Have you ever taken a sonic inventory of your home environment? Ever wondered why Buster is barking when you don’t hear anything? Although a dog lover for years, I didn’t become interested in the effects of music and sound on dogs until 1996. At the time, I had a seven year old Golden Retriever named Byron. He won the prize for being the most mellow, laid back, calm dog. I knew little about excessive barking, as I could count on one hand how many times he barked his entire life. Canine separation anxiety was not in my vocabulary. When I left, I just gave him a pat and said good-bye. When I returned, he’d lift his head as if to say “glad you are home, going back to sleep now.”
That being said, in 1996 I moved into a new home. One night, it was exceptionally windy and the house windows squeaked during high winds. When I returned home, Byron was in the bathtub. Some dogs like to crawl under the bed during a thunder or windstorm, but the bathtub was the most confined, safe space he could find in the house. As time passed, I noticed that his anxiety around the sound of the squeaky windows during windy weather kept increasing. I started experimenting and tried a variety of natural remedies to calm his nervous system. Putting him in a large walk-in-closet while playing slow movements of Mozart piano sonatas seemed to help him stay calm. Byron had a good, long life and passed away in 2003, at the ripe age of 14. In retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise that he became deaf the last year of his life.
Shortly after his passing, I became a volunteer puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The puppy I was raising went almost everywhere with me, including a seminar that changed my life. Joshua Leeds, a world renowned sound researcher, was teaching a course for teachers and healers on psychoacoustics, the study of how sound affects the human nervous system. While my puppy slept through the seminar, I was on the edge of my seat, eager to learn about the concept of perceiving sound as a nutrient for the nervous system. As a concert pianist and piano teacher, I knew what I was learning would greatly effect my work as a musician. I just didn’t yet know that it would cause me to change my career focus.
I looked at the puppy by my side and wondered about the psychoacoustically prepared classical music that was played worldwide in neuro-dvelopmental centers, calming autistic children. Could it also calm the canine nervous system and even relieve canine anxiety issues?
I could barely wait to ask Joshua if he was interested in exploring this question with me. Although he was somewhat concerned about his career going to the dogs, he was curious to know if there was existing research concerning the effect of music and sound on the canine nervous system.
He discovered, in 2002 Belfast-based psychologist and animal behaviorist, Deborah Wells, undertook a research program to determine the influence of five types of auditory stimulation: human conversation, classical music, heavy metal music, pop music, and a silent control (no music at all).
From Dr. Wells’s study, we came to understand that classical music had a marked soothing effect on dogs in animal shelters when compared to the other types of auditory stimulation. Dr. Wells stated, “Further work is still required to unravel the specific acoustic elements that dogs respond to.” That challenge inspired us to take our bio-acoustic research where no one had gone before. We were interested in discovering if all classical music had the same effect on dogs.
Two years of clinical testing followed, led by veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner. In summary, phase one testing including music recorded at varying tempos and ranged from solo piano to piano trios. The music was tested in shelters and service dog kennels. The results suggest that all classical music doesn’t have the same effect on behavior in dogs:
- In the kennel environment, over 70 percent of the dogs became calmer with the simplified, 50-60 beats per minute (bpm) — both solo piano and trio music.
- In the home environment, the solo piano at 50-60 bpm showed an average of 85 percent becoming calm, and over half the dogs went to sleep.
Phase two was conducted to see if the music that had calmed and quieted the dogs in phase one would actually relieve canine anxiety issues in the home environment. Anxiety issues tested included: separation, sound phobias (thunderstorms, fireworks), excitement with visitors, and hyper-activity. The psychoacoustically prepared music was tested with a variety of classical music without alterations.
Results showed 70 percent of anxiety behaviors were reduced with psychoacoustically designed music, while 36 percent of anxiety behaviors were reduced with the non-psychoacoustic control CD. Both CDs calmed the dogs enough to make them lie down. However, the psychoacoustically designed music, with slower tempi and simpler arrangements, was more effective in reducing anxiety.
That research has led to the release of Through a Dog’s Ear, currently consisting of a book and nine CD’s. The simple sounds of Through a Dog’s Ear is calming dogs worldwide and helping with anxiety issues well beyond the scope of what was tested in clinical research. In addition, music donated to shelters is greatly reducing barking and increasing adoption rates. Over a thousand shelters now include it as part of their environmental enrichment program.
As co-founder of Through a Dog’s Ear and the pianist on the music series, it warms my heart that the music is improving the lives of dogs and their people worldwide. And it is equally satisfying that people are becoming more sound aware as they witness their dogs reaction to the music. Sound is a potent energy that is not to be taken for granted, and has profound effects on all species.
Are you a sound aware dog lover? Thanks for adding a comment below and telling us what sounds have influenced your pets’ behavior.
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Our Star Expert
Lisa Spector is a concert pianist, Juilliard graduate, canine music expert, and pet blogger for Care2.com. By combining her passion for music with her love of dogs, she co-founded Through a Dog’s Ear, the first music clinically demonstrated to relieve anxiety issues in dogs, and is the pianist on the music series. She has presented at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ annual conferences and has appeared on the CBS Early Show. Lisa has been a devoted volunteer at the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA and a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Her performance tours include fundraising “canine concerts” for non-profit animal organizations, including a recent event for the Doris Day Animal Fund. She is the local director for Camp Unleashed Sequoia Lake, CA. Lisa shares her home and her heart with her two adorable “career change” Labrador Retrievers from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Sanchez and Gina. Sanchez takes the words “career changed” literally, as he has enjoyed agility, musical canine freestyle, and acting careers. Gina is a new agility enthusiast. As a concert pianist, Lisa has won first prizes in Chopin competitions in New York and Los Angeles and has performed in China, Poland, Spain, France, Italy and throughout the U.S. Lisa can be found at www.ThroughaDogsEar.com on Facebook and Twitter @ThroughADogsEar