Music for and by Dogs

Everywhere we go in the coming holiday season, we’ll be hearing the familiar carols and songs. (Will your Kerry get tired of “The Little Drummer Boy” before you do?) Interestingly, past Questions of the Week suggest that our Kerry Blue Terriers are relatively indifferent to music. In 2010, 66 percent of us said our KBTs did not enjoy listening to music (31 percent said they did). With expanded choices in March 2011, 14 percent said no, 26 percent said yes, and 59 percent said of us said our Kerries were indifferent to it. To learn more, let’s look at what we know about dogs’ response to human music, and about dogs’ “singing” (or howling).

(Just for fun, first go to YouTube and search on “Kerry Blue Terrier singing.” The top choice is “The singing dog” by Joanna Jagiello and it features a darling Kerry puppy!) Here’s the URL.

Dogs’ response to human music. A fairly consistent finding is that classical music has a calming effect on dogs, while they react to “grunge” with irritation and are bored by pop music. For example, Wells (2002) discovered that shelter dogs showed no changes in behavior when listening to human speech, pop music, or silence, but they did settle down and barked less when hearing classical music. Heavy metal made them bark more and stand up.

Classical music doesn’t always come out on top, though. In a delightful bit of research sponsored by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, researchers from the University of Glasgow tested five different musical genres: classical, soft rock, reggae, pop and Motown (!). They developed six-hour-long Spotify playlists in the five genres and tested whether listening affected dogs’ heart rate and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. The dogs in the study “showed a slight preference for reggae and soft rock … while Motown got the most paws down, though not by much.”

A few observers have also suggested that dogs like some instruments better than others, commonly wind instruments (particularly reeds), but sometimes stringed instruments like the cello or violin. Yet others think “simplified” music such as solo piano is most pleasing. One reason may be that although dogs have amazingly  keen hearing, in some ways ours is better. Dogs can’t discriminate pitches nearly as well as we can; in fact, the bat is the only mammal that can discriminate more. We can hear at least 12 pitches in a musical octave, while dogs can discriminate only three. (Think about that: if you sing a simple song, dogs will hear it as having only one or two different notes!)

Furthermore, it’s probably not the particular genre of a piece of music that prompts a dog’s response: it may instead be particular features of the music. Patricia McConnell (reporting her own research in a 2013 post in her blog “The Other End of the Leash”) found that a rapid tempo stimulated increased motor activity, while long, continuous notes were universally soothing to working dogs (and horses). And in a study of tamarin monkeys, animal psychologist Charles Snowden learned that music in the monkeys’ own acoustic and vocal range was pleasing, but melodies above or below that range were not. Other features that changed the effect of music on primates were these: staccato notes were more energizing, while long, sustained tones were more restful; melodious tones were more restful, harsh tones more exciting; and (as noted above) fast tones increased pace, slow ones retarded it. (Humans, too, like a pace that is similar to their own heart rhythms).

Snowdon and his colleague, composer David Teie, suggest that large dogs, such as labs or mastiffs, have vocal ranges quite similar to those of adult male humans. Smaller dogs have a higher vocal range and a different heart rate, so they likely would respond better to other singers. (Sounds like tenors will probably be the guys in demand for Kerry caroling!

Howling: dog song? In the wild, dogs, coyotes and wolves howl when they are isolated and want companionship. Also, though, they howl together as a way of pack bonding. According to Stanley Coren, a well-known dog psychologist, howls usually start at a higher pitch, sink to a long, sustained tone and then end with a little “coda” at a lower pitch.

Dogs’ sense of pitch is exemplified by the fact that when a dog (or a human) starts to howl, the next dog to join in will choose another tone. Whether it chooses a note that is discordant or in harmony has not been studied, but my experience is that dogs naturally howl in harmony. Dogs have “absolute pitch,” that is, they can hear a note sung or played, and be trained to use their paw to select the key on a piano that matches that tone. (Go to YouTube to look for a demonstration.)

Coren even presents one example of a dog with “relative pitch,” which is what tells us when someone is “in tune” or “out of tune.” He tells of a bulldog named Dan who was owned by an organist at a cathedral in London. The organist was a friend of Sir Edward Elgar, the composer of Pomp and Circumstance (ubiquitous at graduations everywhere). Dan would attend choir practices and growl at choristers who sang out of tune, “which greatly endeared him to the composer.”

Another YouTube gem is a performance of Sonata for Piano and Dog. Composed back in 1983 by Kirk Nurock, pianist and arranger for musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Mette Midler, Leonard Bernstein, this composition won him quite a bit of notoriety, especially after he appeared as a guest on the David Letterman show. The video shows two dogs responding not to the piano (which is what I had expected) but to Nurock’s singing (if that’s what you would call it), again suggesting that dogs howl not for the sheer pleasure of making music but for its social aspect.

The music-for-dogs industry. YouTube is a rich source of videos showing dogs listening to music or making it (i.e., vocalizing). There are also many vendors selling recordings designed to provide music to calm a dog that hates thunderstorms or even just to entertain your dog while you’re away. This article has suggested some options (classical music, of course, but remember the research about soft rock and reggae too). Kogan, in her research, used “Für Elise,” the “Moonlight” sonata, the “Blue Danube” waltz, and “Air on a G String,” for some examples of soothing classical strains.

For music specifically engineered to calm dogs (it’s called “psycho-acoustically designed” music, with the right pacing, tonal range and with simplified melodies), check out the web site of Susan Wagner and Joshua Leeds, who wrote Through a Dog’s Ear (2008). While some studies have not shown engineered music to be better than classical music at calming dogs, Wagner and Leeds observed that the piano piece used in their research “was more effective at inducing canine relaxation and sleep and doubled the abatement of canine anxiety behaviors.” Or you can just order CDs that your local massage therapist uses; humans and dogs relax to the same vibe!

However, one caveat: In the study described above that compared classical music to pop music and “grunge” (Wells, 2002), the dogs listening to classical music displayed more calm behavior. By the seventh day of the research, however, classical music seemed to have lost its “charms to soothe the savage beast” — after that, the dogs became habituated to the music (in other words, they were bored). As with most of us, it’s best to change up the playlist from time to time!

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