I first became interested in the effects of music and sound on dogs in 1996. At the time, I had a seven- year-old Golden Retriever named Byron. He was a very mellow, laid-back, calm dog, and as such, I knew little about excessive barking. Canine separation anxiety was not in my vocabulary. When I’d leave the house, I’d just give him a pat and say good-bye. When I returned, he’d lift his head as if to say, “Glad you are home, going back to sleep now.”
Then I moved into a new home. One night, it was exceptionally windy, and the windows began to squeak. I returned home from being out and Byron was in the bathtub. It was probably the most confined, safe space he could find. As time passed, I noticed that his anxiety around the sound of the squeaky windows kept increasing. I tried a variety of natural remedies to calm his nerves. What seemed to help the best was putting him in a large walk-in closet while playing recordings of slow movements of Mozart piano sonatas to help him stay calm.
Shortly after Byron’s passing in 2003, I became a volunteer puppy- raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dog I was raising went almost everywhere with me, including a seminar by Joshua Leeds, a world- renowned sound researcher. Leeds was leading 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 sound as a nutrient for the nervous system.
As a concert pianist and piano teacher, I knew that what I was learning would greatly affect my work as a musician, but I didn’t know it would eventually influence my entire career focus.
As I looked at the puppy by my side, I thought about the psychoacoustically-prepared classical music being used to calm autistic children in neurodevelopmental centers. Could it have similar affects on the canine nervous system?
I asked Leeds if he was interested in exploring this question with me.He suggested beginning with existing research concerning the effect of music and sound on the canine nervous system.
In 2002, Belfast-based psychologist and animal behaviorist Dr. Deborah Wells undertook a research program to determine the influence of five types of auditory stimulation on dogs: human conversation, classical music, heavy metal music, pop music, and a silent control (no music at all).
The study proved that classical music had a markedly soothing effect on dogs in animal shelters when compared to the other types of auditory stimulation. Dr. Wells concluded that there was still much work to be done in order to figure out which specific acoustic elements dogs respond to. Her results 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 affect on dogs, or if it was only certain sounds.
We conducted two years of clinic testing, led by veterinary neurologist Dr. Susan Wagner, and found that not all classical music is created equal. Compositions with altered tone, tempo, and patterns had a profound calming effect on dogs. After listening to simplified, re-arranged classical music, over 70 percent of the animals in shelters became calmer and stopped barking. Anxiety behaviors were reduced in 85 percent of dogs in the home environment.
The research offered us the confirmation we needed, and in 2008 we released Through a Dog’s Ear, our first book and CD. Currently we create music for every stage of canine development as well as for particular anxiety issues, including separation, aggression, and sound phobias. We also have music specifically for cats.
It’s been long understood that music has a profound effect on humans, mostly due to the way our nervous systems respond to specific sounds. Music has the power to change our mood based on how our brains input the harmonies and rhythms and how our heart rates slow down or speed up in response. The same occurs in dogs and cats—certain sounds stimulate their nervous system, while others de-stimulate and calm them down. These low, soothing sounds have the power to slow down heart rate, brain waves, and even breathing speed.
More information continues to be compiled about classical music’s positive effects. A recent 2015 study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that playing soothing classical music for cats during surgery allowed for lower doses of anesthesia. Less calming music (the study used heavy metal music from AC/DC) produced stress in the cats. In fact, loud, heavy music was found to be more stressful for the animals than just pure silence.
Understanding the ability of music to calm and soothe and utilizing it in shelters and homes is changing the way we deal with animal anxiety. Sound therapy is becoming increasingly recognized as a simple and powerful way to affect our pets’ moods.
We put the animals we love into our human world and expect them to adjust without any issues. some do, but many struggle. sound therapy is a powerful way we can help our four-legged companions adapt to our crazy and chaotic human sound environment. Take a “sonic inventory” of your home to learn how your pet responds to certain sounds. here’s how to do it:
• Sit quietly for 30 minutes, pen and paper in hand.
• Tune into the sounds you hear inside your home and outside on the street—the hum of the fridge, the cycle prompt of the dishwasher, vacuuming, television, text alerts, traffic, car alarms, children playing, music, etc.
• Notice your pet’s behavior. Does he actively respond to the sounds? Is there a lack of reaction, or an overreaction to sounds you take in stride? When TV, radio, or music is playing, does your pet move closer to the source or away from it?
• Rate the sounds from one to ten, ten being the most disturbing, one the least noticeable. Use two columns-one for your pet and one for yourself. The goal is to have the lowest numbers you can.
• Ask yourself how you can make your home a calmer, more peaceful place. Which sounds can you change? Which can you avoid, turn down, or mask? Often, just by listening, we become more sonically aware, an important first step.