Wednesday, 13 January 2016

How Audiobooks Can Help Shelter Dogs

New research shows listening to audiobooks can help dogs waiting for adoption.


A cute puppy rests with its head on its paws at the animal shelter


Imagine how it must feel to be a dog at a shelter, taken from your normal environment for reasons you don’t understand, with unfamiliar smells and noises, including other dogs barking. Could the sounds of music or a person reading help? A new study by Clarissa Brayley and Tamara Montrose (Hartpury Animal Behaviour College) tests audiobooks and music to see if they calm the dogs, and finds beneficial results from audiobooks.

The study compared an audiobook – specifically Michael York reading C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – to classical music (The Best of Beethoven), pop music (Now 88), specially-designed dog music (Through a Dog’s Ear), and a control condition of no added sound.

“Shelters frequently are stressful environments for dogs,” says Dr. Tamara Montrose, “and any reduction of this stress is beneficial for their welfare. In our study we found that audio-books enhanced resting behaviours in dogs which is suggestive of reduced stress. Dogs are highly social animals who value human contact. We believe that audio-books approximate human interaction for these kennelled dogs and that they benefit from the illusion of company and comfort provided by the audio-books.” 

“Besides these beneficial direct effects on dog welfare, audio-books could also indirectly help dogs in shelters. By reducing the dogs’ stress this may help reduce behaviours such as excessive barking or activity which can impact upon rehoming and so audio-books may potentially help encourage adoption of these dogs.”

31 dogs took part at the Blue Cross Burford rehoming center in Oxfordshire, UK. They were aged from 9 months to 13 years, and had been at the shelter for 51 days on average. All the dogs took part in all of the conditions. 

Regular kennel life continued during the experiment: the dogs spent time outside in the morning (while their kennel was cleaned) and for an hour in the afternoon, had a walk each day, and were fed two or three times a day (depending on the dog). 

Kenelled dogs were less stressed when listening to the audiobook
The music or audiobook was played for two hours during a quiet time in the morning. Video cameras were set up to monitor the dogs’ behaviour, which was sampled every 5 minutes.

The dogs rested or slept more when the audiobook was playing compared to the other conditions, and spent less time sitting or standing. In fact they were resting or sleeping 15 times (out of 24) during the audiobook, compared to an average of 7.7 during the pop music.

Dogs barked less during the audiobook compared to music. Howling, growling and whining were less during the audiobook compared to pop music and the control. The dogs also walked about less during the audiobook compared to pop music, special dog music and the control.

During the classical music, dogs walked about less and vocalized less, but it was not as good for welfare as the audiobook. Earlier studies have found some benefits from classical music being played in kennels (e.g. Kogan et al 2012) so it’s interesting the audiobook did much better here. 

Some shelters have programs in which volunteers read books to dogs. Playing an audiobook could be a good alternative when volunteers aren’t available. The dogs have probably not heard audiobooks before, and the researchers say the narrative delivery is likely to be more interesting than regular conversation. So although dogs don't appreciate the fine writing and the plot, they do enjoy the engaging human voice.

Further research is needed with more examples of each genre, so we know the results pertain to audiobooks in general. It would be interesting to know if dogs prefer the same book repeated over time, or like new books to listen to. Maybe it would also work for shelter cats. 

This is a very promising study because it suggests a low-cost way to reduce stress in shelter dogs. 

Does your dog like audiobooks?

Reference
Brayley, C., & Montrose, V. (2016). The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs at a rehoming kennels Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 174, 111-115 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2015.11.008
Photo: Janis Maleckis (shutterstock.com)

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