Becoming a sustaining member of WOSU has never been easier - in fact, it’s so easy a dog could - and has - done it. At only twelve years old, Cuyler Burgett was one of WOSU’s youngest sustaining members and its only canine member. The late Cuyler was a handsome Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who loved to listen to classical music, especially Bach piano solos.
Cuyler’s parents, Bob and Barbara Burgett, also played him recordings of classical music specifically intended for dogs from the Through a Dog's Ear series. The music is deliberately calming, designed to relax anxious, stressed, or frightened dogs. When I contacted Bob and Barbara to ask about Cuyler, they were excited to put me in touch with Dr. Susan Wagner, a local MedVet veterinarian who has become an expert in music therapy for animals.
Dr. Wagner, who worked as one of Cuyler’s veterinarians, served as the research director for the Through a Dog's Ear CDs, lending her expertise in neurology and spirituality to craft the perfect set of music to help calm anxious dogs. I asked Susan to explain why classical music is calming to dogs, and her answer was fascinating.
While selecting pieces for the series, Susan and her team were working with psychoacoustically arranged music. This means that the music had some cognitive function beyond just being music-- it was edited and arranged to have a calming effect on dogs. They chose music with simple instrumentations, mostly small trios or piano solos, and they specifically used pieces with low tones and gentle tempos. For many pieces, they lowered octaves and simplified chords - Susan explained that the more music that’s happening, the more there is for a dog’s brain to process. When there are fewer notes on the page, it’s easier for the brain to relax. She also told me that a heartbeat and breathing patterns will naturally slow to match a lower tempo, making it easier for a stressed dog to relax.
Susan’s work was one of the first to study the effects of music on animals, though she also told me of the work of Irish behaviorist Deborah Wells, who found that classical music had a positive effect on the abilities of hens to lay eggs. Animals certainly have music tastes and preferences, Susan told me, but in general, classical music is an excellent tool for everything from thunderstorm anxiety to carsickness.
Susan is an incredibly perceptive person - in addition to her work, we spoke about our shared love of animals and our desire to see the world give them a little more credit-- animals are so much more than just other beings we share our planet with. Just like us, they have unique personalities and preferences in all things. But, to be fair, who doesn’t enjoy a good Bach sonata?