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Turning the Page on Music in Shelters

Words or music? Dr. Emily Weiss shares an exciting new study on the impact of sound on dogs that may find you hitting the books at your shelter.


One of the things I love most about research is there is always more to discover. Over the past 15-20 years there has been a fair amount of research regarding the impact of music in nonhuman animals. It is now known that different types of music can increase a wide variety of behaviors—from copulatory behavior (you know what I mean—birds do it, bees do it…) associated with jazz to aggressive behavior associated with heavy metal (yes, we understand that one, don’t we?).

The scientific field has identified classical music to be beneficial for a wide range of animals, from elephants and gorillas to mice and…yup, you guessed it, dogs. Sheltering organizations around the country have embraced the concept and have implemented music into enrichment programs, with varied levels of impact and success.

Of course, not all classical music is the same, and some of the variance in behavior is due to the difference in cadence, beat and tempo of, for example, battle marches vs. soft violin sonatas. The impact of sound 24 hours a day vs. some hours of silence can also be powerful. (Important note: Music should be turned off during the overnight at a minimum). More recent research has uncovered some potential impact of species-specific music, which they call psychoacoustically designed dog music. Further study is needed here to determine if habituation (getting used to the sound) mutes impact over time.

All of the research up until this point examined the difference in behavior between no music vs. music, or one type of music vs. another. Recently a study was published in which the researchers examined the difference between music and audiobooks. Oh! Clever!

They examined dogs’ behavior with regular kennel sounds (control condition), classical music, pop music, the psychoacoustically designed dog music and audiobooks. And what they found was pretty cool: Dogs spent more time resting and less time in vigilant behaviors when listening to audiobooks vs. any other condition! The differences in behavior were impressive and meaningful. Interestingly, pop music resulted in the highest rate of barking of all the conditions (a reminder to all that music played in the kennels should be music for the dogs—not for the staff…)

In each of the treatments the sound was played for just two hours—and not every day to avoid saturation. This is important for those using sound as enrichment. If we want to see impact, do not play sound all day long, but instead at strategic times of the day. Try to see if you can decrease barking at feeding or cleaning time, or maybe during the first couple hours of adoptions. The book used in the experiment was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe performed by Michael York—and just as there was much to learn about the different impact of various music on behavior, so will likely be true for audiobooks. There may be differences in male voices vs. female voices, for example. But for now, it is good to know that reading may rule the calming roost for the canines in our care!

You can read the full study here.

How about giving it a try in your shelter?


Related Links

Research: “The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs”

3 Things to Consider About Your Shelter’s Soundscape

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