Little Red, a pit bull with a tender soul, spent the majority of her first five years chained to a car axle that was planted in the ground at Michael Vick’s notorious Bad Newz kennels. Her only respite from the elements was when she had puppies, or when someone needed a bait dog to test the violent propensities of other pit bulls.
She is scarred inside and out. Her teeth were filed down so she could not have defended herself if she tried. When she was rescued in the 2007 raid on the Smithville, Virginia, dogfighting ring, and placed with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, she was so fearful that she wanted only to hide — from people, dogs, the world.
After years of TLC and learning that people and dogs can be good, in September 2011 she had recovered enough to go into foster care by her future adoptive owner, Susan. (We can’t give out her last name because of a Best Friends anonymity policy to keep the 22 “Vicktory” dogs it rescued safe from those who could seek them out and do them more harm.)
You couldn’t find a more loving “dog mom” than Susan, who has four other dogs, including a rescued Pomeranian with three legs. But no matter what she did, Susan never felt the diminutive pit bull truly relax. Little Red slept with her eyes open, her body curled up tight, on guard through the night. Her muscles were always tense, almost as if anticipating a kick or blow. Susan was desperate to help her dog feel safe.
Then one night, she put on a CD of specially arranged classical music designed to calm dogs. “She heard that music, and she just sprawled out on her bed and sighed. She went to sleep with her eyes closed, like her whole body was breathing a sigh of relief.”
Susan uses the music every day for Little Red, in addition to acupuncture and lots of tender loving care. “It was like a miracle. There’s something intoxicating about that music,” she says.
Music to Soothe the Ravaged Beast
The music that’s helping transform Little Red’s life comes from a series of classical music CDs that have been calming canines since 2008. The five Through a Dog’s Ear CDs, produced in the Bay Area, have a huge global fan base of mellowed pooches and relieved owners.
If you think classical music is going to the dogs lately, you may be on to something: Volume I of Through a Dog’s Ear’s popular Calm Your Canine Companion series has just made it to No. 19 on the Billboard classical chart. It appears to be the first time any music designed for dogs has made it to Billboard. (Through a Dog’s Ear is not the only music that seeks to calm dogs, but it’s the genre leader.)
Playing music for dogs is not what Through a Dog’s Ear cofounder Lisa Spector envisioned as her future when she graduated from Juilliard as a classically trained pianist, and then from USC with her master’s in music. Yet she is passionate about what she does.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else so deeply satisfying for my career,” she says.
Spector stumbled into her avocation when she was volunteering to raise puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. She attended a lecture by Joshua Leeds, a sound researcher and authority on psychoacoustics — the study of the effects of music and sound on the human nervous system. She was accompanied by her guide dog in training, who became very calm during certain music. At the end of the talk, she spoke with Leeds about her interest in how music and sound affects dogs. Not long after, a collaboration was born.
Working with veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner, the duo launched two pilot studies involving clinical observation of some 150 dogs over two years. The first pilot showed that “solo instruments, slower tempos, and less complex arrangements had a greater calming effect than faster selections with more complex harmonic and orchestral content.” Translated into real life, according to the Through a Dog’s Ear website:
• 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.
The second pilot looked at music’s effect on anxiety issues, including separation anxiety, along with fear of loud noises like thunderstorms and fireworks. Psychoacoustically designed music reduced 70 percent of anxiety behaviors, while the nonacoustic control of standard classical music reduced 36 percent of anxiety behaviors. Once again, the team concluded that slower tempo and simpler arrangements are quite effective in reducing anxiety.
Roll Over, Beethoven
Leeds is quick to point out that, in his arrangements, he doesn’t add or change any notes. But he does take away. “I’m like a gardener. I weed it.” He’s seeking to make the canine auditory garden one consisting of midrange tones, slower tempos, and simple patterns.
When it comes to calming dogs — as with people — psychoacoustics theory maintains that it’s all about passive listening. Complex pieces with unpredictable patterns turn us (and, Leeds maintains, dogs as well) into active listeners, anticipating what’s next, being on mental alert. But predictability brings with it the ability to chill out, says Leeds.
“She heard that music, and she just sprawled out on her bed and sighed. She went to sleep with her eyes closed, like her whole body was breathing a sigh of relief.” – Susan, Little Red’s owner
The CDs feature a mix of pieces, including Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, Bach’s Prelude in C Major, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27, No. 2, and Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. Most are performed on the piano alone, though Music for the Canine Household includes cello and English horn. Some pieces have been greatly adjusted, while others have barely been tweaked.
Diehard classical music lovers might not approve, but that doesn’t matter to those who deal with the dogs whose lives have changed after this music came into their lives.
“If Mozart can help Little Red, I don’t care what they’ve done to the notes,” says Susan.
The dogs of the Marin Humane Society may agree. It’s one of more than 1,400 shelters that benefit from the Through a Dog’s Ear shelter program, where rescue organizations receive a two-CD set for free. Many pipe it through their sound systems in hopes of calmer dogs. A bonus benefit: Quieter shelters with beautiful music are much more enjoyable places for potential adopters, and could lead to more adoptions.
On a recent visit to the Marin Humane Society, I arrived a little ahead of my appointment and visited the dog shelter before staff had a chance to play Music to Calm Your Canine Companion. The place was loud and barky, and many dogs were bouncing around their little rooms. Later, with the music on, the place definitely mellowed. The barking gradually stopped, except for one shrill-voiced Chihuahua mix. Dogs who were running around their enclosures calmed down. Some went to sleep.
Their mellowness may have been, in part, because fewer people were in the shelter at that point. But there were still several visitors.
“There’s definitely a difference when we play Lisa’s music [compared to] other types of music,” says shelter spokeswoman Carrie Harrington. “It’s a big asset to a shelter.”
Panacea in Pianissimo, or Just a Canine Coincidence?
Not everyone is sold on the idea that the music affects dogs in this manner. Daniel Levitin, cognitive psychologist and author of the best-selling book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, says there are several papers that show a lack of ability to identify notes, scales, intervals, and octaves, in rats, birds, and monkeys. He doesn’t think dogs are an exception.
“It is possible that there is ‘something about’ the sounds of music that soothes the dogs, but if they cannot detect scales, melodies, octaves, intervals, or other fundamental aspects of the signal, I would argue that it really isn’t music they’re responding to at all,” says Levitin. “To me, music is the melody and rhythm and the ability to discern those features. Anything else is just noise.”
“There’s definitely a difference when we play Lisa’s music compared to other types of music. It’s a big asset to a shelter.” – Carrie Harrington, Marin Humane Society
Leeds reveres Levitin’s work, but he has a problem with this argument. “The fact is, dogs calm down with less-complex patterns and slower tempos,” Leeds says. “It clearly makes a tremendous difference.”
Previous research by Irish psychologist Deborah Wells also demonstrated a correlation between classical music and calmness in dogs. She studied five types of auditory stimulation: human conversation, classical music, heavy metal music, pop music, and a silent control (no music at all). Heavy metal and classical were at opposite ends of the reaction scale. The others didn’t have a big effect.
That the Through a Dog’s Ear music has improved the lives of thousands of anxious dogs seems pretty obvious. Spector provides dozens of testimonials for the asking. And even my own already-mellow-yellow Lab seems to snooze more quickly when I put one of the CDs in my computer drive while I’m writing. (Note to self: Get hold of Music for the Canine Household, designed to keep owners awake while calming dogs. Otherwise it’s too easy to nod off.)
But could some of this calming effect on dogs be due to its effect on their people? It’s well known that dogs are exquisitely tuned to human emotions and body language. If something makes an owner feel relaxed, it stands to reason that the dog will pick up on that and relax, as well. In military working-dog circles, where I did research for my forthcoming book, Soldier Dogs, the phenomenon is known as “dumping down the leash.”
Spector says this could account for part of the success of the CDs, but not all. Indeed, she says, dogs with separation anxiety are left alone with the music and are calmer without people inadvertently giving cues. (Of course, if the owners leave in a calmer state, that too could affect the dogs.)
Dog behaviorist Lisa Gunter, who runs the “Drama Queens & Divas” and “Cautious Canine” classes for Pawsitive Tails on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, says the music has been very effective with some of her clients, but that many need behavior training, too. “There is no one magic pill for many of these dogs,” she remarks.
And just because a dog digs classical renditions doesn’t mean she’s going to turn a deaf ear to other music. In fact, when Susan first got Little Red, the pit bull was supernervous. One day Susan put on a CD of Sean Hayes singing on the soundtrack of the Broadway revival of Burt Bacharach’s hit musical Promises, Promises. “His voice transfixed her. The voice just really touched her. She listened, and calmed down.”
Levitin says he’d like to see the gold standard — in the form of controlled experiments — applied if we hope to gain an understanding of what’s really going on with dogs and music. Leeds would love that. “I’d settle for the silver standard,” he jokes. To that end, he and Spector are hoping to work with university researchers in the future to go deeper into their findings.
But before that happens, they will be adding a new branch to their series. Within a couple of months, a beta version of a new series called Through a Cat’s Ear will be available. It will feature a different set of pieces they think will be very well-suited to cats’ issues — which, as any dog knows, can be quite different from canine problems.
“Cats can’t always go outside. They’re dying of boredom and need stimulation. The music will help provide that,” says Leeds.
And what about households with a cat and a dog? Stay tuned. At the rate their business is growing, Leeds and Spector will likely have a very interesting solution to that in the near future, too.
But don’t hold your breath for a CD for your goldfish. “We have our cross-species limits,” chuckles Spector.