Soft Rock to Reg­gae: Dogs Shown to Have Mu­si­cal Taste



Why you should ex­pose your dog to a va­ri­ety of mu­si­cal gen­res (but hold the rock and metal, please).

Why you should ex­pose your dog to a va­ri­ety of mu­si­cal gen­res (but hold the rock and metal, please)

Idropped by the of­fice of a col­league of mine to pick up a book that she wanted me to read. Her of­fice was dif­fer­ent than most oth­ers in the uni­ver­sity since she had an an­tique oak desk in­stead of the more mod­ern uni­ver­sity is­sue, and she in­sisted on soft tung­sten light­ing in­stead of us­ing the built-in flo­res­cent light fix­tures. How­ever, the most dis­tinc­tive thing about her of­fice was the fact that mu­sic was con­tin­u­ally play­ing at a low vol­ume from two com­pact speak­ers on her book­shelf. She claimed that the mu­sic helped to re­lieve the stress as­so­ci­ated with teach­ing large classes and run­ning an ac­tive re­search lab­o­ra­tory. Most typ­i­cally the mu­sic was clas­si­cal (she had a fond­ness for Vi­valdi and Tele­mann), but some­times it in­cluded soft rock, such as Air Sup­ply or Phil Collins. To­day, how­ever, the mu­sic was some kind of reg­gae.

I chuck­led when I sat down and said, “I never could fig­ure out your taste in mu­sic. I wouldn't think that reg­gae fit into the cat­e­gory of re­lax­ing melodies.”

She smiled and an­swered, “It's usu­ally not, but va­ri­ety is im­por­tant in mu­sic. If you lis­ten to only one genre it be­comes bor­ing and it no longer has a re­lax­ing ef­fect. So I have found that you have to change things up now and then.”

“Well, I think that I now un­der­stand you a lit­tle bit bet­ter,” I said, “I be­lieve that you are not sim­ply a pro­fes­sor, but you are the rein­car­na­tion of a dog. At least there is some new re­search which would sug­gest that you and dogs share the same mu­si­cal tastes.”

She cocked her head to the side in much the same way that my puppy does when he's try­ing to un­der­stand what I'm say­ing and said sim­ply, “Ex­plain!” So I did.

I told her that there are a num­ber of pieces of re­search which have looked at the re­sponse that dogs have to mu­sic. This is not just an aca­demic set of in­ves­ti­ga­tions; the data could have prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions. The rea­son is that peo­ple who run ken­nels and dog shel­ters hope that if they can find mu­sic which is ap­peal­ing and re­lax­ing to dogs, it can help to re­lieve the stress the dogs may feel when they are housed in an un­fa­mil­iar ken­nel. The first of these stud­ies was con­ducted by psychologist Deb­o­rah Wells at Queens Uni­ver­sity in Belfast. She ex­posed dogs in an an­i­mal shel­ter to dif­fer­ent types of mu­sic. The dogs be­hav­iours were video­taped while they lis­tened to either a com­pi­la­tion of pop­u­lar mu­sic (in­clud­ing Brit­ney Spears and Rob­bie Wil­liams), clas­si­cal mu­sic (in­clud­ing Grieg's “Morn­ing,” Vi­valdi's “Four Sea­sons,” and Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” or record­ings of heavy metal rock bands such as Me­tal­lica. In or­der to see if it were re­ally the mu­si­cal as­pects of the sounds that the dogs were re­spond­ing to, they were also ex­posed to record­ings of hu­man con­ver­sa­tion and a pe­riod of quiet.

The kind of mu­sic that the dogs lis­tened to made a dif­fer­ence. Ap­par­ently heavy metal mu­sic is not their thing be­cause the dogs be­came quite ner­vous and rest­less and be­gan to bark when it was played. Clas­si­cal mu­sic, on the other hand, seemed to have the most calm­ing ef­fect on the dogs. While lis­ten­ing to it, their level of bark­ing was sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced and the dogs of­ten lay down and set­tled in place. Wells sum­ma­rized her find­ings say­ing, “It is well es­tab­lished that mu­sic can in­flu­ence our moods. Clas­si­cal mu­sic, for ex­am­ple, can help to re­duce lev­els of stress, whilst grunge mu­sic can pro­mote hos­til­ity, sad­ness, ten­sion, and fa­tigue. It is now be­lieved that dogs may be as dis­cern­ing as hu­mans when it comes to mu­si­cal pref­er­ence.”

So based on this data you might think that dog shel­ters would now be pip­ing in clas­si­cal mu­sic all of the time. The prob­lem is that re­search has also demon­strated that al­though clas­si­cal mu­sic re­laxes dogs, the ef­fects are fairly short-term and af­ter a few days or a week it seems to no longer have much of an ef­fect. So a team of re­searchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Glas­gow and the Scot­tish SPCA de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate this is­sue fur­ther. Their re­search re­port was re­cently pub­lished in the jour­nal Phys­i­ol­ogy and Be­hav­ior.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors tested 38 dogs housed in an an­i­mal shel­ter. The num­ber of mea­sures taken on each dog was quite ex­ten­sive. In ad­di­tion to mon­i­tor­ing each dog's be­hav­iour when ex­posed to var­i­ous types of mu­sic, the re­searchers also strapped heart rate mon­i­tors on each of the dogs in or­der to mea­sure heart rate vari­abil­ity (which is gen­er­ally un­der­stood to be a mea­sure of the amount of stress that an in­di­vid­ual is feel­ing). Fur­ther­more, reg­u­lar urine sam­ples were taken in or­der to mea­sure the amount of stress hor­mones be­ing pro­duced by each dog. For six hours each day the dogs were ex­posed to a broader range of mu­si­cal styles than had been used in pre­vi­ous stud­ies. The dogs got to lis­ten not only to clas­si­cal mu­sic, but also to soft rock, Mo­town, pop, and reg­gae. A ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween this and pre­vi­ous re­search is that the dogs were ex­posed to a dif­fer­ent style of mu­sic each day.

Per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant find­ing was that any kind of mu­sic seems to have some­thing of a re­lax­ing ef­fect on the dogs (re­mem­ber no heavy metal or hard rock was used in this study, since the pre­vi­ous work had shown that those sounds ac­tu­ally ag­i­tate the dogs). Be­haviourally, the dogs spent more time ly­ing down or qui­etly stand­ing rather than pac­ing when the mu­sic was on. There was no ef­fect on the amount of bark­ing dur­ing the mu­sic, how­ever the dogs barked a lot more im­me­di­ately af­ter the mu­sic was turned off, as though they were com­plain­ing about its ab­sence.

When the re­searchers looked at the heart rate vari­abil­ity mea­sures, al­though all forms of mu­sic re­duced the dogs’ stress level, the largest stress re­duc­tion was found for soft rock and reg­gae. One of the most im­por­tant find­ings was that by ro­tat­ing through the var­i­ous types of mu­sic over the five day pe­riod, they dis­cov­ered that the stress re­duc­tion ef­fects didn't dis­ap­pear over time, the way it had been shown to do when one cat­e­gory of mu­sic was played all of the time.

In a press re­lease, Uni­ver­sity of Glas­gow pro­fes­sor Neil Evans noted that not all dogs re­sponded to the mu­sic to the same de­gree. He con­cluded that, “Over­all, the re­sponse to dif­fer­ent gen­res was mixed, high­light­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that, like hu­mans, our ca­nine friends have their own in­di­vid­ual mu­sic pref­er­ences. That be­ing said, reg­gae mu­sic and soft rock showed the high­est pos­i­tive changes in be­hav­iour.”

Just as in hu­mans, age seems to make a dif­fer­ence. The older dogs, eight years or more in age, showed lit­tle ben­e­fit from hav­ing mu­sic played, sug­gest­ing that they much pre­ferred quiet to a con­tin­ued back­ground of mu­si­cal sound. I could em­pathize with that since when I was much younger I pre­ferred hav­ing mu­sic play­ing all of the time and I had a bit of a love af­fair with var­i­ous forms of rock mu­sic. Nowa­days, how­ever, I am just as happy to sur­round my­self with si­lence or the more gen­tle sounds of sin­gle voices in soft pop or coun­try mu­sic.

In any event, the Scot­tish SPCA has found the re­sults to be so promis­ing that they are now in­stalling mu­sic sys­tems in sev­eral of their shel­ters in the hopes that ro­tat­ing through var­i­ous styles of mu­sic will help make the shel­ter ex­pe­ri­ence more pleas­ant and less stress­ful for the ma­jor­ity of their ca­nine vis­i­tors.

My col­league smiled and asked, “So what kind of reg­gae worked best? Mento? Ska? Rock­steady? Dub? Rock­ers? Ragga­muf­fin?…” At the sight of what must have been my very con­fused and un­com­pre­hend­ing ex­pres­sion she burst out laugh­ing and added, “You re­ally are an old dog aren't you?”.

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