Maybe the television or the radio is on. Maybe your children are yelling at each other. Maybe the microwave is beeping, or your cell phone is ringing. Maybe you have a window open and you can hear the sounds of traffic or the songs of birds.
Our world is filled with sound, but we don't often stop to think about what it means. Joshua Leeds does. Leeds is an authority on psychoacoustics the study of the effects of music and sound on the human nervous system.
"Sound," he says, "is a potent energy that should not be taken for granted." Over the past few decades, the San Francisco area-based researcher says, studies have found that sound particularly affects our human body pulses brain waves, heart rate and breath. It does this, he says, through three specific processes: resonance (the ability of one vibration to alter another), entertainment (the ability of periodic rhythms to speed up or slow down our pulses) and auditory pattern identification (sending the brain into an active or passive mode).
But it is not only our human brain that reacts that way. Recently, Leeds and veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner have begun studying the effects of sound on dogs.
It all started, Leeds said in a telephone interview from his Bay-area home, when a pianist named Lisa Spector came to him. She also raised foster puppies for the Guide Dogs for the Blind program and had noticed that when she played certain music on her 9-foot Steinway, the rambunctious 16-week-old puppies would tumble under the piano and fall into a calm and gentle sleep. She asked Leeds about making an album of classical music for dogs.
At first Leeds was skeptical. He had visions of, as he says, "my reputation going to the dogs." But the more he looked into it, the more he became intrigued. And the more he researched, the more he began to believe that sound particularly certain kinds of music does affect other species.
He came across research by an Irish scientist named Deborah Wells, who had conducted a study in dog shelters and found that classical music created notable relaxation in canines, while heavy-metal music resulted in more agitated behavior.
Wells concluded: "It is well established that music influences our moods. Classical music, for example, can 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."
Leeds admitted he was still a little dubious. "I'd never seen a dog pant, tap a paw or wag a paw in rhythm. Would it be possible to change a dog's heart rate or brainwaves with the use of external rhythms?"
That was when Leeds hooked up with Wagner, and over the next two years they did clinical trials in animal shelters, kennels and homes.
"I was fascinated by the concept," Wagner said in a telephone chat from her home in Ohio. "I'm a veterinarian, but I'm also a musician. I've always loved music. We took four different CDs out to be tested, and the results were remarkable. I couldn't believe the differences."
The psychoacoustic music that had the most profound effect on the dogs, Leeds said, was "very slow and simple arrangements played on a single instrument, specifically the piano. We found that normal classical music was calming, but our rearranged music had twice the effect. We found that the canine nervous system reacts the same as humans to tone, rhythm and pattern."
Leeds and Wagner have written a book on their research called "Through a Dog's Ear" (Sounds True Publishing, $18.95) and have produced three CDs of music.
Their first CD, also titled "Through a Dog's Ear," features Spector on the piano with arrangements of music by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and others. "The tempo is about 50 beats per minute, and it is very calming," Leeds said.
Then, he said, people came back to them and said, "'We need something to use in the car. This music calms the dogs, but it puts the driver to sleep.' We didn't want that."
"Through a Dog's Ear: The Driving Edition" was born.
It, too, features music by Chopin, Brahms, Mozart, Bach and others, but at a slightly livelier tempo and more complex patterns that work as sonic caffeine, Leeds says. It still relaxes dogs, but it engages the human brain.
They are also doing a CD like this called "For the Canine Household," for the times you might want to use the music but not get sleepy yourself.
The book and CDs are available at book stores, pet stores, on Amazon.com and at www.throughadogsear.com. If you have stories about your dogs and music, they would like you to share them on the Web site.
"Our publisher has also donated several thousand CDs that will be given to shelters, and we are also working with pilot shelters to include the CDs in adoption packages," Leeds said. "We hope they will help cut down the numbers of animals that are brought back."
As many as 90 percent of people who bring their dogs to a vet discuss some type of canine behavioral issues, the authors say. "Dog behavior problems range from mild anxiety to severe aggression," Wagner said.
Estimates suggest that more than 10 million dogs have separation anxiety. There are dogs with thunderstorm anxiety, fireworks anxiety. Some dogs demonstrate excitement with visitors; they react to stressful times in the lives of their humans. And while riding in the car is fun for some dogs, it is very stressful for others.
Leeds and Wagner believe that sound plays a part in many behavioral problems, not just the noise of storms and traffic, but all the other noises out there.
You know how you react to too much noise and overstimulation of the nervous system, Leeds said. "But as humans we have strategies to help us cope. You can take a walk. You can read a book. You can eat comfort foods or turn off the TV. There are lots of ways to reduce stress."
But what they've come to realize, he said, "is that too much sensory stimulation has the same effect of dogs.
"Dogs are very adaptable. We bring them into our homes and expect them to adapt to everything. But some are more sensitive than others. Some are like Mac trucks and nothing bothers them; some have very sensitive nervous systems. We need to be more aware of that. We need to help them when there is too much stimulation. We need to be aware of the sonic environment."
"Calming music is a wonderful tool," Wagner added. And that's important for the health and welfare not only of the dogs, but also of their guardians, she said.
"The more I work with them, the more I'm convinced that our pets come into our lives to help us, to teach us. They are part of our families, and they help us along our path as humans. The best thing we can do for them is to appreciate that, be grateful for that. The more we listen to the wisdom and teaching they have for us, the more we will be our best as humans."
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