Link Between Music And Behaviour

Here’s an interesting article on the connection between music and animal behaviour.



Denise Flaim Bio | E-mail | Recent columns

 As that often-misquoted line goes, music is supposed to soothe savage beasts – heck, even mildly irked ones.

That’s the premise behind “Through a Dog’s Ear: Using Sound to Improve the Health & Behavior of Your Canine Companion” (Sounds True, $18.95), a book and starter CD that pays attention to an oft-overlooked canine sense.

We hear all about dogs as connoisseurs of scent – how their noses are a hundred times more sensitive than our sniffers, how they can identify all the individual ingredients in a bubbling pot of soup, from carrots to celery.

But when it comes to aural input, dogs can and do go into sensory overload. “They are instinctively tuned in to react to noises,” explains veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner, who co-wrote the book with Joshua Leeds, an expert in psychoacoustics, or the study of the effects of music and sound on the human nervous system. They contend the cumulative effect of roaring leaf blowers, blaring plasma TVs and chirping cell phones is causing an uptick in physical and psychological problems in our dogs.

Conversely, they say, “intentional” music – purposefully created with lower tones, slower tempos, simplified structure and solo instruments – actually changes canine physiology, causing heart rates to drop, brain waves to calm and stress levels to plummet.

Research on the subject is spotty but interesting: In 2002, Belfast-based psychologist and animal behaviorist Deborah Wells studied the influence of human conversation, classical music, heavy metal music and pop music on dogs in animal shelters.

Dogs exposed to classical music spent more time resting than any other group and barked less. Not surprisingly, the heavy metal “agitated” the dogs, while human voices and pop music had no effect at all – perhaps, Wells posited, because dogs had been desensitized to those sounds.

Despite Wells’ findings, not all classical music is Fido-friendly, Wagner warns. The more complicated the work, the more stimulus the dog has to orient to. “If you put on ‘The 1812 Overture,’ that’s potentially not going to be soothing.”

Through her Web site,, Wagner markets CDs with dog-friendly music performed by Julliard-trained concert pianist Lisa Spector, among others. She says clinical trials showed that 70 percent of dogs in kennels and 85 percent of those in households exposed to such modified music showed reduced stress behavior, including thunderstorm trembling, excitement with visitors and separation anxiety.

Even if owners don’t want to cue up special music for their hounds, at the very least they can be aware of the different sounds in their environment.

“Don’t have the television blaring, especially if you’re not watching it,” Wagner advises, adding that owners who leave Animal Planet on to entertain their critters while they are at work may be doing more harm than good. “It might not be tuned into something calming, like ‘Emergency Vets’ or a lion attacking something.” A better option is to tune the radio to a station you listen to often, which your animal likely associates with your presence.

Wagner encourages owners to take a “sonic inventory” of their household: Sit quietly for a half-hour with pen in hand, noting sounds inside and outside the home, from the churn of the dishwasher to the whoosh of passing traffic.

Notice your dog’s reactions – or lack of them – to particular sounds, then rate them from 1 (least noticeable) to 10 (most disturbing), both from your perspective and what you can guess of the dog’s.

The next step, of course, is to eliminate or otherwise mask the most disruptive noises – or at the very least give your dog an escape route. “If you like a certain type of music, and your dog or cat hangs around, that’s great,” Wagner advises. “Just make sure they can leave.”

As for cats, Wagner says the jury is out. Tests her group conducted on cats in a home setting were inconclusive: Some cats seemed more relaxed when exposed to the simplified music, but that could have been attributed to the fact that they were also old and sedentary.

“But we found it didn’t agitate the cats,” she says, so it might be worth a try in anxious kitties.


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