Dogster Exclusive Interview: Calming Dog Musician, Lisa Spector

We've got another terrific interview for you this week, with Lisa Spector, concert pianist and graduate of The Juilliard School. "But this is DOGster, not...


We’ve got another terrific interview for you this week, with Lisa Spector, concert pianist and graduate of The Juilliard School.

“But this is DOGster, not MUSICster,” you might say. True. Fortunately for us, Lisa has a foot in both camps.

Lisa is co-founder of BioAcoustic Research & Development, where she presided over the groundbreaking music and canine research conducted with 150 dogs. She is the pianist on the Through a Dog’s Ear music series. If you have a dog who could use a little calming at home or in the car, these CDs are for you.

Lisa has won first prizes in prestigious national piano competitions and performs concert tours internationally, so dogs and people lucky enough to hear her music are in for a treat. Click here for a few free downloads and samples of her calming music for dogs.

MG: Lisa, how did you get started in this? Did you have personal experience with an anxious dog?

Lisa Spector and her yellow Lab, Sanchez (Photo: Trevor Ingraham)

LS: I was a volunteer puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind and had a very high-energy puppy. Id recently attended a seminar taught by a world renowned sound researcher, Joshua Leeds, on psychoacoustics – the study of the effect of sound on the human nervous system. I started applying the principles I was learning from him with my piano students. It was amazing to me how quickly I could calm and help focus a student or energize them through using psychoacoustic principles.

With my challenging puppy, I started to also notice that when I played certain types of classical music, arranged with the same principles that calmed students, he would often curl up and take a nap near the piano. This triggered my curiosity Would the same concepts that were so effective with people also work on dogs? It was 2003 that I first approached Joshua with this idea.

MG: Do dogs hear the world differently than people? How so?

LS: The book Through a Dogs Ear, written by sound researcher Joshua Leeds and veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner, states that the process of hearing is the same in humans and dogs, but there are also important differences. Humans hear sounds between 20-20,000 Hz. Dogs hear a much wider frequency range, especially in the higher pitches. Estimates vary from 40,000 Hz all the way up to 55,000 Hz depending on the breed. Sound is so important to dogs that their ears move constantly, like a radar dish, tuning in to sounds that we cant even perceive.

Here's Ruben, a very satisfied customer. Says M. Lauttamus, Ruben's owner: "Ruben's preferred state is to play fetch and to get my attention he puts the ball on my chair. I was working so I put on the CD and it seemed to soothe him. I turned and there he was listening to your music, completely calm and peaceful."

MG: How can sound help with anxiety and other behavior challenges? And what kind of behavior issues does it help with?

LS: Our psychoacoustically-designed classical music has helped dogs with separation anxiety, sound phobias (thunderstorms, fireworks, etc.) nervousness, fear, excitement with visitors, pre- and post-surgery, and even assisted in euthanasia. It is best to first start playing Music to Calm your Canine Companion when your dog is already calm and relaxed. Playing it at bedtime for a few nights is a good idea (and it will also help people fall asleep). Your dog will start associating the music with a sense of calm. If the music can be combined with something the dog already associates as relaxing, such as a massage, or gentle petting, that also helps. Then start playing the music before the anxiety issue is present. If its played for separation anxiety, make sure that the music is played at various times when you are home relaxing with your dog, so that he doesnt learn that the music is always a predictor of you leaving. Then play the music for about 20 minutes before you leave the house and put it on repeat play. Graduating the amount of time that you are gone also helps.

MG: My dog is a very mellow guy, but he positively plotzed when he heard one of your CDs. Seriously, he went from vaguely alert “dude” mode to almost catatonic within a minute. Is that pretty typical?

LS: While it doesnt happen with every dog, its a report I hear over and over. It seems that Through a Dogs Ear music works the fastest and most effectively on dogs who tend to be sound sensitive. But, these are also the dogs who need the music the most.

MG: In watching this video (Dogster readers, see below), I was fascinated to see the effects of your music on the dogs in the daycare facility. It was like a drug! Is this typical?

LS: Yes!

MG: What percent of the time do you see improvement in a dog’s demeanor thanks to this music?

LS: The research on Through a Dogs Ear, conducted on over 150 dogs, showed that 70% of shelter dogs and 80% of dogs in home environments calmed to the music and lay down. However, since our products have been on the market, even I have been amazed at the stories people share about how helpful the music is and how quickly it works. We donate free CDs to shelters. Currently 90 shelters in three countries are enrolled. We hear from so many of them how successfully it is working to calm dogs. In addition, trainers leading classes of shy and reactive dogs have been commenting on its effectiveness of calming the dogs and handlers and keeping everyone more focused.

MG: That’s wonderful! How is this music different than typical classical or easy-listening music?

Sunny, from Germany, finds this music incredibly relaxing (Photo: Dorothee Reinfelder)

LS: Animal Behaviorist Deborah Wells (Ireland) had already proven that classical music calmed dogs in shelters, in comparison to human conversation, heavy metal music, pop music, and a silent control. In our original research, led by veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner, we tested four hours of classical music in shelters, service dog organization kennels, veterinary clinics, and the home environment. The music varied in beats per minute, in melodic complexity, and instrumentation. The research showed that the slower, simplified, solo piano music calmed the dogs. In other words, we took classical music for the piano, simplified it by taking out certain sections, slowed it down, and sometimes lowered octaves. Slower tempos lower the canine heart rate, lowered registers calm their nervous system.

MG: Is this special music more relaxing for humans, too?

LS: One of the most fascinating things about the research was that it showed that our music that is played for wellness purposes in the human world hospitals, neurodevelopmental clinics, healing centers also calms dogs. To me, it was really amazing to realize that dogs would react differently to music that is 50-70 beats per minute, than music that is 80-100 beats per minute and would respond differently to music with a solo instrument vs. even two or three instruments.

MG: Through a Dogs Ear consists of a book and four CDs. What is the different purpose of each CD?

LS: The music that I refer to above that is simplified solo piano is Music to Calm your Canine Companion Vol. 1-2. After releasing this music, we received many requests from people that wanted music to play in the car for their anxious dogs. The music was working to relieve the dogs anxiety issue, but it was also making the driver sleepy. We only wanted to release Driving Edition: Music to Calm your Dog in the Car if it included protocol to help the dogs with automobile anxiety. We consulted with a behaviorist who wrote instructions, included in the CD liner notes. Driving Edition is designed for Driver Alert, Dog Relaxed. To create that criteria, the piano music is sequenced from simple to complex and from slow to fast. It also includes a track called Travel Prep which is an important part of the protocol. We are especially pleased with the results of Driving Edition. This is truly a case of dog training combined with sound therapy.

The fourth CD is Music for the Canine Household. This music is for people and their dogs. It is designed to keep people awake and allow them to read, work, relax AND stay awake, while their dogs settle with them. The music on Canine Household is a little more complex and adds cello and English horn to the piano music.

MG: Has this been a lifetime dream of yours?

LS: No, I didnt attend Juilliard so that I could learn how to create music for dogs. But, combining my passion for music with my love of dogs has been rewarding beyond measure. I couldnt imagine anything more satisfying than helping improve the lives of dogs, and their people, worldwide.

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