Regulars and Shorts

Animals Animals: Through a Dog’s Ear

By Sunny Branson

Using sound to soothe the savage beast?
by Sunny Branson
We  know that our dogs’ hearing is very sensitive. How does that sensitivity inform their daily lives? Is there an audio component to ca_nine attention, anxiety, depression and other issues? The authors of "Through a Dog’s Ear" believe that calming sounds can help animals with anxiety problems -from fits of barking when left alone to nervous whimpering during a thunderstorm. Their book comes with a music CD which they say has been clinically demonstrated to calm canine listeners-not just high-anxiety animals, but any dog that would benefit from a positive sound environment.

It reminds me of a story about my husband’s childhood St. Bernard. Brandy was afraid of thunderstorms, so during storms, the family took her to the basement and played classical music to keep her calm. This type of music therapy is also known to calm dogs during firework displays or for separation anxiety.

For "Through a Dog’s Ear," psycho_acoustics expert Joshua Leeds worked with veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner to develop an understanding of how the canine nervous system responds to sound. They then brought in concert pianist Lisa Spector to create a series of music to test on dogs. After trials in homes and animal shelters, they fine-tuned the music selection that seemed the most soothing to the animals.

There are two tracks on the CD. The first contains simple, solo-piano compositions to reduce anxiety and relax dogs (and their owners). The pieces have been arranged to gradually reduce the heart rate, and in many cases the canine subjects (as well as their unsuspecting humans) fall asleep.

The other contains selections for everyday living and is a little more stimulating. This track is to be played during regular daily activity when a pet owner might want their dog calm, but not necessarily asleep.

CATALYST editor Greta deJong can attest to the soothing effect of the music. Intended for her two geriatric Dalmatians, it put her to sleep. She says it was hard to guage the effect on Sarah, who sleeps whenever she is not eating even without musical inducement. It had no effect whatsoever on Phoebe, who is deaf. I listened to the relaxation track while working, but had to change it when I felt my eyes drooping. But human tests were not the goal of the study, so, I set out to test the CD on a dog. I wanted to try it on a dog that suffered from a bit of anxiety, not only to show more pronounced results, but also to see if it helped the animal.

I found the perfect subject-a long-hair Chihuahua mix named Terrence, whose sad seven years showed in his one little eye. Nobody knows how long Terrence and the other 30 dogs were left abandoned in the old trailer, or how long the animals were fending for themselves. What we do know is that when Kari Cunningham agreed to foster and socialize Terrence, he was terrified of most humans and wouldn’t let anyone get within a few feet of him.

With undying patience and loving attention, Kari came to win Ter_rence’s trust. Soon, she was able to put on a leash and take him for walks. Not long after that, she was able to pet Terrence and even hold him. Now, I watch her caress his cheek. But he is still highly anxious around new people and in new environments.

When I told Kari about the CD, she said she was eager to try anything that might help her little guy.

We started, as the book suggested, by having Kari examine her home environment to determine what type of sensory space she and Ter_rence were living in. She kept a log of common household noises and recorded both her and Terrence’s responses to the sounds. She compared Terrence’s responses to her own and to the other animals in the home.

The idea is to become more aware of the sounds around you, and notice noises that cause anxiety for your dog. Any sound that suddenly gets an animal’s attention could be a trigger for stress.

Readers are then asked what might be done to make the home more harmonious. For situations where change is impossible, it’s recommended to mask unwanted noise.

Terrence did very well in the sensory space assessment. His behavior and reactions seem pretty well in line with most dogs. The exception is when other people come around; Terrence clings to Kari, walking around her to put her between him and new people. His scruffy little body trembles with his tail tucked securely between his legs.

Kari first played the CD for Ter_rence in a calm environment so he wouldn’t associate the music with his fear or anxiety. After a few of these sessions, Kari tried the CD in a more stressful situation. Neighbor kids regularly come by to play with Kari’s other dog, Henna. Terrence, though inside, is still uneasy seeing the kids through the sliding glass doors. On one such occasion, Kari started the relaxing track. She says Terrence did calm down within a minute. He’d get up periodically to nervously monitor the situation outside, but there was noticeable improvement when the CD was playing.

Kari experimented with the CD for over a week and was happy with the results. Not only did it seem to calm Terrence, but it also got her pit-bull mix Henna snoring sooner.

I invited Kari and Terrence back to my house to play the calming track during a dual stress situation: a new-person/new-environment combo experience. During that time, Terrence got calm enough to sit (which he hadn’t done before) and he let me sit near him. After a while, Kari handed me his leash and moved a couple of feet away. His lone eye stayed glued to her, but he didn’t object. This was progress! It seemed with time-and the other socialization techniques Kari was already using with Terrence-he might just come to realize that people are not so scary.

Kari and the authors agree the book and CD should not be viewed as a quick fix for pet anxiety problems. For severe anxiety or aggression, enlist a positive trainer or behaviorist.

Of course, what I love most about the authors of "Through a Dog’s Ear" is that they are true animal lovers. They started a shelter program to help animal advocacy groups, such as animal shelters and dog rescues. They offer a free CD for shelters and a limited number of free CDs for new adopters. More information can be found at 

Sunny Branson volunteers for animal rescues, and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm Sanctuary.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2008.