Do you feel guilty or worried when you leave your pup home alone? It’s understandable – no one wants their furry companion to be lonely. On top of that, a stressed-out dog can do actual damage to your house: Of the estimated 20-40% percent of dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, many exhibit destructive behaviors.
The good news? There are a number of effective ways to help anxious dogs relax, and sometimes it can be as easy as pushing “play.” Just as many people find that music relieves stress, research shows that specific genres of relaxing music can decrease stress levels in dogs.
So how can music calm dogs? What type should you play for your pup? Does Bob Marley’s legendary chill translate across species? (Spoiler alert: most likely!) Read on to find out.
How Can Music Calm Your Dog?
Intuitively, many pet parents seem to suspect that their dogs like music. After all, it works for people. In humans, music therapy is known to relieve stress and improve mood levels. Why wouldn't it be the same for our furry friends? A survey by Spotify found that 77% of respondents regularly play music for their pets, while 55% believe their pets enjoy the same music as themselves.
And amazingly enough, the science backs it up. Numerous studies have found that music can have a positive effect on dogs.
After measuring heart rates, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and stress-related behaviors, researchers at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found in a 2017 study that kenneled dogs showed fewer signs of stress when listening to music, particularly soft rock and reggae music. And before the Scottish SPCA research, an influential 2002 study exposed dogs to 5 types of audio – human speech, classical music, heavy metal, pop, and control – and found that dogs listening to classical compositions rested most frequently. (Heavy metal, incidentally, elicited the most barking.)
There’s still debate as to how, exactly, some music seems to calm dogs. Research by University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Charles Snowdon, an authority on music and animals, shows that different species (including humans!) prefer compositions that incorporate the pitches, tones, and tempos that they use to communicate with each other. (However, dogs vary widely by breed – a Chihuahua, for example, has a much different bark than a Great Dane – so it’s difficult to make any broad assumptions.)
When it comes to easing separation anxiety, there may be a simpler explanation for music’s magic, says Dr. Erin Katribe, medical director at Best Friends Animal Society. A quiet house can amplify loud, abrupt noises, which are stressful to many pets. So even if your pup isn’t technically a Jimmy Buffett fan, the carefree chorus of “Margaritaville” can still serve a purpose.
“Try soothing music, or play the TV or radio on stations like the BBC or NPR while you’re gone to keep them from being startled by outside noises,” suggests Dr. Katribe. “You can also try a white noise machine.”
Playing music can be part of an effective calming strategy for dogs who experience separation anxiety. Symptoms of separation anxiety include:
Music can also be helpful for dogs who have noise phobias triggered by loud sounds, such as fireworks and thunderstorms. Symptoms of noise phobia are similar to those of separation anxiety, and the two conditions commonly occur together.
If you’d like to try using music to reduce your pet’s anxiety during stressful situations, begin by playing music regularly around the house. “If you turn on music only when you are leaving, it can potentially trigger dogs to become more anxious, as it means you are leaving them,” explains Melinda Berger, a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant.
What Kinds of Sounds Can Calm Your Dog?
In general, music with a slower tempo, such as soft rock, reggae, and classical, are thought to be the most “dog-friendly.” However, it’s important to note that every pet is an individual.
“Classical music is generally a safe bet, but like people, many pets appear to have different musical tastes,” says Dr. Lauren Jones, a veterinarian in the Philadelphia area. (In one study that analyzed the effects of calming music on dogs in stressful environments, Dr. Lori Kogan of the Colorado State College of Veterinary Medicine found that classical music made shelter dogs significantly calmer.)
When playing music for your pet, be sure to look for feedback, says Jones, as some animals may become agitated by certain sounds. Signs that your pet doesn't approve include pacing, panting, or moving away from the music source. If your pup doesn’t seem to enjoy the music, try changing music genres, adjusting the volume, or simply turning it off – not all dogs are fans.
Instead of music, you can also try playing a podcast, a book on tape, or turning on the TV, says Berger.
If using the TV, avoid Animal Planet and similar wildlife programming designed with humans in mind – the sounds and imagery could actually increase your pet’s anxiety. Instead, opt for something less exciting, such as the home shopping network QVC. “Not that dogs shop! But the sounds and excitement levels don’t change on that channel,” says Berger.
Some research has shown that calming music becomes less effective after dogs become accustomed to it, sometimes as quickly as one week in. It’s possible that changing genres or switching to a different sound source, such as the TV, could help.
When Is Music Not Enough?
Music can enrich our lives and possibly those of our pets. But for all of its benefits, music isn’t a quick cure for anxiety, which can have serious, long-term effects on a dog’s health and happiness. Many times, dogs with separation anxiety need more than “easy” front-line fixes such as music and busy toys.
“If a pet is still displaying signs of anxiety or destruction while being left home alone, it’s time to discuss different options with your veterinarian,” says Dr. Jones. “A consultation with a veterinary behaviorist and/or anxiety medications may be needed.”
Counter-conditioning and desensitization training can be extremely effective at helping dogs overcome their fears and relax. For dogs experiencing severe separation anxiety, Dr. Katribe recommends working with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), who can create a personalized program for your pet and family.
“An investment now will pay off in the form of improved communication and expectations between pets and people, and a better-behaved, well-mannered pet who is a happier, healthier member of the family,” says Dr. Katribe.
Happy, healthy, and well-mannered? That’s music to every pet parent’s ears.