Roll over, Beethoven: Dogs like music, too
When Slim Jim, a 1-year-old husky, was brought to a Manhattan shelter last year, he shivered and hid under furniture when staffers tried to pat him, recalls Victoria Wells, head of the shelter’s behavior unit.
Wells tried coaxing him out of his shell with treats and toys, but it wasn’t until she crooned a little ditty by The Beatles that Slim Jim finally crawled out from under the furniture.
“Music was his therapy of choice,” Wells said. “I have to give some credit to Paul McCartney on that one.”
Researchers have long known that music affects the human nervous and cardiovascular system. But a growing body of research supports the notion that it also affects dogs. Hundreds of boarding kennels, animal hospitals, and rescue shelters, as well as thousands of dog owners, have taken notice, using music to calm animals in their care. Meanwhile, others are making a business out of “pet-friendly” CDs and even a pet radio station.
Dogs appear to be calmed by music with slower tempos, fewer instruments and simpler melodies, said Susan Wagner, a veterinary neurologist in Columbia, Ohio, who released a book and compact disc set in March. Because dogs hear at much higher frequencies than people do--as high as 50,000 hertz compared to 20,000 hertz for the human ear--music intended to soothe animals should also be played at low volumes, said Wagner.
“The music must be non-threatening,” Wagner said. “The music has to be specifically designed for passive hearing for it to work.”
Her book and CD, called "Through a Dog's Ear," features San Francisco-based music producer and sound researcher Joshua Leeds and Lisa Spector, a concert pianist. It combines the latest music therapy research with anecdotes by dog owners. Wagner said she hopes dog owners will get a sense how dogs respond differently from humans to the noisy atmosphere in many homes. Dogs may react to blaring TVs, ringing phones, and car alarms as if they are threats, Wagner said, causing some to become overwhelmed.
In such an environment, Wagner says, the familiar, non-threatening sounds in simply arranged music may decrease anxiety in the animals and put them in a relaxed state.
Wagner cites the work of Deborah Wells (no relation to Victoria Wells), a psychologist and animal behaviorist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 2003, Wells played different kinds of music to 50 mixed-breed, neutered dogs over four-hour stretches and recorded their responses. Selections included tunes by pop singer Britney Spears, the heavy metal band Metallica, and classical pieces by Beethoven and Vivaldi. She also watched them for four hours when other sounds, like recorded human conversation, were played.
Wells found that dogs spent the most time resting when classical music was played. Heavy metal appeared to agitate the dogs, while neither human conversation nor pop music had any apparent effect on the dog's behaviors.
After reading of Wells’s research, Teryn Hartnett, an animal behaviorist, convinced the Riverside County, Calif., Department of Animal Services last year to install a piped-in continuous Muzak system in two county-run animal shelters. The service costs the county about $100 a month.
In Manhattan, the shelter run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been playing music intermittently throughout the day for about six years, said Gail Buchwald, the center’s senior vice president.
Buchwald, however, doesn’t see it as a “miracle therapy” but as part of a general enrichment regimen that includes regular outdoor walks, toys, and fresh bedding. “We do it because the animals seem to enjoy it,” she said, “but I wouldn’t expect it to perform any miracles on its own.”
Terry Woodford, a onetime hit record producer and songwriter in Colorado Springs, Colo., agreed soft music might not be a miracle salve for dogs but he still marvels at its calming effect. In 1985, he developed music to help children to fall asleep at naptime. When he later released a CD of the songs, parents told him that the music was also putting their dogs to sleep.
Taking that as a cue, Woodford, who has no dog of his own, created Canine Lullabies, a collection of children’s lullabies combined with the background sound of a human heartbeat. The CD, available for purchase at www.caninelullabies.com, is free to humane societies, veterinary clinics, shelters and zoos; more than 3,000 animal care professionals have used the CD in an attempt to reduce fear, separation anxiety, aggression and barking, according to Woodford.
Even a radio show has jumped into the field. DogCat radio (www.dogcatradio.com), an Internet streaming radio station for pets and their owners, plays Top 40 music, disco, Spanish songs and other tunes. Adrian Martinez, a former a record label president in Los Angeles who founded the station in 2005, said he felt there was an audience for pets and their owners together.
The station plays music 24 hours a day; Martinez says it draws 4.2 million human listeners (and presumably their pets) each week from as far as Russia and Spain. The station has been so successful Martinez is planning to launch a spin-off TV station in the fall that can be accessed through the site.
It all might sound a little kooky to some, but to others it's no surprise that animals that so often mimic human behavior respond in similar ways to music.
“Hey, I was a skeptic too," said Woodford, the CD producer. “But dogs are like humans; they’re just looking for order out of chaos. That’s where the music comes in.”