Lisa Spector’s metal-clad loft, perched on a winding canyon road near Half Moon Bay, is eerily noiseless save for the soft piano playing in the living room and the low hum of Labradors Gina and Sanchez snoozing on their beds.
The dogs don’t know it, but the classical music – rearranged and played by Spector – was designed to put them to sleep. Branching from a science called psychoacoustics, that music is helping pets in Sacramento and beyond live quieter, and arguably healthier, lives.
“Sound is a nutrient for the nervous system,” said Spector, a pioneer in music therapy for pet anxiety. “And dogs, because their hearing is even more sensitive than ours, they can be in an environment where the TV is on in one room, music is on in the other, and they can’t go turn the volume down. They don’t have any control. And then you put them in a room with just this music, and there’s a look on their face like: ‘Thank you, finally.’ ”
Scientists have long known that music can manipulate the human nervous system. Play something loud and fast, and heart rates will soar. Switch to something soft and low, and stress will abate. It’s no coincidence that quiet music is used in places like dental offices, elevators and yoga studios.
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So when Spector, a renowned concert pianist with a Juilliard degree, took her first seminar on psychoacoustics in 2003, she expected it to work on her human students. But she had no idea that it would also mollify Sanchez, then only 4 months old.
“I noticed that the rambunctious puppy would calm down and start snoozing pretty quickly,” she said.
Fast-forward 10 years, and Spector is making a living by rearranging original classical compositions for pets, which can mean slowing the music down and breaking up repeated melodies that can grab a dog’s attention. With the help of sound researchers, trainers and veterinarians, she’s put out 11 “Through a Dog’s Ear” and three “Through a Cat’s Ear” albums, which she sells internationally and donates to 1,500 shelters and pet rescue organizations – including the Sacramento SPCA.
Sanchez, a senior dog now, still has the ears of a fox – which Spector credits to his having heard many more arpeggios than car horns throughout his life. Gina, age 6, can often be found curled up near her iCalmDog, a portable speaker developed by Spector and her colleagues that plays four hours of music on auto-repeat. The newly developed iCalmCat went on sale Jan. 14.
The Bee sat down with Spector and the pups to discuss canine composer preferences, ear health and why she devoted her life’s work to dogs and cats.
Q: Some of the research you initially looked at showed that classical is more soothing to dogs than any other background noise (pop music, metal, human chatter or silence). Classical music is still a broad category. How did you get it narrowed down to the formula you use now?
A: We simplify classical music – take out the complex part and the patterns that cause active listening, and go to “passive hearing.” Slow it down significantly (40 to 60 beats per minute), and lower it. Lower frequencies calm the canine nervous system. If you play violin or flute, dogs can start barking and get agitated. When you play music that only the dogs can hear, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t help to calm them; it charges them.
Q: Dogs, especially city dogs, are exposed to a lot of different sounds – car horns, fireworks, thunderstorms. You mentioned their hearing is more sensitive than ours. Does it hurt them?
A: Even humans don’t do well with all that sound. I hope that 20 years from now, secondhand sound will be seen the same way secondhand smoke is now seen. It’s dangerous. It causes illness. It causes stress. The younger generation, they have even more sound coming in, and we don’t yet know the results. It’s no different for dogs.
Q: How would someone know if their dog doesn’t like the music they usually play?
A: Watch your dog. Watch for the reaction. Do they go to the sound source or do they try to stay away from it? It’s challenging to watch that with dogs, because dogs want to bond with their people. They’re going to generally go where you go and they’re going to tolerate it.
Q: When should owners be playing soothing music for their dogs?
A: If you’re dealing with separation anxiety, we actually recommend that you play it for your dog while you’re there for a few days first. You want to actually form an association, that the music means calming, pleasant feelings. You build that association first, before you’d actually play it when you’re leaving. You want to make sure that the music doesn’t mean you’re leaving. I make sure I play it sometimes when I’m here too, so they don’t just build that association.
Q: If my dog is alone for many hours at a time, should I play this music consistently?
A: It’s different for every dog, but generally when dogs are calm, they’ll tend to stay calm unless something new comes into the environment. At nighttime, I recommend playing it for an hour or so, but you don’t need to play it all night if nothing new is coming into the environment. It’s only for during the day when there’s a lot of stimulation and people coming and going.
Our separation anxiety program, it’s programmed depending on how long you’re gone, and we actually do build in half-hour segments of silence. ... because dogs almost can act like they get drugged by the music. And you don’t want your dog drugged. Sometimes they should be stimulated and go chew a bone or a toy.
Q: You used to play for piano critics all over the globe. Now you play for pooches. Why did you make the change?
A: I did not go to Juilliard to play for dogs. The reason I couldn’t imagine anything being more fulfilling than this is because I’ve seen and heard the reaction that dogs and cats have. There have been many cases where it’s actually saved lives, and there have been thousands of cases where it’s helped increase adoption rates at shelters. I just love all our four-leggeds so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else.