Composer writes music to calm stressed-out shelter dogs
Even if you're a longtime music fan, the name Terry Woodford might not ring a bell. But some of the artists with whom he worked as a songwriter, producer or engineer probably do: the Supremes, the Temptations and the Commodores.
In a music career that started in the early 1960s and spanned a quarter-century, Woodford was involved in generating successful songs for marquee names as well as less-famous acts. Some of Woodford's collaborations still resonate: "Scratchin'," an instrumental by Magic Disco Machine, has been sampled by Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC and dozens of other artists.
These days, however, Woodford's musical creations don't get played on the radio, haven't been sampled by Cardi B and aren't a powerful presence on Spotify. They're played to dogs - lots of dogs.
"Canine Lullabies," as Woodford calls his latest works, marry the sound of a human heartbeat to traditional lullabies. Imagine "London Bridge" but with New Age-y music and vocals atop an insistent thump-thump.
The tracks have been played at animal shelters across the country and beyond - including in Britain, India and Australia - to help reduce barking and generally lower the stress levels of their canine constituencies. And the folks who care for these homeless pooches give the tunes strong reviews.
Lisa Morrissey, a dog trainer and behaviorist who consults with shelters in Pasco County, Florida, said she heard about "Canine Lullabies" in 2016 while researching the burgeoning genre of music meant to pacify shelter dogs.
"I was looking for aids to help calm dogs arriving into a high-volume, high-anxiety and incredibly stressful environment," she wrote in an email. "I have found the shelter dogs respond and calm faster listening to 'Canine Lullabies,' versus other calming/separation anxiety music."
But Woodford's dog music wasn't originally intended for dogs. The origin of "Canine Lullabies" was something of a happy accident, a byproduct of one of Woodford's previous missions: to create tunes that would quiet crying babies. Woodford, 75, said he was serving as a judge at an arts festival in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1985 when he met a woman who worked as a recreational therapist at day-care centers. She challenged him to create music "that's not so condescending for our kids."
"Are you kidding me? I'm a big-time record producer!" he recalled thinking, affecting a puffed-up, self-mocking tone. "I don't want to make music for kids!"
Yet he rose to the challenge. Rather than reinvent the wheel and compose entirely fresh music, Woodford figured he'd use traditional lullabies, devising the wrinkle of adding the heartbeat. The notion was that listening to it would remind babies of hearing the heartbeat of a person holding them. He says it worked, both at hospital nurseries and at the homes of newborns.
"If we're in a chaotic environment, we're drawn towards structure and order," Woodford said, offering his explanation for the music's cross-species enchantment. "So these songs, the lullabies, are very simply structured. And then I think not only the babies, but also the animals are drawn to the human compassion in the singer's voice, and the familiarity of the heartbeat."
So what was previously called "Heartbeat Lullabies" is now known as "Canine Lullabies," and it represents part of a tiny subgenre of music now used to soothe shelter dogs. Other offerings include iCalm for Dogs, "Relax My Dog" and what may constitute the latest, if unofficial, entry in the field: "Song for Daisy," a 15-minute track by singer-songwriter Gnash - best known for his hit "i hate u, i love u" - composed last year to help pacify his adopted Maltese terrier, Daisy.
Research exploring music's impact on animal shelter residents has tended to yield positive findings. For example, a 2002 study that tested the impact of a variety of musical styles on the behavior and barking of shelter dogs found that classical music encourages relaxation and quiet, while heavy metal does largely the opposite; a 2012 study largely echoed those findings. A 2017 study determined that shelter dogs responded slightly better when exposed to reggae or soft rock, as opposed to Motown, pop or classical. (As a measure of the seriousness of his undertaking, Gnash consulted the researchers of the 2017 study before fashioning "Song for Daisy.")
Meanwhile, although Woodford says he is not uninterested in science, he will be the first to tell you that research played no role in spawning "Canine Lullabies." Neither, for a long time, did anecdotal evidence from parents of newborn babies.
"I hate to admit this," Woodford said, "but I got emails and phone calls for 13 years about how people would play the 'Heartbeat Lullabies' for their dog, and it would calm them and keep them from barking, and I just kind of said: 'Oh, come on. . . . I mean, is this really real? Are you people reading things into this?' "
During those years, some shelters had started playing the music in their facilities. One was in Colorado Springs, where Woodford was living at the time. Upon paying a visit, he became a believer.
"I'm walking down the aisle, and all the dogs are jumping and barking, and [the shelter employee] had an old boombox in the corner," said Woodford, who now lives in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. "She turned it on, and within 15 seconds every dog laid down in their kennel, and it freaked me out."
He soon took the same music and packaged it for dogs. Now, he estimates, it's played in about 2,500 shelters.
The "Canine Lullabies" income hasn't exactly dwarfed Woodford's earnings from his music biz days: He provides CDs, or downloads, for free to shelters, rescues and animal clinics. And some have come back for more.
Recently, Woodford said, he received an email from a manager at the Humane Society for Hamilton County in Noblesville, Indiana, requesting a CD. She noted that the shelter already has a copy.
"But we play it so much," the manager wrote, "it has become worn and damaged."
This article was written by Duncan Strauss, a longtime journalist and host of WMNF Tampa's weekly radio program "Talking Animals."