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Quieter Shelter Dogs? It's a Laughing Matter

Hear the difference yourself!

Listen to audio sample recordings of dog "laughter" and panting at www.laughing-dog.org.

Researcher’s recordings of canine merriment provide comfort to shelter pooches

Animal behaviorist Patricia Simonet had already studied self-recognition in Asian elephants and reconciliation between chimpanzees. But when seeking a new project about five years ago, she looked a little closer to home. “I was sitting there really at a loss for what I wanted to do next with my classroom,” she says. “And I was watching my dogs, and they were making this sound where they were lying on their sides just sort of batting at each other. They weren’t really exerting much energy but they were eheh- ehing all over the place.”

The “eh-eh-eh” noise sounds, to an untrained ear, much like a dog panting. But, she says, it’s more like an expression of joy. And on repeated listens, you can pick up distinctions: The sound that Simonet and others describe as the canine equivalent to laughter is sharper, and the time between sounds is longer.

© Patricia Simonet
One of Simonet’s subjects laughs it up for the camera.

When Simonet first studied canine laughter while trying to learn more about how dogs communicate, she found that dogs at play vocalize in more ways than researchers had previously identified. Earlier studies had noted barks, growls, and whines, but in 2001 Simonet isolated the dog laugh, noting in a paper she presented to the Animal Behavior Society in Corvallis, Oregon, that this sound was the only one that dogs make exclusively during play and not while fighting.

She’d been studying the sound and its meaning for some time when a veterinary behaviorist at a conference suggested she try to use her research in a way that would help animals. Joking that she often plays “mad scientist” with her own pets, Simonet says she’d noticed that the sound seemed to have a calming effect on her dogs. It was even more effective than a product called Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), a vet-designed solution that imitates the scent produced by a mother dog (more information on DAP can be found in the May-June 2006 issue of Animal Sheltering magazine). “But I had no idea that it could have an effect on such a large population,” she says.

The dogs at the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS) in Washington served as that “large population” Simonet tested during her research. With the help of director Nancy Hill, she played recordings of the dog laughter sound to the stressed-out pooches in the kennels. “We were hoping to see a reduction in stress-related behaviors, like lunging and barking and tail-chasing and biting the cage,” says Simonet.

They got more than they’d expected. The dogs not only exhibited reductions in those behaviors; they also became much quieter. “We were surprised by the absolute quiet and calm,” says Simonet, who says the change was so dramatic it was a bit unnerving.

Hill couldn’t be happier with the results. “Initially we were using a portable boombox,” she says, “so you could see everyone near it be quiet and everyone being a typical shelter dog on the other end of the kennels.”

Through a campaign to donors, the agency raised enough money for a real sound system. Now they play Simonet’s recording when the shelter is open to the public. “One of the biggest benefits—aside from obviously for the people who work here, because it’s nice to just have a quieter kennel—is the dogs just present so much better for adoptions,” says Hill.

The animals even quiet down more quickly after a disturbance, she says: A dog walking down the kennel hallway still gets the other pooches excited, but they settle down faster than they used to.

Hill and Simonet—who now works at the agency—say other boarding kennels and shelters that have bought the CD report the same success. Whether the sound truly equates to the emotions behind human laughter may never be proved—after all, humans might find listening to a recording of human laughter for long periods quite stress-inducing. But for now, all that really matters is that some stressed-out dogs are getting the last laugh.

Through www.laughing-dog.org, Simonet is selling a CD of the sound of dog laughter. It costs $19.95 plus shipping. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service.

 

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