October 19, 2023

Having a ruff day? Meet the pet techs tackling dog anxiety

From music to games and training, personalised pet tech is taking a new approach to dog anxiety

Adam Green

5 min read

Pet anxiety is a real problem, from fears of fireworks to subtler mental health woes. To calm our furry friends, European startups are building audiovisual technology tools — from streaming to games and noise desensitisation. And they are gaining commercial traction. 

Pup rock

Manchester-based Music for Pets originally intended to make relaxation music for humans, but conversations among team members revealed they had been playing their music for their dogs. 

There is science to back this up. A 2015 study by the University of Glasgow and Scottish SPCA found that classical music helped dogs in rehoming centres to relax; when music was played, they would spend less time standing and barking. The study also suggested that dogs, like humans, require a variety of music to maintain the physiological and psychological benefits of auditory stimulation. 

Our growth came from genuinely focusing on users

This inspired the team at Music for Pets to take a feedback approach to creating a music product for dogs, collecting data from dogs on whom the music was tested to see which genres worked best.

This approach has continued as the company has grown. Amman Ahmed, cofounder, says he sets aside time to speak individually with his clients over email, showing them that the company really cares about their dogs. 

“Our growth came from genuinely focusing on users, asking open questions and learning about their dogs’ anxiety, stressors and lifestyles,” he tells Unleashed. “It can be time-consuming, but it’s successful.”

Ahmed adds a survey of users found that each user tells about seven others on average about the product. “Last year, we had about 50m cats and dogs use our service,” he says. “So we want to double that to 100m.”

To create the music, Music for Pets experiments with various frequencies and instrumentals, as well as visuals such as virtual dog walks, beach walks or sheep. This selection is influenced by data gathered from users’ dogs and incorporated to improve the product. 

‘’Some dogs like watching other dogs, while some dogs hate watching other dogs and will start barking,” says Ahmed. “A lot of it is taking that data and creating genres of content, and then users can choose what works best for their dog.’’

When Music for Pets was acquired by Create Music Group, a music label that’s worked with artists like Marshmello and Migos, in June 2023, Ahmed was initially surprised. He expected a pet food company or pet retailer to be a more likely suitor. 

“They gave us everything we wanted and more,” says Ahmed, adding he thinks the music industry moves faster than the pet industry. 

Having a ruff day?

Anxiety can also be a product of boredom and under-stimulation. Go Dogo, an interactive online game, aims to give dogs a “mental workout”, according to founder Hanne Jarmer. 

It’s now launching a new sound desensitisation programme to help dogs overcome sound sensitivity. The programme will be available to users who have already got their pups accustomed to the game. 

It’s like a gaming console for dogs

Go Dogo started out focusing on the problem of giving dogs enough mental stimulation. Many owners work hard to try and keep their dogs entertained and mentally active. While basic training provides mental stimulation for dogs, they also need independent problem solving, which is important for reducing anxiety and building confidence. 

Solutions such as puzzle toys can be either too easy or too difficult for dogs; some may get bored quickly while others will get confused and abandon the toy. Go Dogo has different levels that can be selected based on a dog’s individual needs and breed traits and which progress in difficulty based on the dog’s performance. 

“It’s like a gaming console for dogs,” says Jarmer.

Teaching all dogs new tricks 

Go Dogo’s next initiative is a firework desensitisation programme. While working with dogs, Jarmer and her team identified the anxiety brought about by loud sounds and fireworks. The company teamed up with dog psychology experts from Copenhagen University to develop the programme with six levels. 

The levels start by exposing dogs to low firework sounds that they can turn on themselves by sitting. The technology helps by initially having the dogs’ reactions control the sounds, and not moving to a harder level until the dog is calm enough to sit. 

Having a module for pet parents to learn about breeds is important

The sounds get gradually louder and more mixed over the six levels. The dogs are rewarded with treats from their owner for sitting calmly without reacting. In the final level, the sounds play randomly to get dogs used to surprise noises. The team hopes to add more sounds, like thunder and trucks, and to offer people the option to personalise the game by recording their own sounds.

Jarmer says that owners are aware of their dogs’ needs, but well-intentioned owners may overdo training and end up having negative effects on young puppies who aren’t ready, or attempt exercises that are incompatible with their breed. One example is Labrador retrievers, a breed that is active and needs a lot of mental stimulation, but also wishes to please its owner, so will not express discontent when unhappy. 

“Some owners end up thinking their Labrador retriever is relaxed and happy to lie on the sofa, when in fact, it is bored or depressed,” says Jarmer. “Having a module for pet parents to learn about breeds is important.” 

The technology doesn’t replace an owner’s time bonding with their pet, she adds; instead, it gives them the tools and knowledge to meet their pet’s needs and participate in activities, rewarding them with treats when they succeed at an exercise.

From music to games and training, personalised pet tech is taking a new approach to dog anxiety. By gathering user feedback and considering breed needs, companies like Music for Pets and Go Dogo are creating more customised experiences. Personalised pet tech helps owners actively participate in their dog’s care and enrichment and strengthens the owner-pet bond. 

Adam Green

Adam Green is a science and technology writer and editor based in London. He tweets from @AdamPenWord