Hypnotism for dogs…is it a creative solution for anxiety, or a quack cure?

Every dog lover knows how hypnotizing puppy eyes can be. One minute your knife and fork are poised to take a bite of dinner; the next, you’re sharing a scrap of chicken under the table.

According to one man, there’s a way to turn the tables on your beguiling mutt: dog hypnotism. John Morgan is a Florida-based hypnotist who gives workshops across North America, generally to help people with issues like smoking and weight loss. However, a couple of years ago, he broadened his scope of practice to include hypnotism for stress and anxiety in dogs.

Sound and hypnotism
John stumbled upon the idea in the 1990s, while editing a guided hypnosis CD for people. He noticed that when he played back the recording, his normally hyperactive Beagle, Snuffy, curled up in a ball at his feet. “I thought, ‘How cool is that!’ but dismissed it as coincidence,” John says. It took a few more similar occurrences for him to seriously consider the idea of hypnotizing dogs. After his neighbor’s bouncy springer spaniel had a similar reaction, John began to read about canine sensitivity to sound. The book Through a Dog’s Ear, written by sound researcher and music producer Joshua Leeds, and veterinary neurologist Dr. Susan Wagner, supported John’s anecdotal discovery that dogs are innately sensitive to vibration.

John subsequently created a CD designed to hypnotize dogs. It features a blend of music and voice intended to induce a hypnotic state, as well as a musical track. It’s meant both to relax dogs in the moment – such as when you’re leaving for work in the morning – and to condition a relaxed response when you use the phrases repeated in the recording (such as “relax and calm down”) when your dog is stressed (for instance, during thunderstorms or to quell separation anxiety).

John suggests clients listen to the CD with their dogs a few times, patting them to the rhythm of either the recorded voice or the music. “Hypnosis is all about rhythms,” he says. “It’s lulling people into a frame of mind.” The same is true for dogs, but unlike people, they aren’t encumbered by a distracting subconscious mind. However, like us, dogs do pick up patterns of behavior that aren’t driven by any logical rationale and which can be removed with behavioral conditioning. “They’re very conditionable and can learn very rapidly because they don’t have an intellect that gets in the way and says, ‘This is stupid,’” says John.

John isn’t the only dog hypnotist out there. In Edinburgh, Scotland, Marco del Valle is known as “The Mexican Dog Whisperer” for his ability to put aggressive or agitated canines in a trance-like state. The process ends with a dog lying on his side as Marco massages him. By all appearances, it resembles the maneuvering used by dog trainer Caesar Milan; in the end, after some wrangling, an aggressive dog appears submissive and finally calm.

The other side of the coin
Dog hypnotism has its nay-sayers. Dr. Dan Estep and Dr. Suzanne Hetts, animal behavior experts in Littleton, Colorado, are highly dubious of anyone claiming to be a dog hypnotist. Dr. Estep points out that in the case of Marco, it’s more likely the dogs are exhibiting a fear response than becoming truly relaxed. New research shows that dogs can have very high heart rates even when their body language suggests they’re calm.

Dr. Estep explains that people often use the word “hypnotism” to describe a behavioral phenomenon called tonic immobility: a state of paralysis brought on by fear. The instinct to remain motionless can help certain animals escape since predators will sometimes loosen their grip. In the case of Marco’s technique, the dog may be actually freezing in fear, not relaxing. “I’d be quite dubious about the claim these dogs are relaxed.” says Dr. Hetts. “It’s just as likely they’re terrified.” She adds there’s no credible evidence to suggest anyone can hypnotize a dog, regardless of method. She feels that those who say they can are mistaking their terms. “A calm and relaxed state isn’t the same as hypnosis,” she says.

Quick fixes to pesky behavior problems are tempting, but both Dr. Hetts and Dr. Estep advise people to think twice about hypnosis products or services. “It’s imperative that people be critical consumers of information and not jump on the latest and greatest because they saw it on the web,” says Dr. Hetts. John is the first to admit he’s not an expert in animal behavior. He says his CD isn’t a speedy way to get your dog to stop counter-surfing or peeing inside – but he is confident it can be a useful tool for training. “All I know is that you can’t train a dog unless he’s in a calm state.”

So can dogs be actually hypnotized or not? A lot more research needs to be done before anyone can say for sure it’s possible. In the meantime, positive stress reduction techniques (including relaxing music) and gentle, reward-based training are the best ways to help reduce anxiety in dogs.

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