Listen up! Renowned canine behaviorist and trainer Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB, shares practical tips for managing the sound in your shelter.
If I were a dog in a noisy kennel, I'd be the one flip-spinning in circles, or chewing my mouth bloody on the cage door. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but I'm afraid it is probably true. I am just one of those individuals who is especially sensitive to noise, and a loud and noisy environment is like hell on earth to me. It is also true that, although some individual mammals are more sound-sensitive than others, all people and all dogs are profoundly affected by the acoustic environment around them. Sound is a critically important part of any animal's environment, and that is especially true of animals who have no choice about the environment in which they live, even if just temporarily. That is why I did a webinar for ASPCApro on Canine Behavior and Acoustics, in which my primary motivation was to focus attention on how environmental sounds can affect the health and well-being of dogs in shelters, as well as potential adopters and the people who work there. Here's a summary:
Research shows how sound impacts humans
There is a great deal of research on how sound affects human health and behavior. (An excellent resource for some of the research on human responses to sound is this TED talk by Julian Treasure.) The "soundscape" is known to have a profound effect on us, affecting our physiology, psychology, cognition and behavior. It can change our respiration and heart rates, alert our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system or calm us down, soothe us or scare us, and in extremity, even cause serious health and behavior problems related to stress, like hypertension, tinnitus, difficulty concentrating and mistakes leading to serious accidents. That is why the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration (OSHA) has standards that dictate how long, per day, an employee can be subjected to high levels of sound. (Small businesses with under 10 employees, and some other businesses are exempt; see here for a discussion about who is covered under OSHA.) It is not just factories and industrial parks that can create noisy working environments. Two studies have measured sound levels in shelters and found them to be extremely noisy, often exceeding OSHA standards by a significant amount. For example, Coppola et al (2010) recorded sound levels in a new shelter and found them to regularly exceed the measuring capability of the equipment, or 118.9dB. Ouch. (Keep in mind that a jackhammer is about 110dB.) Sales et al (1997) also recorded extremely high levels of sound in a kennel, in which levels were often up to 125dB and regularly over 100dB. (In other words, REALLY, REALLY, LOUD, and yes, I was shouting so that you could hear me over all that noise!)
"Sound is a critically important part of any animal's environment, and that is especially true of animals who have no choice about the environment in which they live, even if just temporarily."
How sound impacts dogs
There is every reason to believe that sounds, especially loud, aversive ones, have a negative effect on dogs housed in kennel situations. This is not news to people in the shelter world, but I do wonder sometimes if folks who work in kennel environments habituate to the noise, to the extent that, although it affects them and the dogs, they don't notice it as much. However, dogs are in a different situation: They come in new and haven't had time to adjust before being assaulted by noise, they can't leave the area like the people can, and I suspect that some of them sensitize, or get more and more reactive to noise as time goes on, rather than less so. Not only that, but potential adopters are much more likely to spend time in a shelter if the noise levels don't drive them out. (Take note: In his TED talk, Treasure mentioned a study that found retailers lose 28% of their business because of aversive sounds.) Given the potential of deleterious effects of sound on both people and dogs, what can we do? Following are some ideas about creating as healthy a soundscape as possible for dogs in kennels, as well as the people who work at and visit shelters.
4 Steps for Managing Your Shelter’s Soundscape
My goal here is to stimulate a conversation about the importance of sound management in kennel situations, and how facilities can improve the acoustic environment for both people and dogs. I would greatly appreciate those of you with experience joining in, in hopes that kennels all over the world can either improve in some way, or impart their wisdom and experience for the benefit of others.
1. Get the Facts. How noisy is it in the shelter, and when is it quiet and when is it noisiest? Obviously there are predictable triggers that set off barking, but be as meticulous and detailed as you can about the soundscape of your facility. If you wish the kennels were quieter, gather the facts together about the noise levels in the shelter and the negative effects of noise, and present them to the powers that be. Don't accept that it has to be noisy in there: I've seen shelters go from freight-train-in-your-face levels to library-like levels by deciding to make noise abatement a priority. So, get the facts: If it is noisy, when? How noisy is it? Rent or borrow equipment and get noise level readings that will give you objective information about how noisy it really is.
2. Manage Your Voice. It is true that in a tsunami of barking, you might ask how one small human voice can make a difference. But, hey, this is the one thing you have control over, and it's a great place to begin. Perhaps the first thing to keep in mind is that dogs are no better than you are at hearing well in a noisy environment. Nor are they able to concentrate or learn something new when they are assaulted by sound. In addition, keep in mind that voice is one of the sounds that degrades the fastest with background noise, so if you need to get a dog's attention when it's noisy, try using clicks or smooches rather than your voice. Some of the webinar listeners also mentioned that they tend to get quieter as it gets noisier, which is a great piece of advice. Whispering can be a great way to get everyone's attention, even a dog's.
Most importantly, remember that "it's not what you say, it's how you say it." And how you say it can make a big difference in how a dog responds. Research on a variety of mammals and birds (including my own dissertation) has shown that short, rapidly repeated notes tend to increase activity levels, while long, slow continuous ones decrease them. That means you need to avoid perky, choppy phrases to dogs in the kennels, but rather talk as if someone recorded you and played it back too slowly. "Gooooooooooood dog..." "Hiiiiii there, whaaaat a goooood booooy you arrrrrrrre." You get the idea. Here's a summary slide of my own research that fits with research from several different perspectives: The figures are "sonograms," which show frequency or pitch on the vertical axis, and time on the horizontal one, and illustrate the types of sounds that correlated with the expected response from working domestic animals. Short, rapidly repeated notes to speed up, and long, continuous ones to soothe or slow.
3. Modify Environmental Sounds. Obviously barking is the primary problem in most shelters, but what other noises might be stressful, overly stimulating or aversive to the dogs and people working in the area? Are the kennel doors noisy when being opened and closed? Is the cleaning equipment squeaky? The overhead fan loud? Obviously there is just so much one can do about these kinds of environmental sounds, but it doesn't hurt to do an appraisal of what makes noise in the kennels and what aversive sounds could be dampened. Remember that dogs hear better than us at higher frequencies, so a high-pitched fan that you can barely hear might be very loud to them.
4. Adding in Pleasant Sounds? What about the addition of certain kinds of music in hopes that it soothes or calms the dogs? Anecdotally, clients and shelter staff have told me that they've played certain types of music and found that it decreased barking and appeared to increase relaxed and settled behavior. We've been selling Through a Dog's Ear CDs for years, and have had many buyers testify to good results. However, the research is mixed: While Wells (2002) found that "classical" music increased resting postures and decreased barking, Kogan et al (2012) found that some classical music increased sleeping time, but the music in a Dog's Ear did not have the same effect. It is hard to know what to make of that, given all the factors that could be at play. I'd say, experiment in your own shelter to see what works. In general, it makes sense that slow pieces like “Moonlight Sonata” could be calming (with long, continuous notes as shown above), while pop music or heavy metal could have the opposite effect. (And even if music works indirectly by calming the people, who cares what the mechanism is?)
4 Ways to Decrease Barking
Ah, yes, the elephant in the room. (You note I've saved it for last!) Without question, the most important contributor to the acoustic environment is barking; finding ways to decrease it is critical to managing the soundscape. Here are some ideas, I'd love to hear your input on whether you've tried it and if so, how it's worked for you.
A. Decrease visual and acoustic stimulation: This might be the one most important thing that a kennel can do. Dogs are not designed to live in single units surrounded by other dogs they can't access. If you think about it, kennels actually couldn't be designed better to create a lot of barking by overstimulated, frustrated dogs. Many shelters are moving toward some kind of "Dutch door" kennel system, in which the bottom half of the kennel door is covered, so that dogs can't see other dogs as they walk by.
This was especially effective at the Dane County Humane Society where they, according to behavior director Bridget Pieper, installed inexpensive barriers on the 'working' side of the kennels where dogs are taken in and out to potty. This significantly decreased the amount of barking, as does just about any barrier that prevents dogs from seeing others and being surrounded by barking, aroused dogs.
B. Increase Interaction, Physical and Mental Exercise both Inside and Outside the Kennel: Of course, taking dogs on a long, long walk or letting them frolic off-leash in a fenced area is a wonderful thing to be able to do, and I say "Hear, Hear" to any shelter than can do it. However, although brief periods outside to potty may be important, they can also serve to hype dogs up and make them more likely to bark. A somewhat non-intuitive way to keep dogs calm is to have volunteers and shelter staff go into the kennels and spend time with the dogs there. If you think of it, what better way for a dog to feel comfortable and "at home" than have a person come and settle in with them for a while, just as you would in your living room? Dane County has been doing this for quite a while now, and I can tell you that is MUCH quieter now than it used to be.
C. Group Housing: I know this is tricky, and simply can't always be done, but there is no question that keeping dogs in single kennels is a recipe for lots of barking. Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Petra Mertens did a study in Germany (1966), comparing a shelter with single kennels with another shelter with group housing. Of course, many other factors may have played a role, but the group-housed dogs barked rarely, while the single kenneled dogs vocalized often. Again, I know that this can be tricky, but it would be lovely if someday we could get away from single kennel housing in shelters and give dogs the space and social interactions they need.
D. Other Ideas: There are many other things that can help, from using materials that dampen sound, to making the kennels more comfortable and interesting with bedding and interactive toys, to training “quiet” by having all staff carry treats and treat each dog as they walk by. You can learn a lot more about these and the experiences of the many participants in my webinar for ASPCApro by watching the recording and reading the comments in the chat. Lots of GREAT advice and experience to be had there! Most importantly, do all you can to acknowledge the importance of environmental noise of the dogs in kennels, and do what you can to make things better. The dogs will thank you for it.