Why letting your dog look out of windows might cause reactivity and high arousability

I spent a significant part of the last years with hindering Peter from barking out of the windows of our flat. He crawled up the couch or the kitchen bent to supervise the streets, and barked on almost EVERYTHING he saw: other dogs, bikers, people with ugly jackets, people walking funny, children, etc. We tried a lot to stop that, e.g. consequently removing him from the window, watching the street together and counter-conditioning with treats, ignoring… Nothing worked.

Additionally, Peter became very stressed and tired, wasn’t able to rest, and his reactivity increased. As always, when we cannot find a solution for our problems, we talked to Rita Kampmann, our dog trainer. She explained to us, that he HAS to do that: As a mix of hunting and protection dog, his instincts force him to watch everything that move, and doing that in our busy world is very exhausting. She also told us, that we are kind of “lucky” that Peter gets crazy at the windows, because many dogs do that silently, so that their owner let them as they are conveniently parked. But those dogs also become stressed and overtired…

And as always, I started to do an intense research on that topic, which was so revealing that I made it part of my TEDx talk. Watch the video for the full story!

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Potential consequences of a dog staring out of windows

A dog’s visual system is highly sensitive to moving objects (Miller and Murphy, 1995; Miklósi, 2015). Most dog breeds are the outcome of a long selection process for a specific function such as guarding or hunting (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001). For those functions a highly specialized visual system on motion was evolutionary advantageous. Most dogs naturally observe their environment for new stimuli (Somppi et al., 2012). Thereby, any moving object represents a stimulus for a dog which the dog’s brain needs to interpret esp. to spot potential threats or preys (Jensen, 2007). Usually, the main sense used by dogs to detect those potential threats or preys is smelling (Jensen, 2007). While staring out of a window, observing the environment, the dog can only rely on visual and auditory stimuli due to the shielding of olfactory stimuli. Outside a car or in city street there are many moving objects that the dog needs to assess. This respective long-term concentration and the perceptual overload will cause stress by the dog shown in a massive adrenaline release that can lead to stereotypic, displacement or even aggressive behavior (del Amo, 2013; Scholz and von Reinhardt, 2007).

What does that mean for us and our dogs?

Is your dog often very excited, barks out of the window or the balcony, is reactive or stressed, seems to be hyperactive? There might be a chance to help him by hindering him to supervise his environment.

Our holy grail to stop it is frosted window film! The one we use was super cheap and sticks staticky. We applied it to all our windows at home (with moderate effort), and it is super-effective! Now, Peter doesn’t feel the compulsion to supervise the streets, because he can’t do it anymore. He is more relaxed and rests more and better. And also we are more chilled because we don’t have to watch him every minute of the day.

Those insights also had a significant effect on the design of the DoggoSpa box. We decided to create it without windows, so that staring out of the car isn’t possible anymore. We want to help Peter and all other dogs to calm down and chill when going on a car ride. First trials (with Peter and some of his buddies) have been very successful!

References & Further Readings

Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2001) Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution. New York, Scribner.

Del Amo, C. (2013) Stressreaktion und Aggressivität bei Hunden, tk 2013, 9(01), pp.10-13 DOI: 10.1055/s-0032-1323609.

Jensen, P. (2007) Mechanisms and Function in Dog Behaviour in Jensen, P. (ed.) The Behavioural Biology of Dogs. Wallingford, United Kingdom: CABI Publishing, pp. 61-75.

Miklósi, Á. (2015) Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. Oxford, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press.

Miller, P.E. and Murphy, C.J. (1995) Vision in dogs, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 207, pp. 1623-1634.

Scholz, M. and von Reinhardt, C. (2007) Stress in Dogs: Learn how dogs show stress and what you can do to help. Wenatchee, Washington, Dogwise Publishing.

Somppi, S., Törnqvist, H., Hänninen, L., Krause, C. and Vainio, O. (2012) Dogs do look at images: eye tracking in canine cognition research, Anim Cogn, 15, pp. 163–174, DOI: 10.1007/s10071-011-0442-1.

Anderson, E. (2013) Don’t Look Now! The Benefits of Window Film for the Household with Reactive Dogs

Culp, C. (2013) Does Your Dog Need A Window With A View?

Oelze, P. (no date) Why Do Dogs Always Look Out The Window

Range,F. , Aust, U., Steurer, M., and Huber, L. (2008) Visual categorization of natural stimuli by domestic dogs, Anim Cogn (2008) 11:339–347, DOI 10.1007/s10071-007-0123-2.

Yeu, A. (2014) My Dog Barks at Dogs and People Out The Window