A New Sound Awareness
When I first visited New York City, my fiancé proudly greeted me with Rita, her cherished year-old Japanese Akita. A statuesque and soulful dog of nearly 100 pounds, Rita was just what Margaret needed: a business watchdog, a protector while walking the Manhattan streets, and a truly faithful, loving companion.
"Be careful when you let her off the leash," was the only warning — a caution that rang in my ears a few weeks later as I permitted Rita walk unencumbered though Riverside Park. This little bit of green was Rita’s favorite haunt, just a few blocks from our apartment. Our experience, like that of most dog walkers, was that our dog loved her few minutes of freedom from human restriction. She would get a little skittish at times, but would always come when called. That night, however, all it took was the sound from an unseen car’s tailpipe backfiring to send Rita off like a shot, running frantically for the safety of home. The only problem was four lanes of fast yellow taxis on Broadway between the park and our apartment.
"Rita! Rita! Rita!" I screamed as I ran after her in the chilly night. She was one block ahead and fast outpacing me. Two blocks later, I was still running as fast as I could after Rita, who was running as fast as she could toward Broadway.
Suddenly there was the sound of horns, followed by skidding tires, a loud whack!, and then that pit-in-the-stomach quiet — the kind of stillness where everything starts going in slow motion. As I turned the corner, my worst nightmare awaited me. Rita was motionless on the asphalt, a taxi driver who didn’t speak English was gesturing wildly, and people were coming out of the shops and restaurants to see what had happened.
When I reached her side, I looked for movement in her belly — for any sign of breath. Yes! She was still breathing. Next, I looked into her eyes but didn’t get the same reassurance — they were wide open, watering, and full of fear, pain, and I don’t know what. I shouted out a telephone number and a neighbor called my fiancé, who arrived within moments. She placed gentle and quivering hands on Rita’s face, running them slowly down her neck and body. No blood or exposed bones, thank goodness — a miracle, considering the size of the dent Rita had left on the yellow taxi, which had now left us alone in the middle of the street. We put Rita’s leash back on and slowly coaxed her back to her feet. She could stand up — sort of — and we helped her into another cab. Eight long minutes later, Rita hobbled into the emergency animal hospital for x-rays and observation and, for us, an anxious night of waiting.
Rita came home the next evening with lots of pain medication and a diagnosis of severely bruised ribs but no apparent organ damage. Because of her size and young age, she had miraculously survived being hit at 40 miles per hour! Many years later, we discovered that several of her vertebrae had fused together due to the injury. Nonetheless, Rita lived almost a full decade after the accident.
For years, when I thought back on that most painful Manhattan night, I wondered how it was possible that one seemingly insignificant and distant sound could have shocked such a large, professionally trained animal into bolting for home. What went through this dog’s ear? It took me two decades to figure it out. Although powerful and large, Rita was high-strung; she had a very sensitive nervous system. And as with people who are "sensitive" to noise, it didn’t take much to upset her balance and cause her to seek the shelter of home.
Canines in the Coal Mine
As Rita’s accident illustrates, over-stimulation of auditory senses can have as significant an effect on our animals as it does on humans. While there is no official diagnosis of "noise disease," millions of people suffer from dysfunctional auditory processing or from the inability to control their environments. Through a Dog’s Ear explores a similarity between human and canine auditory perception, and investigates the effects of the human soundscape on our canine companions.
I am privileged to write this book with Dr. Susan Wagner, veterinary neurologist, academician, and holistic practitioner of animals and humans. Her focus on the spiritual nature of animals and the connection between human and animal welfare issues informs her perspective throughout.
In Through a Dog’s Ear, we explore what’s known about sound and dogs, compare current research into music and canine behavior, and begin the process of connecting the dots of a picture that has not been painted before. In the end, the picture reveals a new kind of canary in the coal mine: the behavioral problems in our dogs forewarn of a much larger problem in the human soundscape, a problem that is affecting us as much as it influences them. In fact, we believe that many anxiety behaviors common in both the American people and their dogs may be the result of cumulative sensory overload, starting with the sound environments in which we live.
Is it possible that the uptick in psychological and physiological dysfunctions we’re now observing in the canine population may be a reaction to our ever more media-driven, high-tech, 24-7 culture? Is this same environment a direct cause of the increased spread of stress- and environment-related maladies in humans, as well?
Research has shown that dogs are among the most adaptable of animals. Most dog guardians have thus assumed that it is the dog’s job to adjust to whatever environment we offer them — no matter how stressful. In this case, perhaps our dogs’ willingness to do anything for us has become their Achilles’ heel — the result of their total compliance is that canines are more stressed than ever before.
Excerpt from Through a Dog’s Ear, Chapter 1:
Petey, Shut Up!
Lisa is a concert pianist who loves dogs. While on tour, she was staying with a local family that had two dogs and an African gray parrot. Willie, the Dalmatian, had his favorite piano pieces, which he clearly recognized. He did not care for Bach or Mozart, it seems, because he always left the room when they were played. One day Lisa was preparing for a concert by practicing Grieg’s Piano Concerto, apparently one of Willie’s favorites, as he began to bellow with delight. However, as soon as Willie started howling, the family’s little dog, Petey, started barking incessantly and the parrot began shrieking, "Petey, shut up! Petey, shut up!" This happened every time Lisa played Grieg.
Jake, a faithful Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, would lie at his master’s feet. Ben would sing — and most of the time Jake would moan. But whenever Ben sang "Lover, Come Back to Me,"1 Jake would spring up and bark along — every time, like clockwork. One Fourth of July, the sound of nearby fireworks frightened Jake so badly that he ran away. It took a nerve-wracking two days to bring him home. Ben whistled "Lover, Come Back to Me" while he and his family combed local neighborhoods until they finally found Jake, shaking and whimpering, on a dark porch two miles away. He recognized the song and gave a half-tired bark. But it was enough.
Then, there’s Peter’s one-hundred-pound male Doberman Pinscher, Charles, who was as gentle as could be. He would sleep quietly whenever someone played music on the piano. But when the children pounded on the keyboard in a random and chaotic manner, Charles would stroll over and stand between the kids and the instrument patiently waiting until someone agreed to play nicely.
Beyond Music and Dogs — Many Questions
These stories of dogs and music are merely the starting place for our inquiry into the effect of the human soundscape on our canine companions. History shows that people, regardless of national identity, simply adore music. With its delicate balance of harmony, melody, and silence, music (in all its varied forms) is the most divinely wonderful organization of sound. Research shows that aside from entertaining, music also impacts the human nervous system, either arousing or soothing it. No wonder it is an integral part of every culture.
Many millions of music lovers are dog lovers, as well. So when we come to understand that many of the sonic effects of music also affect our pooches — be they mutts, shepherds, Labradoodles, or any of their five hundred-plus brethren breeds — it is cause for us to take notice.
Moreover, we know that an external periodic rhythm can affect the human heart rate, brainwaves, and rate of breath — speeding them up or slowing them down, depending on the pace of the beat. It may be news to us, though, that external rhythms also affect heart rates in our dogs. Given this recent discovery, what can we extrapolate about the effect of other man-made sounds — television, radio, answering machines, cell phones, construction, car alarms, helicopters? You and I know when we’re overwhelmed — our minds and bodies let us know. But what about our dogs? Is that extreme salivation or restlessness just a characteristic of a particular breed, or is it actually a stress signal that we’re failing to recognize?
Signs of Stress
Here are some subtle behaviors that you may not recognize as indications of an uncomfortable dog:
- lip-licking out of context
- looking away
- yawning when dog is not relaxed
- increased panting
Through a Dog’s Ear is designed to initiate conversation and raise awareness about the impact of the sonic environment upon our canine companions.
Excerpts from Through a Dog’s Ear are used by permission of the publisher, Sounds True. Duplication without permission is a violation of applicable copyright laws. © 2008 Joshua Leeds and Susan Wagner. All rights reserved.