Thursday, August 10, 2017

Barking dog? There's an audiobook for that -- Aug. 10, 2017 column


With all the saber-rattling between the United States and North Korea, I almost couldn’t hear the dogs next door barking. Almost.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Americans should sleep well at night, untroubled by the escalating rhetoric over nukes, but I doubt he’s ever tried to relax to the noise of yapping dogs.  

My neighbor Paul has two sweet dogs, three if you count the long-term lodger, but they bark a lot, especially when he’s out.

Naturally, I was more than a little interested in the news this week from Amazon.  
Amazon-owned Audible – a digital book-listening service whose slogan is “You don’t just listen to an Audible book, you feel it” -- launched an audiobooks for dogs service, Audible for Dogs. It more accurately could be called Guilt Begone.

“I’m always looking for ways where people don’t feel guilty, worried or stressed when they leave their dogs alone,” dog behaviorist Cesar Millan told USA Today. Millan, known as the “Dog Whisperer,” “curated” a list of human audiobooks he says will help calm a pup who’s left home alone.

Among the titles: Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” and Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” They’re not all classics, though. The bestseller “Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah is also on the list.

All this may seem preposterous to cat owners, but separation anxiety is no laughing matter for dog owners. Stressed pups may bark excessively, howl, tear up furniture, relieve themselves in the house and become depressed.

Many dog owners just switch on the radio when they leave home and hope for the best, but Audible cites an academic study from the United Kingdom that found dogs actually prefer an audio book to music. Really?

The 2015 paper from Hartbury College in the west of England titled, “The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs at rehoming kennels,” studied the reactions of 31 dogs at a pet shelter to an audiobook, classical, pop and “psychoacoustically designed dog music” and a control condition with no special auditory sounds.

Researchers played two hours of auditory stimulation at normal conversational volume from 10 a.m. to noon one day with two days between treatments to avoid overstimulation. Dogs were also exposed to normal kennel sounds of dogs barking and staff talking.

The audiobook was C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” book two of the children’s classic fantasy “Chronicles of Narnia.” The British researchers deemed it “popular amongst humans and appropriate for all ages, therefore is suitable for a range of environments.”

Video cameras recorded the dogs’ behavior in the various settings every five minutes.

The result: “Audiobooks resulted in dogs spending more of their time resting or sleeping than any of the other auditory conditions. Dogs also spent less time sitting or standing when exposed to audiobooks compared to all other conditions,” the report said.

What about barking? There was no difference between dogs in the control situation – with no special auditory stimulation at all – and those listening to audiobooks.  

But among auditory stimulants, the audiobook was the most effective, even better than classical music, in reducing barking. This was surprising because earlier tests showed classical music effective in calming a variety of creatures, including chickens, dogs in kennels, elephants and gorillas.

At his dog behavior center in Los Angeles, Millan also tested audiobooks on 100 volunteer dogs for 30 days and wrote “Cesar Millan’s Guide to Audiobooks for Dogs.” 

Gender, energy and consistency are important in choosing audiobooks for dogs, he says. For example, audiobooks seem more effective if the reader is the same gender as the primary owner. 

Leslie, a dog owner who participated in Millan’s study with her 9-year-old dog Buddy, said when she had to leave Buddy alone before, she felt “guilty with a capital G.”

But with an audiobook playing, “I felt like I was leaving him with a friend, so it gave me a great feeling of comfort,” she said in a video on the Audible site.

I might mention dog audiobooks to Paul, who apologizes occasionally for the barking disturbance. But, frankly, it sounds as if we’d all be better off if I found audiobooks for me to listen to when the dogs bark.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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