Dr Deborah Wells
It was on the shelves of a US veterinary facility that music producer Joshua Leeds found what he was looking for. It was a study entitled 'The influence of auditory stimulation on the behaviour of dogs housed in a rescue shelter.’
Leeds writes and lectures on the effects of music and sound on the human nervous system. A pianist, Lisa Spector, had come to him with the idea of translating this interest into the animal world – producing a music CD for dogs. He was intrigued but he needed evidence that it might work.
The study, by Dr Deborah Wells of Queen’s, gave it to him. The result was a CD called Through A Dog’s Ear with Mozart, Debussy and Haydn pieces played by Spector. There is now a whole series of recordings that have sold around the world. There is a version for pups and one for elderly dogs. There is even an app.
Deborah says, ‘It’s used in about 150,000 rescue kennels and all on the back of our research. That’s a massive impact.’
Deborah graduated top of her year at Queen’s in 1992 with a first class Honours degree in Psychology. She followed this with a PhD on the welfare of dogs in rescue shelters. She is now a reader in the School of Psychology and Director of Queen’s Animal Behaviour Centre.
‘It began as the Canine Behaviour Centre. As well as carrying out research, vets referred people to us if they were having problems with their dogs. Unfortunately we had to stop that service some years ago because of time constraints. There simply wasn’t enough time in the typical academic day. However, we’re hoping to restart our clinic following new appointments in animal behaviour and further support.
The research into sound began with funding from the National Canine Defence League, now the Dogs Trust. ‘We secured a grant to explore environmental enrichment, trying to find ways of improving the welfare of dogs in shelters. These can be very noisy and have a negative effect. With this in mind, we examined the effects of different types of music on the animals’ behaviour and we found that classical music had the best effect on their wellbeing.
‘We then looked at other animals and found classical music to have the same effect with cats, gorillas and elephants. We came to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally enriching about classical music. It wasn’t specific to one species.’
Deborah’s research also looked at the welfare of gorillas at Belfast Zoo. She discovered that they seemed less agitated when they could not see their human audience and that their welfare was improved if visitors watched them from behind a screen such as a camouflage net. This research won awards and the practice has now been adopted in zoos in London, Edinburgh and Dublin.
In general, the psychological welfare of animals in the home, in zoos and in rescue shelters has improved significantly as a result of research conducted at the Queen's Animal Behaviour Centre. Its work has also influenced new international guidelines on the issue of stressful environments, such as kennels.
In addition, there are now links with industries, notably pet food companies. A Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Devenish Nutrition, a Northern Ireland agri-technology company, has resulted in a product soon to appear on the market – DeviQ – a complementary foodstuff to help dogs with the digestive process.