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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)

By: Stanley Coren

Last Updated:

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Illustration by Ryan Garcia

I dropped 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?”.  


Last Updated:

By: Stanley Coren
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