Dogs Are in Sync with Their People

Cali, a golden retriever, wears a cowboy hat, red bandana, and a huge smile

Stay calm. I’ve got this.

Way back when I first started learning about dogs and dog training, I learned something cool: Dogs synchronize with their people. This synchronization is more pronounced in dog-human pairs with a strong bond; the New York Times recently described dogs syncing with their human families’ children.

This is a great illustration of the strong connections that dogs develop with all members of their human family — not only the adult who feeds or walks them or, to dust off an old and thoroughly debunked concept, the “alpha” in the family.

The dogs might synchronize physically, facing the way we do or adapting their gait and speed to sync with ours or sitting when we do. The internet is full of adorable videos of dogs syncing with or mimicking their humans’ yoga poses.

They also sync with our emotions. The closer the relationship, the more the dog is likely to synchronize with the person (or the person with the dog!).

A teaching tool

When I was learning to teach dogs new verbal cues and associate them with behaviors, I learned to use this. For instance, we’d say “down” is a deep, calm voice. And “let’s go” in an energetic and upbeat way. This was meant to encourage the dog to synchronize with the emotion and energy level we were conveying to strengthen the association of the action with the word.

This feels a little manipulative (because it is), but it works for teaching. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to understand — or change — your dog’s behavior.

Cali can be unpredictable when we encounter other dogs on our walks. She’s nearly always happy to see and even meet dogs who are smaller than she is. She’s usually eager to say hello to other goldens, and most Labs. She’s nervous about other dogs who are her size or larger, and there are some breeds (yes, Cal is a doggy racist …) that she dislikes on sight, chief among them any sort of doodle.

So, naturally, when I see someone walking toward us with a friendly, enormous doodle straining to say hello, I feel anxious.

While my reaction came from multiple experiences with Cali’s negative reactions, it is now feeding or even causing her to become anxious — and react to the dog with an even more extreme amount of grumbling and even growling. Cali!

That’s because she is synchronizing with my negative emotions.

On the other hand, if I notice the dreaded doodle when we’re far enough apart, and I stay calm, soothing Cali with “you’re fine, let’s just keep going,” as we pass, leaving plenty of space between the dogs, she might give them a look or mutter under her breath, but she won’t pull or growl.

Cali is a natural

Cali uses this principle to help out her best friend, Maisy. Maisy is a lot more anxious about other dogs than Cali — any and all other dogs. And some people too.

But Cali loves meeting new people. She’s convinced Maisy to say hello to families, kids, and even unfamiliar men! Maisy’s reaction to other dogs is a lot calmer when she’s with Cali too — as long as Cali (and I) stay calm — and make it possible for her to stay a comfortable distance from the other dogs.

The trick, of course, is seeing the other people and dogs first. If we’re surprised by someone coming around a corner, the dogs’ reaction is much faster than mine and things can quickly go south. Even then though, the solution lies in projecting calm as we walk away — not always easy to do.

I’m not suggesting that staying calm will magically cure your anxious dog, but it’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve. Deepening our ability to stay calm in unpredictable circumstances is beneficial to us as well as to our dogs! The best part is that the synchronization thing is circular. Your dog syncs with you more as your bond deepens. And the more in sync you are, the closer your relationship will become.