Pets and music: one degree of separation?

by Lynne Warfel, Minnesota Public Radio
January 11, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — One of the facts you should know going into this is: I have always been an animal nut. Since before the days I was allowed to have a pet, I coveted anyone and everyone's cats, dogs, hamsters, parakeets and even the occasional raccoon (which is another story for another time). From the age of two until about eight, every arm of every chair became Trigger or Silver, and I was off and riding the Wild West for hours with a pillow for a saddle and a cotton clothesline for reins.

I got my first dog, a brown curly coated mix of unknown heritages, when I was 8, and I gave her the name of Shon. I taught her to sit, to lie down and come when called, and to walk politely on a leash. After the Shon years, there were more dogs and critters of all sorts to come in my life, and I learned from each of them what to do and not do the next time.

It wasn't until the last fifteen years or so that I became acquainted with the "New School" of animal handling: holistic medicine, homeopathy in vet care and foods; working with praise rather than punishment; and, eventually, the whole subject of music to soothe the savage beast. Yeah, yeah, I know that's a misquote, but you get my drift (English Lit majors: Sit! Wait!! Stay!!).

When I first met my riding teacher, Kathy Mueller, she already knew me because she always has the radio in the riding arena tuned to 99.5. When I got to know one regular MPR listener-member, dairy farmer Ben Hain, he repeatedly swore up and down his cows milked better in the morning if he has classical music on.

I don't dispute the veracity of their claims. However, I'm here to tell you that the animals who own me seem rather ambivalent about Mozart, Mendelssohn and Mahler. If they hear a clarinet, whether played by yours truly or a recording of Richard Stolzman, they run for cover. If my ex-King's Singer husband sings — and he has a very nice voice, as you might imagine — the basset howls, soon to be harmonized by the rest of the pack. So they've put substantial doubt in my mind that they are big fans of any kind of classical music, regardless of talent or interpretation.

What sounds do my dogs notice? Doorbells on TV, and especially the ubiquitous barking dog in almost every version of A Christmas Carol heard boofing in the distance just as Scrooge approaches the door knocker that turns into Jacob Marley's face. I've had one Gordon Setter in past years go right up to the TV to see where this vocal mutt was living. She even checked behind the TV. Pretty smart, huh?

Does my Lipizzan, Teddy, appreciate Liszt? Not really, but he likes when I ride listening to music. Mostly because it gives me something else to focus on rather than on how nervous I might be if he spooks, so the ride is way more pleasant for him!

So, I hold to my humble opinion that it isn't the animals directly benefitting from great music, but rather the effect the music has on us humans. We then transfer our comfort to them via a lower heart rate, calmer breathing and a generally more peaceful nature. It makes us the improved and better critters to be around. It probably even makes us smell less threatening to them. And that's good for all creatures, great and small.

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