I always like it whenever science backs up something that I’ve known for years, and that was why I was very excited this week to start up a new project with the audiobook company Audible.
After a study with a hundred dogs, the findings suggest that leaving a virtual companion behind can help dogs remain calm and prevent separation anxiety.
I’ve always known the power of the human voice as a calming influence, especially on our dogs — but that’s because, even as a little kid in Mexico in the 1970s, I had audiobooks around.
Of course, those audiobooks didn’t come through a fancy device connected to the Internet. No — before I knew how to read, my audiobook was my mom. And while my grandfather didn’t read literal books to me, he did read to me from the book Nature — his story wasn’t written in words, but it was just as moving as anything made up by a writer.
Listening to them did help me stay calm as a child, and I noticed the same thing reading to my own sons when they were little. And it works between kids and dogs, too. Shelters have found that having children read to dogs has helped them relax and be calmer, which translates into a greater likelihood of being adopted.
The key point is that, for humans, our primary means of communication is our voice, and we invest a lot of our energy into what we say and how we say it. We may not be aware of it, but our dogs are. And even though they probably can’t understand most of the words, they can understand the intention.
The reason for this is that dogs have evolved to be incredibly in tune with us, and they can pick up all of those unspoken clues hidden behind the words. To them, it isn’t what we say, but how we say it.
If you want proof of that, go to an online random sentence generator, and then read the results out loud to your dog but try playing with your energy and intention behind it. Say it excited, say it sad, say it like a question, and watch how your dog’s reaction changes.
This is essentially what we did with the Audible experiment, testing lots of different voices with dogs, trying varying genders and nationalities, and using narrators who simply read the words as well as those who played characters.
What seemed the most important was the same thing that moved me about the stories my mother used to read to me — the human touch. Even without us present, dogs are still in tune with what the sound of our voices brings to them, and they find it a comforting presence.
Ideally, we could all learn how to make this a two-way street, so that we would be as sensitive to what our dogs are telling us as they are to what we’re telling them — and be a lot more aware of what we’re actually saying to our dogs.
After all, sending the wrong message before leaving the house is one of the biggest causes of separation anxiety to begin with. An awareness of that, combined with a calming solution like an audiobook, can go a long way toward solving the problem and take the anxiety out of the separation.
And who knows? Your dog may even learn something while you’re gone.
Stay calm, and keep your dogs that way, too!