Whenever Green Day’s "Geek Stink Breath" played on the music channel, Jim Snider of Little Hocking, Ohio, would scratch the hind quarters of Oslo, his Norwegian Elkhound, in time to the song. Now, whenever Oslo hears the tune, he finds Snider and presents his backside so he can get a good butt rub.
Stuart Milliken’s dog Kona likes to vocalize to music. He’s especially fond of live music — Milliken, who lives in China, and his friends play recorders and guitars — and jolly Italian baroque recorder sonatas are a favorite.
And Marsha Herman of Hamden, Conn., says that when she taught instrumental music, her dogs and cats didn’t mind low-sounding instruments such as trombones, baritones and tubas, but they left the room instantly at the sound of a violin, oboe or saxophone.
Clearly, some dogs associate music with good times or seem to respond to it either positively or negatively, but can it have a therapeutic effect? To paraphrase playwright William Congreve, can music soothe the savage beast? Some pet professionals and musicians believe the answer is yes.
A study led by Deborah Wells at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland demonstrated that classical music calmed dogs, making them rest more and stand up less.
First-hand experience is proof enough for trainer Pam Dennison of Blairstown, N.J. One day she decided to play some rock 'n' roll to loosen up the people in her class on dealing with aggressive dogs. By the end of the session, she realized it had loosened up the dogs as well.
“Everybody was be-boppin’ around and they forgot to be scared, and so did the dogs,” Dennison says.
Now she often uses music for the same purpose in puppy kindergarten classes or in private sessions if a dog seems unusually nervous. She plays around with different types of music until she figures out what a particular dog likes.
“I have Vivaldi, I have show tunes," she says. "There was one dog that hated classical music, but she really likes Harry Connick Jr. I find that most of the dogs in the aggressive-dog class really like 60s rock 'n' roll. Any time dogs seem to be nervous, I add music to see if it has a bearing. It usually does.”
When animal behavior therapists are presented with dogs or cats that have separation anxiety, it’s standard for them to recommend that owners play soft music or talk radio when the animal is left alone.
Nicholas Dodman, a professor and program director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Mass., recalls a conversation with a man at his gym who was concerned because his wife was threatening to get rid of their cat, who made a habit of throwing up on the couple’s white carpet. Upon discovering that the cat threw up only when it was left alone, Dodman recommended playing music or the radio to relieve the silence. A few weeks later, Dodman saw the man again and asked about the cat. “He said, ‘Oh, it’s great. I leave the radio on now and he doesn’t do it anymore,’ ” Dodman says.
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That said, Dodman isn’t persuaded that music itself is what’s beneficial. “I do think that sounds are very important,” he says. “I have people make a tape of household sounds that includes people talking, the TV being on in the background, the dishwasher, even some words for the pet — ‘Hey, what’s up, Ralphie? How are you doing?’ Then they play this tape when they’re away and … when the door shuts the animal’s not faced with absolute silence but rather the same auditory backdrop it would have when people are there.”
Music just for their ears
Nonetheless, animal-loving musicians believe animals respond to music’s rhythms and tones. Some have even created music specifically for pets. Music producer Skip Haynes of Los Angeles put out a CD about dogs just for fun, and it sold so well that he and his partner decided to see if they could go further with the concept. With the assistance of animal communicator Kim Ogden-Avrutik, he tested music and lyrics on more than 200 dogs and produced a CD called "Songs to Make Dogs Happy."
People who’ve bought the CD report that it settles their dogs down on car trips (a Rottweiler named Virgil insists on hearing the CD every time he rides in the car) and helps relieve separation anxiety.
“We got an e-mail from a woman whose dog tore her house up every time she left it alone,” Haynes says. “She got the CD, played it for the dog, and then put it on again before she left and after having set up a video camera. She said the music was for the dog and asked the dog not to rip up the garbage.” The result? She sent Haynes a video of the dog simply sitting on the couch for two hours, not ripping up the garbage.
While the upbeat music and vocals of "Songs to Make Dogs Happy" makes dogs and people want to dance, Sue Raimond’s music is at the other end of the scale. She’s a harpist in Mount Laguna, Calif., who has created music to soothe animals — including dogs, cats, birds, elephants, zebras, apes and giraffes — that are anxious or in pain. Whether her recorded music is played for animals in mobile grooming vans, veterinary waiting rooms, surgery recovery rooms or animal shelters, she says the response is favorable.
“They were calmer, they weren’t barking, they weren’t meowing, they weren’t frightened," Raimond says. "In shelters, the noise level is decreased, so it’s more restful. And any time you can handle an animal and have the animal be relaxed, it’s easier on the handler and on the animal.”
There’s not a lot of specific evidence that harp music works better than other types of music, but Patrick Melese, a veterinary behaviorist in San Diego, says a certain number of animals are affected enough that it’s worth trying.
“I have noticed anecdotally that a number of animals seem to calm down more quickly and be more relaxed when I play harp music in the exam room,” he says. “Most animals, 90 percent, I don’t play it for, but in animals having a lot of difficulty in calming down I think it does help. The best part is that there are no side effects. The worst-case scenario is you own a nice harp CD.”
Why does music seem to have an effect on animals? In humans, music has been proven to have physiological benefits that include inducing relaxation by slowing heart and respiratory rates, says Linda Chlan, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing in Minneapolis.
Chlan doesn’t rule out the possibility that music could have similar benefits in animals. “Depending on the beat, rhythm, and tone of a piece of music, music affects the body both physiologically and psychologically through the vibrations of the music as the music is processed in the brain,” she says. “I would anticipate that the vibrations of music would also affect pets, as they have body rhythms that would be affected by vibrations.”
Chlan’s two elderly cats seemed to bear out this theory. They preferred Mozart’s soft, light piano music but would hide when she played loud rock songs.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.
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