Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Beyond classical music: audiobooks, podcasts like 'Sleep With Me' can be a calming boon for pets

Creating an environment for pets that is low-stress and calm is a goal of pet owners and those who work with pets. 

Shelters are, by and large stressful places or dogs, and though shelter staff do what they can to facilitate an enriching and nurturing environment, it can be challenging. Now it seems that they might have one trick up their sleeve to make it easier. 

Researchers from Hartpury Animal Behavior College, UK wanted to see how classical music, pop music and music from Through a Dog's Ear stacked up against an audiobook – Michael York's reading of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

The data from using the audiobook was favorable: the dogs barked and vocalized less, exhibited more calm behaviors and they rested and slept more than when music was played.

Click here to read the study, which was led by Clarissa Brayley and Tamara Montrose.

This builds on what's been discovered about the use of classical music in kennels.

The researchers feel that one of the aspects of using the audiobooks that might be superior to music is that it's narrative in nature. Audiobooks are voiced to be engaging and dogs respond to the human voice and as social creatures, dogs respond well to human contact.

Truth be told, whenever it's possible I leave a radio tuned to talk radio, usually NPR, as I end a visit with my charges. I've found that the human voices helps my furry friends feel a little less lonely and/or anxious – and it buffers any outdoor noise that might be a problem for them. And as I read the study on using audiobooks, a practice that I put into place at home a few months ago came to mind.

An NPR-tuned radio seemed fine for my own pets just as it has been for my clients, but as Gretchen transitioned into hospice and then her final weeks, I got the idea to play selected podcasts over Bluetooth for her and Silver during my short absences – and it was a boon. In the months prior, I found some of them including RadioLab, Stuff You Should Know, Strangers and In Our Time, enjoyable to listen to at bedtime. Because the tone tends to be conversational and measured, they were integral in allowing my mind to drift and escape the mental strain that followed me to bed, and also to ease me back to sleep when Gretchen needed a little tending during night. 

Then, I stumbled on an even better discovery: the Sleep With Me podcast. Let's just say it was our saving grace during the final months of 2015 and even now as Silver is in the midst of some profound health crises. More soothing to the ear and mind than the aforementioned podcasts, my feeling is that it's on par with an audiobook to help dogs.

Created by Drew Ackerman, who performs as Dearest Scooter, Sleep With Me's bedtime storyteller, the podcast bills itself as " a bedtime story for grownups, just interesting enough for you to forget your problems but boring enough to put you to sleep."

And Scooter gets the job done in short order. It's very much like guided meditation, and I have yet to get through one episode at bedtime. 

In drowsy measure, Ackerman's alter ego soothingly extravagates about everything: Game of Thrones, chickens, during a statue crawl in the Bay Area's Golden Gate Park (his neck-of-the-woods), cupcakes, a snowy walk in the woods and a bazillion more things. 

With each dreamy episode lasting just over an hour, I can cue up the podcast for Silver as I leave and set the sleep timer or let each installment play endlessly as Sleep With Me boasts over 300 episodes – not to mention a tremendous following. The favorable reviews on iTunes aren't the only thing that's demonstrative of its draw: the activity on the podcast's Facebook page and just this month, the show of financial support by fans on Patreon is telling.

I reached out to Ackerman to pick his brain about the podcast, and to hear the most surprising thing he's discovered since starting it.

Koa (Photo courtesy of Drew Ackerman)

"The thing I was most ignorant of was how many people are in chronic physical pain and can't sleep. The breadth of why people can't sleep... the emotional pain, physical pain and the mental anguish that is keeping people up," he said. 

When I first approached Ackerman after my seeing the connections between the study with audiobooks and my using his podcast to soothe my own pets, he piped up about his own dog, a pit bull mix named Koa. 

As he mused about how he welcomed Koa into the fold as an adult dog, her attentive nature and how she's partial to being lulled by sports talk radio in his absence. 

A natural curiosity led him to start Sleep With Me – which has unfolded nicely and highlights an acumen for storytelling that's rich, quirky and intuitive – and I wondered if doing a podcast for kids or pets might be on the horizon. That, despite having a full-time job aside from the many hours he puts in each week to write and put together what we already hear on a weekly basis. 

As he notes, though creating a podcast for kids is an idea that he would like to venture into, at this point it all comes down to keeping the quality of what is already on the table up to par, and life balance.

"It's a totally different beast. It would be fun to find the time to explore it in some way, to test out story ideas and to see what the obstacles would be."

Though he's not given serious thought to creating a sleepy storytime designed for dogs, it's clear that Ackerman understands the importance of the human-animal bond.

"[Koa] definitely likes voice content. I usually leave NPR or sports talk on for her," he said.

"I've tried classical music and my impression was that she didn't like it as much, so I think it's this 'human voice' thing. This makes me curious about how an animal's demeanor changes when you're conversing with them. Animals that miss their owners and enjoy their companionship, they might like something similar."

After talking more about Koa, the connection that dogs have with us – and I should note with a noticeable lift in his already merry tone – he added, "It's always interesting to think about these layers of stuff with humans and animals and sleep and comfort."

Click here to subscribe to Sleep With Me on iTunes, Android or your favorite application.

A little irony: is a new sponsor of the podcast. Click here for a 30-day trial and to download a free audiobook for you – or your pet's listening pleasure.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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