If These Dogs Could Talk

Zach Smith shares how he overcame a tricky combination: barking dogs and auditory hypersensitivity

By Zach Smith

Sound has been the sense that has always hit me the hardest.  My sensory issues are greater than ever, so any noisy sound causes my eardrum to vibrate like an earthquake.  A sound that is 60 decibels to someone without sensory issues generally means that someone of my situation could hear the same sound but at a volume of 80 to 90 decibels.  Generally, people who are similar to me regarding auditory hypersensitivity frequently mention a dislike of percussive, changing, or unexpected sounds, as well as intense frequencies, including strip-lighting and the hum from computer fans and fridges.  Although the latter is not as much of an issue for me, other various sounds do have an effect on me. Sounds such as screeching vocals from rock concerts and jet-like roars from restroom hand dryers are among those that tend to get me stressed every time I hear them.  According to Bianca Bosker of The Atlantic, people are more sensitive to mid-frequency sounds, and perceive them as louder than they are.  Those sounds have been more recent struggles for me due to my high exposure to them, but there has been one sound that has played a vital role in how my mood plays out whether I am at home or in public.

As dog expert Jenna Stregowski points out, dog barking has a purpose: dogs do not bark to annoy any of us, nor do they bark for spite or revenge.  Often, it feels like a dog is barking for no reason at all, but ultimately, they are. Whether they get excited from greeting people, having a run-in with another dog, wanting attention or something to eat, that bark will let you know your dog is trying to tell or show you something.  My family’s goldendoodle, Nala, barks to communicate her wants and needs like when she’s hungry or has to go outside. She has been nothing but sweet and good-natured, and her barking has not affected me significantly, since goldendoodles are more quiet than other major dog breeds. Although Nala is a terrific companion to our family, my opinion about dogs has not always been positive due to my experiences with other dogs.

Throughout much of my childhood and adolescence, I was not a dog person.  I found them to be loud and jumpy and too much of a hassle because of all the work that goes into caring for them.  When I was three, I learned about how loud a dog’s bark can be after an encounter with a golden retriever at a playground, where the dog jumped on me and barked in my face.  The dog was not the problem; it was the loud bark that my eardrums and I did not appreciate. My parents taught me after that that a dog’s bark is their way of communicating to us, since they can’t talk like humans. Dogs are only trying to communicate to us through their bark, and there was no reason for me to get anxious, and I should’ve known that when we had our first dog.

Throughout my childhood, my sister, Kathryn, always wanted a puppy. Year after year, she would put a puppy at the top of her Christmas list and do everything in her power to persuade our parents to adopt one. Unfortunately for her, their response was always the same: “A puppy is a huge responsibility. With vet visits and accessories and food purchases, they are costly.” Right before Christmas 2009, my parents and I sat down and explained that they had finally decided to fulfill Kathryn’s lifelong wish and get a puppy. I was a tad reluctant at first, knowing that this move was going to be a significant change for our family because of all the extra responsibilities to add to our plates. However, I remembered how much fun I had with my cousins’ Maltese, Snowball, playing fetch with her and taking her on walks around their neighborhood. Thinking about those moments made me realize that a puppy could be fun, so I decided to accept the new change.

Before deciding on a puppy, my parents and I decided to do some research on what breed would work out best for our family, primarily from an emotional standpoint.  They were more open than me to getting a puppy, since they saw ways we could handle one, especially my mom, since she had a labrador retriever growing up. After looking at several sources, we were most intrigued about the description for the Maltese.  We found that Malteses are gentle and fearless and excel at being a therapy dog.  Malteses are also extremely hypoallergenic with silky coats that do not shed. We talked to my aunt and cousins about those characteristics with Snowball, and they agreed that she is good-natured, gentle and doesn’t shed.  With that in mind, my parents looked online and made a couple of phone calls to breeders and Maltese owners. They ended up finding a Maltese in Connecticut that was too cute to pass up. I saw pictures of the puppy online and I felt it was the perfect match for us.  The puppy was male, and we mentioned to Kathryn that if the puppy was a boy, we would name him Brady after the legendary New England Patriots quarterback. On Christmas morning, we did not tell Kathryn that a puppy was on the way, but some of the gifts we put under the tree included a dog bed and a huge plush beagle.  Over the next four weeks, my parents and I prepped the house with puppy supplies and stocked the pantry with kibble and bone marrow treats, making sure Kathryn didn’t see anything. Brady joined our family on January 22, 2010.

Brady, circa 2011

As we all got adjusted to Brady’s presence, we found him to be playful and full of energy.  I enjoyed having him chase me around the house, and I enjoyed running with him outside, as the leaves crunched under my feet.  As the weeks went on, I found one attribute of Brady I did not appreciate: his bark. At first I did not find his bark annoying, but as time went on—and the more I heard it—I realized how loud his bark was and how much it impacted my ears because of my sensory sensitivity.  He barked at everything: when the mail carrier’s truck went up our street, when he heard other dogs in our neighborhood, and when he watched things out the windows, such as the sun and falling leaves. Worst of all, he barked at every single person who walked through the doors of our home.  As Stephanie Gibeault points out, dogs have incredible hearing, and they can hear up to between 47,000 and 65,000 Hz, whereas an adult human cannot hear sounds above 20,000 Hz. That made sense to why Brady barked so much as he did, as his hearing could pick up sounds that we typically couldn’t hear. My goal was to become more adaptive to Brady’s barking, and to have less stress and anxiety in the moments where he would go on barking sprees. Unfortunately, it took almost seven years to achieve that goal.  

Family gatherings and functions that we hosted took a big toll on my mood because of Brady’s barking.  As is the case with many events at homes, people come one after another, not all at once. Brady would go on a barking spree when one group arrived and then he would calm down, only to repeat the process each time someone came to the door.  The way Brady behaved during our gatherings caused me to get more stressed and anxious than I should have. I would dramatically run away and hide in my room or the basement until he stopped barking, preventing me from spending quality time with our company.

The same situation would occur when we visited family and friends that had any dogs. Although these dogs did not bark as much as Brady, but when they did bark, the sound was loud enough to hurt my ears.  To this day, whenever we host a function or attend one elsewhere, I have high expectations that the barking will be kept to a minimum. These events are a way for me to escape reality for a night and allow me to take time off from worrying about school, work, or other stressful circumstances in my life.

Brady’s barking was one thing when it came to dampening my mood at family functions, but it was something else when I was doing my homework. When Brady was with us, I was in middle school and high school, as well as the first three years at Worcester State, during which time my work level skyrocketed. It did not matter which room I did my studying or writing in; I could hear Brady’s screeching bark through the openings under the doors and the floorboards. It was as if I was in the same room as him, even though the door would be closed, and I was a floor below. If the weather was nice, I would go outside to work, but I would still hear faint Brady barks even when I was not directly in his presence. Plus, I’d hear the neighborhood dogs, too. Typically, the barks would sound only five to 10 decibels lower with Brady and the neighborhood dogs, even though I was not directly in their presence. 

I did do well in school despite everything, but when I did my work at home, he prevented me from completing my work successfully to the fullest extent possible.  It was at this point I began to think to myself, “If these dogs could talk, we would not have to guess about what they are trying to tell us.”

With Brady’s barking impacting my ability to do well in school and relax when we hosted events, my family and I sought the help of a behavioral therapist to help find healthy techniques to reduce my stress and anxiety around the barking.  One of the most beneficial strategies I practiced with her was deep breathing. As my therapist showed me, the most effective way to do it is to do a four-second inhale, followed by a four-second hold, then a four-second exhale. We would do around a minute of breathing during our sessions (around five breaths), and I would feel much more relaxed afterward.  She would tell me to use the deep breathing technique any time Brady’s bark took a toll on my mood as well as any time a dog stressed me out in public.

Every time I did the deep breathing technique when I got stressed and anxious, I found it worked!  I felt more tranquil and relaxed, and moved on without any further stress. I tried other stress-reducing techniques that my therapist recommended as well as other ones I found from research online.  As time went on, and I found myself at a better spot in my life.  I was less stressed when Brady and other dogs barked, and I found myself more at-ease at family and friend get-togethers.  Along with that, my anger and frustration from the barking went down and I had better confidence to handle any of life’s problems, including me being able to focus better on my schoolwork.  Although it nearly took seven years, my family and therapist were both proud of the progress that I made toward my ultimate goal of not letting dog barking stress me out and prevent me from having fun with all the important people in my life.

Sadly, we lost Brady on July 30, 2018.  It was a very difficult and sudden loss for my family and I since we all cherished him, despite his barking.  In the months after Brady passed, my parents talked about how they regretted not having Brady go through more obedience training to help improve his barking.  According to the Humane Society, if you are not consistent with stopping your dog from barking, they will continue to do so, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not.  Hiring a trainer to help alleviate the barking would have helped us significantly, and I probably would not have been as stressed. Regardless, I’m glad that I got introduced to all of those stress-relieving techniques, and I continue to practice many of them today.

After Brady passed, we all missed having a dog that we could play and cuddle with.  To alleviate our grief, we decided to get another puppy to join our family. I was not as hesitant as I was before we got Brady since I knew my parents and Kathryn would do more careful research and find a dog that would bark minimally and be friendly to us.  There were several breeds that we came across that were terrific matches, but the goldendoodle stood out the most. According to dog expert Lauren Murphy, goldendoodles are extremely friendly, and they prefer peace and quiet themselves, meaning they are not big barkers.  Along with that, goldendoodles—like Malteses—are hypoallergenic. After researching, we made some phone calls to breeders and found one in Maine that handled goldendoodles.  On August 10, 2019, Nala joined our family.

Nala, our new furry companion.

If I do experience overwhelming stress from Nala’s barking, I will follow the same procedure as I did with Brady, using the breathing and other stress-reducing techniques.  Getting used to how they all operate has made me aware they will bark from to time—after all, that is how they communicate to us. I am very grateful that I am more comfortable around dogs now.  I have a more positive outlook because of how I keep my stress-reducing techniques ready to go in case I need to use them. In some ways, I see Nala as more of a companion than a responsibility because of how friendly and calm she is.  Humans need companionship to help them with any anxiety, and I appreciate how God gave us the dog for that very reason.

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