Music to Soothe the Domesticated Beast

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In recent years a small but surprising cottage industry has emerged of recordings focused on calming, entertaining and uplifting pets. The projects have names like “While you are gone: Music Pets Love,” “Music for Pet Stress and Separation Anxiety,” and the multi-CD series “Through a Dog’s Ear.” The latter was released in 2008 but it suddenly reappeared at number 19 on the Billboard classical chart this week.

The creators of these collections have drawn on a mix of research and anecdotal evidence suggesting that dogs who are agitated by thunderstorms, fireworks or absent owners can be mollified by a soothing dose of Chopin or Debussy.

“Through a Dog’s Ear" is the brainchild of Joshua Leeds, a San Francisco-based authority on psychoacoustics (the study of the effects of music and sound on the human nervous system). As Leeds discussed on WNYC's Soundcheck in 2008, the canine nervous system reacts in similar ways as humans to rhythms, tempos and patterns. Slow, simple piano arrangements of Bach, Rachmaninoff and Chopin "had the greatest effect on calming the dogs,” he said. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries -- not so much.

Academic studies on music’s effects on domesticated animals are relatively few but there is some evidence to support Leeds's point. A 2002 study on dogs in animal shelters by Irish researcher Deborah Wells found that classical music created notable relaxation in canines, while heavy-metal music resulted in more agitated behavior.

Dr. Barbara Pezzanite, an animal behaviorist in Farmingdale, NY, expressed skepticism about the application of that study. In an interview, she noted that shelter dogs are in an unnaturally stressful environment to begin with, and are more predisposed to auditory stimulation. What's more, there are many external factors that can influence how a dog receives music: Did they get enough sleep? Did they just eat? Is there a stranger nearby?

Dr. Pezzanite added that turning on the stereo for dogs with separation anxiety could create a negative association. Your dog thinks: "Every time my owner leaves the music goes on," she said.

Still, there are some devotees of the dog music recordings. One commenter on Amazon.com wrote: "Within 20 minutes of putting this [CD] in, all three dogs -- even the hyper puppy -- are laying down and chilling."

Have you played music for your pet? Did you find it has a calming effect? Take our poll and leave a comment below: