‘in’, which is also a trait of HSPs.

Before moving on to the next and final strategy, I want to say a few words about leaving a radio on in the background for animals. In my considered opinion, it’s not particularly useful. Dogs don’t seem to identify voices coming from a radio as being human — or, at least, not of the people they know and love. So for dogs, the radio is likely to be just more noise. Most of the time they’ll simply tune it out if the volume is low, so it’s fairly benign. However, it’s not a good thing if you’re relying on the radio instead of making more difficult but vastly more meaningful changes in your dog’s daily life (e.g., more time spent with you).

6. (Phyto)pharmaceutical help.

I’ve left this one until last because I think it carries the greatest potential for misuse. There is a place for sedative herbs and anti-anxiety medications, but neither category (plant-based [phyto-] or conventional pharmaceuticals) should be used in place of strategies 1–5. In addition, their need is greatly reduced when these other strategies are implemented with diligence and care.

Medication use falls under the veterinary-client-patient relationship, so I’ll say no more about it here, other than to make one comment about fluoxetine (‘Prozac’). Please resist the temptation to go this route unless the only alternative is rehoming the dog. Fluoxetine is not a magic pill; it’s only a partial solution, its side effects (insomnia, restlessness, agitation, hyperactivity, and panic attacks, not to mention vomiting, diarrhoea, and seizures) can be worse than the behaviour itself, it’s expensive, and getting the dog off it can be difficult. No medication, including this one, is a good substitute for addressing the underlying reason for the unwanted behaviour.

There are many different herbs with calming properties, and too many such products to list. I’ll add flower essences and essential oils here, although one could argue that they are distinctly different from herbal medicine. Sometimes these plant-based therapies are helpful, other times not. Typically, they’re unhelpful when they’re used as the first or only line of treatment.

One notable exception is a group of herbs called adaptogens. In brief, adaptogenic herbs act as very mild biochemical stressors that stimulate a broadly adaptive response (hence the name, adaptogen). I could write an entire post about them, and perhaps I will at some point. In the meantime, here are my favourite adaptogenic herbs: Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Asian or American ginseng (Panax species), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), schizandra (Schisandra chinensis), and maral root (Rhaponticum carthamoides). Of these, rhodiola may be the most interesting for these dogs because of its moderating effects on cortisol production by the adrenal glands. (Cortisol is a principal ‘stress’ hormone.)

Adaptogenic herbs are a good place to finish this (very long) blog post, because they encapsulate my approach to dealing with highly sensitive animals:

Change what you can, and help the animal cope better with the rest.

You won’t be able to change everything, and you won’t always get it right. Just change what you can, and help your dog cope better with the rest.

[I’ll probably continue to work on this post, so if you come back to this blog and the text is slightly changed, it’s because I’ve thought of something I wanted to add or some way I could have said something better. I also want to add a brief note on homeopathy and other forms of energy medicine for highly sensitive dogs. Stay tuned…]