Updated: May 27, 2018
Does your dog startle easily?
Do they seem affected by arguments at home?
Is your dog easily excited through either positive or negative stimuli?
Does it take a long time for them to calm down after an unsettling/exciting/arousing event?
If you answered ’yes’ to some or all of these questions, your dog may have a trait known as ’high sensitivity’ or ’Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS)’.
In humans, the genetic trait of high sensitivity is evident in 15 – 20% of the population and involves a deeper and more thorough processing of sensory information.
It was psychotherapist, Elaine Aron who first described and defined the trait of high sensitivity as it appears in humans in 1997.
Often mistaken as being a disorder, high sensitivity in the human population is a perfectly natural personality trait with its own set of benefits and challenges.
Highly sensitive persons’ (HSPs) nervous systems are hypersensitive, which makes them highly attuned to and affected by their environment and other people’s moods!
HSPs tend to startle easily, try to avoid violent films and tv, and notice subleties in their environment. They often sense what needs to be done to make another person feel more comfortable and pick up on and even take on other people’s energy/moods as their own.
They also tend to be conscientious, don’t like making mistakes, and find changes in their life unsettling.
But what does research say about high sensitivity in dogs?
The findings from a recent study on dogs concluded that SPS or high sensitivity, as evident in humans, does also appear to be a, ”measurable personality dimension in dogs”.
The research also suggested that the trait appears to exist independently of environmental factors like a stressful living environment, multiple ownerships, or ownership by a highly sensitive person, pointing to its genetic rather than conditioned basis.
It’s a trait we’re very familiar with in our house since we have both a highly sensitive dog (HSD) and a highly sensitive person (HSP) in our family – Liza and Rachel!
Liza is most reactive to sounds and sudden movements. The dishwasher ”peeping” or the phone ringing excessively distresses her and causes her to whine or howl. Dancing or making flamboyant gestures is not allowed in our house or Liza gets overexcited and starts barking. We’re quickly put in our place and told to settle down!
She also struggles to contain her enthusiasm at mealtimes, getting restless about half an hour before it’s time (she’s like clockwork!) and leaping into the air and whining as we prepare her breakfast or dinner.
Rachel relates to her reactions...
HSPs (and perhaps HSDs, as the recent research would seem to suggest) experience the world differently to the majority (80-85%) of the population. It’s more difficult for them to filter out 'goings on' around them and they tend to get more easily overwhelmed by their environment. They can be deeply affected by stimuli (bright lights, movements, sounds, etc) that another person may not even notice or bother about and they need regular quiet downtime to process goings on and to recover their energy and balance. Hunger also affects HSPs more intensely as this is another type of stimulus - from within!
Another way of describing it is that their optimal arousal levels are perhaps lower than others and, as a result, they may need less external stimulation/’goings on’ and more calm and quiet than non-HSP/Ds in order to feel contented.
So what can be done about it?
As a genetic trait, high sensitivity isn’t something that we can train ourselves or our dogs to ”snap out” of. However, we can learn to be more tolerant of the trait and to work with it instead of fighting against it (which will only intensify it and may create anxiety).
If you think your dog may be highly sensitive, it will almost certainly benefit both of you to be very patient with them and to maintain as calm a home environment as possible. Their strong reactions to noises, new objects and sudden movements may not signal anxiety or neuroticism, but rather a genetic trait that makes them more deeply attuned to and affected by their environment.
*If you would like to read the study on high sensitivity in dogs, it can be accessed here: