Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Mr. Peepers the news:
The lucky dogs at the SPCA Serving Erie County are being treated to the calming strains of healing music provided by a holistic veterinarian in Ohio.
Workers in other shelters report that blessed silence has replaced incessant barking as the dogs hear the melodious tones, said Pamela Fisher, a veterinarian in North Canton, Ohio, who is also founder and executive director of the Rescue Animal MP3 Project.
“I knew that there could be an impact. I had no idea it would be up to 90 percent less barking in a shelter,” said Fisher, who developed the musical program to help animals at her local dog pound. With the help of a few other people, she decided to expand it after doing all the initial work, including getting permission from the artists involved.
Fisher said she has received hundreds of evaluations that say “yes, there is anywhere from 20 percent less barking to 90 percent less barking.”
It’s too early to see whether the dogs have piped down as they listen up at the SPCA, where the music was turned on in the middle of last week, said Barbara Frazier, the agency’s behavior and training supervisor. “I don’t think we’ll be able to say, ‘We had this percent barking, on average, and now it’s reduced by this much.’ I think it’s going to be more of a feeling that these dogs are barking less, and the kennel staff will recognize that.”
However, Frazier said that within hours, “One of the kennel workers pointed out a few dogs who had been barking like crazy and became quiet when the music was turned on.” And in the kennels the day after the music started, the dogs closest to the speakers looked calmly at visitors, rather than jumping and barking.
“For some of the dogs, I do notice a difference,” said kennel worker Sharon Vaca, who enjoys her own preferred music through earbuds as she cleans and prepares kennels.
The stress of life in a shelter, with all its unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells, can make animals deteriorate both physically and emotionally. And dogs exhibiting stress-caused behaviors, including barking, jumping or cowering, are less appealing to potential adopters than calm canines.
Fisher’s project, which she started 18 months ago, has provided more than 650 shelters in all 50 states and several other countries with timers and small MP3 players filled with 30 hours of music, drawn from such sources as “Harp Music to Soothe the Savage Beast” by Alianna Boone and “Songs to Make Dogs Happy!” by Skip Haynes.
The music, which to the human ear sounds like melodious New Age tunes, is designed to soothe animals with its tone, tempo and vibration. Fisher, who uses music in her practice, cites studies that prove its calming effect. One of the first studies, done with shelter dogs in 2002, found that dogs spent more time resting quietly when classical music was playing and more time barking when they were exposed to the staccato rhythms of heavy metal music. But the music in the Rescue Animal MP3 Project is more healing and calming than even classical tunes, she said. Even in shelters where music was already being played, “They still see an improvement with the project’s music, which is very interesting to me.”
A video on Fisher’s website, www.rescueanimalmp3.org, shows a group of dogs barking loudly in a room filled with chain-link kennels. All of them grow quiet within 30 seconds after the music starts, then curl up on their beds.
The effects of the MP3 Project music have been seen in other species besides dogs and cats. People who operate a wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe reported that resident lions were calmed by the music, and a guinea pig rescue in Colorado noted an effect.
Because of the size of the shelter, the SPCA had to buy a receiver and multiple speakers, as well as speaker wire, costing about $350. Smaller shelters can use a boom box to play the music.
Frazier set the system’s timer to turn the music on at 7 a.m. and off at 8 p.m. so the dogs can enjoy quiet time at night. “We plan to tweak this as needed,” she said.
The music is barely audible to people in the adoption corridors, because the speakers are located behind the kennels. “It’s not for us, it’s for them,” said Frazier, pointing out that dogs’ hearing is much more acute than humans’. “But it’s there, we can hear it, and it’s exciting.”
The music is just the latest innovation the SPCA staff is using to keep animals in its shelter occupied and happy. Walks throughout the day in the shaded yard and access to small plastic pools filled with water are just a start. Dogs are also given lessons in behavior and taught tricks, which not only keeps them busy, but makes them more desirable pets.
Most dogs receive their dinners in sturdy rubber Kongs and Busy Buddy toys, which require the dog to work to get the food. “This prolongs the meal experience and gives them something to do,” said Frazier.
The staff has used soothing scents, including lavender, vanilla or chamomile, to calm the animals, and sometimes a blanket from a rabbit cage is given to a dog for a scent exploration. “That gives them something interesting to smell and experience,” said Frazier.
A plug-in product that emits the comforting scent of a natural feline pheromone has been used in the areas where cats live at the SPCA, and their rooms, which are separate from the dog kennels, may eventually be wired for sound, too.
Fisher provides each shelter that accepts the music with a laminated sheet describing the program and thanking the artists whose work the animals will hear. The sheet is backed with Velcro, but Frazier plans to do better than that. “I’m going to have this framed and hung on the wall,” she said.