Wednesday, June 30, 2010
This is a cross-post from my blog on thebark.com
Soothing Songs for the Anxious Pup
How sound healing can help calm your dog
For the past few years, I’ve been moonlighting as a sound healer and also a kirtan walla. (Kirtan is a lively form of call-and-response chanting that originated in India thousands of years ago). Because this is a dog-related blog, I won’t go into too much detail about the human benefits of sacred sound and sound healing; suffice to say your dog can benefit too.
Back in 1998, before I had even begun to study sacred sound, I happen to notice that certain music had an unusually calming effect on my dog Wallace. (Wallace is my former beloved Spaniel, known to many Bark readers as the star of Rex and the City.)
There we were, the dog and I, sitting in our cramped Lower East Side apartment on a swelteringly hot summer night, wishing we were on another planet--one with air conditioning and more reasonable rents--and listening, as a consolation prize, to “New Sounds,” excellent hour-long music program on WNYC radio.
New Sounds is one of those programs that really can transport you to another planet, because the host, John Schaefer, always manages to find such spectacularly, ethereal music--the kind that transcends time, space, and the mundane.
Anyway,the feature CD of that evening was Canticles of Ecstasy by Hildegard Von Bingen, sung by the vocal ensemble Sequentia. Hildegard was a twelfth-century German mystic who began receiving ecstatic visions at age three and was sent to a convent at age eight. There, she began composing angelic canticles, said to have been channeled directly from the Divine.
I noticed Hildegard’s magic immediately--not only in the way it seemed to pulse through my body with a pure white light, but in the way my dog reacted. He was a Setter as well as a Spaniel mix, which basically meant that he never stayed still--not even in sleep. He was constantly pacing, sniffing, snuffling, hunting, flushing, pointing, galloping, grunting or, at the very least, panting--in a way that could get annoying in a hot NYC apartment. In his sleep he would woof, flex his paws, twitch his nostrils, and sometimes even groan in frustration--at not ever being able to catch that rabbit, perhaps.
But once Hildegard started playing, Wallace actually lay down--he rarely did that. Then he placed his head between his paws and let out a huge, pre-nap sigh. He stretched, one leg at a time, and positioned his body in perfect repose.
He knew I was watching him. I often stared at him, because he was so beautiful, and because I didn't have much else to do in those days of stunted writing.
And I could tell he was trying to keep his eyes open in that way dogs do, when they want to take a nap but also want to make sure they don’t miss out on anything exciting I might do at any second.
But by Sequentia's third canticle his eyes had lolled back into his head and he was out.
An ecstatic trance, perhaps? Would he re-emerge from this slumber speaking in tongues? Or at least in Latin?
Meanwhile, Sequentia sang Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans Vite, the high soprano notes of ecstasy soaring up to the ceiling.
My dog slept an entire hour. His breathing was so deep and slow I could barely see his rib cage moving. He didn’t once twitch or woof. And his muscles were completely relaxed.
By the time the program was over, I knew I was on to something. I called my then-husband immediately and suggested he pick up a copy of the CD on his way home from work.
Our lives changed after that. We had more freedom to actually leave the apartment once in a while, without having to worry about our overly-anxious dog. Our neighbors got so used to the sound of Quia Ergo Femina Mortem Instruxit drifting sweetly into the hallways that they began to get worried if it wasn’t playing.
Wallace’s entire temperament seemed to change--slowly but surely--in the same way my temperament would change, years later, when I myself starting singing and composing my own ecstatic chants.
Funny where life leads us.
Funny that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re being led.
We’re too busy trying to find new ways to improve the lives of our dogs.
And in the process, we improve ours. Because somehow, in some convoluted way, the fact that I was able to observe the effects of sound healing on my dog led me, many years later, to practice on myself.
But getting back to dogs: In 2004, after Wallace had passed and my marriage had disintegrated, I found myself adopting a new dog, Chloe. She's that Spaniel pictured above, with one of her one-night stands. (We can't even remember that Boxer's name, but boy was he fun!)
ANyway, Chloe had extreme separation anxiety when I first adopted her. In fact, she’d already had five homes in the first six months of her life, because her anxiety was so bad. Inexperienced dog owners simply couldn’t handle her whining, barking, drooling, chewing, escaping, etc... But I knew I could handle her. Because I had experience. And marrow bones. And Hildegard.
I played the Canticles of Ecstasy for Chloe around the clock. And within two weeks her separation anxiety had completely vanished.
Fast-forward to the present, and here I am with the Calmest Dog on the Planet. Pretty impressive for a Border Collie mix, I’d say. People always ask me: How do you do it? And I give three answers: clicker training, holistic nutrition and sound healing.
I’d say, on average, I play sacred music about eight hours each day. I believe this music purifies the space, and creates healing vibrations that re-align both me and my dog on a daily basis.
Sound is vibration, and our physical bodies respond to vibration--whether you believe it or not. Fast-paced, frenetic noise will increase our heartbeats and make us feel, well, frenetic. Erratic music will make us feel erratic. But soft, slow, rhythmic music will calm us. Drums beat at certain cycles can lower the blood pressure and induce theta states of mind. You might be saying, “Well, duh, this isn’t rocket science,” but actually it is.
Science has now proven that certain sounds have healing effects on certain parts of the body. The yogis and sages have known this for millennia, of course, but it takes these Western doctors a while to catch up with things. Now these Western doctors are witnessing cancerous tumors going into remission from treatments with Tibetan Singing Bowls, and bi-polar patients reaching a point of equilibrium by listening to a sacred gong.
So why couldn’t a dog with separation anxiety benefit from soothing music?
Why not give it a try? It’s easy and your dog benefits greatly. I swear even my house plants look healthier from the nonstop sacred music.
My recommended picks of soothing songs for doggy snoozing are:
Canticles of Ecstasy by Sequentia
Gong and Singing Bowl Meditation by Scott Kennedy
Ultimate Om by Jonathan Goldman
Lalitha Ashtrotram by Craig Pruess
Atlantean Crystal Temple by Steve Halpern
My dog would second these opinions, but she’s currently asleep.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
This essay appeared in the Bark magazine in March 2009. Now that enough time has passed, I can admit that the Friend I referred to was my own self.
Blind Date Faux Paw
Rule #1: You can’t fake dog love.
Lee Harrington | 31 Mar 2009
Does he or doesn't he really love dogs?
This story comes from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous on the off chance her former blind date reads this. (We are hoping enough time has passed that said Blind Date will no longer be Googling my friend). They didn’t hit it off, you see, because Blind Date committed the unpardonable act of pretending to be a dog person. He knew my friend loved dogs, and he knew my friend was attractive, and single, so he lied—-all in the name of trying to get into her pants.
We are not impressed.
The setting of the story: a holiday party, last December. My friend loves holiday parties, so she readily accepted an invitation from a man she barely knew. She had just moved to a certain rural town near a certain hip city, and had not, to date, made any new friends. She thought this party would be a grand and fun entry into her new life. Plus, the man claimed that he loved dogs.
The evening included bluegrass Christmas music, nutmeggy eggnog spiced with cognac, and cool hippy-types who wore their grey hair long. But let us fast-forward to the moment when Date invited Friend to sit next to him on a sofa near the fire. He patted a cushion, which prompted the host’s dog—a shaggy, little Wheaton-mix—to run over and leap onto the vacant spot.
Friend said: “How cute!”
Date? He pushed the dog to the floor.
As you can imagine, Friend made a decision right then and there never to see Date again. He tried to snuggle with her on the couch, but Friend snuggled with the dog instead. Date repositioned his body on the sofa so that his legs and arms touched Friend’s, but she kept moving further and further away, to the point where she was almost sitting on some fiddle player’s lap.
It was a long night for Friend. She’s typically not a grudge-holder, except when someone roughs up a puppy.
On the drive home, Date—perhaps sensing Friend’s disappointment—tried to regale her with what he thought were amusing dog stories: the time he tried to put his own dog to sleep and it took three days for the poison to kick in; the time a farmer shot his daughter’s dog and how he and the farmer ended up becoming good friends. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but my friend found none of this funny.
(Date concluded the evening by telling Friend she had no sense of humor and that she needed to ‘loosen up,’ but that she was still a hot babe and he’d be interested in sleeping with her.
I love the ‘but’ part. As if being hot somehow made up for all her perceived character flaws.)
Anyway, quite a few novels and movies have been written about such scenarios—about men who pretend to be dog people just to get into a woman’s pants. But in those fictional accounts, the men usually end up falling in love with the dogs and everyone lives happily ever after. In this case, a true fraud was exposed. But my friend was at least grateful her date had exposed his true self before the relationship progressed any further. Dog love is not something you can fake. So fellas, don’t even try.
Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir Rex and the City: A Memoir of a Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Villard, 2006). Her novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman From His Lunch, is forthcoming from Random House in 2010. She is working on both the second volume of her Rex and the City memoir and a screenplay version of the first volume. Lastly, she is the lead singer of an all-female Who tribute band, Pictures of Lily, and, late at night she blogs about dogs at www.emharrington.com.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Rex in the City XXIV: Board Approved
Originally appearing in Issue #41, Mar/Apr 2007
It’s always stressful to throw your first adult party, and it can be even more stressful if you have a really hyper, poorly trained (or rather, imperfectly trained) dog. It was the year 2000 and Ted and I had just moved to a 350-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. This was a big step up for us, given that our previous apartment was only 300 square feet. You might be shocked at that number, but we were overjoyed to have a bedroom door that could actually close (or slam, as the case may be) because there were no bureaus or beds blocking the way. It was indeed cause to celebrate.
So we decided to throw a housewarming party. Now, long-time readers of this column may recall that, when we first adopted Rex, three years prior to this party, he came to us fear-aggressive, anxious and mistrustful of humans, one of whom had abused him cruelly. With lots of loving care and training, we managed to “cure” him of his aggressions, but there is one thing you can’t cure an English Setter of, and that is being an English Setter, which means exuberant and energetic— and in a 350sf apartment, “energetic” can translate into “hyper.” Plus, only one-third of our guests would qualify as “dog people”—the rest of them liked to wear black and keep their clothing fur-free.
My first thought was to send Rex off to doggie day-care for the morning. (Because we were now officially adults, we decided to throw a brunch rather than a big smoky keg party with Jell-O shots and bags of chips.)
But Ted, having been sent off to boarding school as a pre-teen, said this could cause undue psychological damage.
“How’s he going to know we didn’t invite him to our party?” I said.
“Dogs always know. Plus, he’ll smell the remnants of 80 people … and quiche.”
So the dog was invited.
Then something—an article in the New York Times, perhaps?—gave me an idea: Sedate the dog. Now, before you throw this magazine down in disgust and call me irresponsible, hear me out: people do this in New York, you see, when they need to bring their dogs before potential co-op boards for “review.” A co-op board, whose job it is to make sure that you are socially acceptable and financially secure, can reject you for any number of reasons—maybe your daughter’s tongue piercing would be more appropriate at a co-op in Tribeca than one on the Upper East Side, or maybe you are a world-famous entertainer who happened to have published nude photographs of yourself a few years back. And I’d heard more and more stories of people getting rejected because the boards didn’t approve of their dogs.
Then and now, dogs often get a bad rap in New York. Every week, it seems, the local papers publish articles on this-or-that bad dog doing such-and-such, and as a result, co-op boards have become more and more strict about what kinds of dogs they allow into their hallowed towers, or if they allow them at all. Board members worry that dogs will bark all day; pee in the elevators; jump on strangers; or, in the spring, when the rain is at its worst, shake themselves off right next to a famous socialite and ruin her $4,000 Fendi baguette handbag.
Whatever. We all know there is no such thing as a “bad dog.” Just a poorly trained or improperly treated one. But New Yorkers have learned to take extra precautions in their “dog interviews” with the co-op board. Elite groomers are paid hundreds of dollars to triple-bathe the dogs, administer hot-oil conditioners, spend an hour on the blow-outs and then spritz the dogs with special aromatherapy oils, like bergamot or lavender, which are said to lull board members into a state of complacence and well-being.
Or people will spend $1,500 for five one-hour sessions with a dog trainer who specializes in the dog interview. In these sessions, the dog learns to sit, hold a down-stay and shake hands with the president of the co-op board, all while counting out his/her guardian’s income with thumps of his/her tail (say, one thump for every hundred thousand).
Then there was the couple in Tribeca who had a rather nasty and very vocal Jack Russell Terrier who didn’t like shoes, and because most people in the lobbies of luxury co-ops wear shoes, he was constantly nipping peoples’ ankles. They knew they could not bring him to the interview because all the board members would be wearing shoes. And so, at the last minute, they traded their dog for an imposter, a look-a-like JRT from a different litter. This imposter licked the president’s face, shook her hand, then went into a down-stay and literally smiled and thumped her tail at each board member who spoke. They were unanimously approved.
What I found most shocking were the stories I heard about people sedating their dogs with Valium. I guess, if you can’t afford the $300-an-hour training fee, Valium is available for a few dollars (or nothing, if you steal them from someone else’s medicine cabinet at their first housewarming party). But still. I was horrified. I was horrified and yet a little seed had been planted in my head.
And I know it sounds awful and irresponsible to even consider sedating a dog for a party, but I was an idiot back then, and lazy, and had not yet discovered clicker-training, which works so well I probably could have clicker-trained Rex into donning a tuxedo and mixing drinks.
“You can’t give him drugs,” Ted said. “What kind of mother are you? He’s fine the way he is.”
“I know he’s fine. He’s perfect. This will make him more perfect.”
“But this isn’t a co-op interview,” Ted added. “It’s a party for our friends.”
“It’s just that not all of our friends love dogs the way we do. Besides, I’m not giving him Valium. I’ve giving him herbs.”
A friend had recommended Rescue Remedy, which she said was the vodka martini of the dog world. It wouldn’t sedate him, she said; it would just “chill him out.” They use it for dogs in shock, she said, and for those who are terrified of thunder.
Now, I’m a fan of chillin’, so I used myself as the test subject before dosing up the dog. Just a few drops in a glass of water, or straight onto the tongue, and lo, I didn’t feel drugged or sedated, just oddly blasé and unhurried. I felt I had discovered the New Age “Mother’s Little Helper.” In fact, I liked it so much I decided to give myself a triple dose for the party. (Things like hosting parties stress me out, and Martha Stewart’s magazine is to blame, because her level of perfection is one that I can never seem to meet.)
“Want some?” I said to Ted, half an hour before our guests were to arrive. I held out the little glass vial which was, I realized, the same size as a syringe. Ted shook his head. “Bad mother,” he said, in the same teasing voice he used when he said “Bad dog.” I placed four drops of the Mother’s Little Helper on top of Rex’s head.
We served what adults are supposed to serve at housewarming parties: white wine, tiny quiches, fancy sparkling waters and a gruyère fondue. And we also served up an uncannily well-behaved dog. He’d been to the groomer and smelled like lavender oil, and his fur was silky and oh-so-white. People kept commenting on how beautiful he was, and how sweet and calm. There was a $16-per-pound wedge of Spanish goat cheese on the low coffee table that he didn’t even bother to sniff, let alone scarf up. And he didn’t climb up onto the windowsill and bark at passersby on the sidewalk. He did not once try to jump on the furniture because it was more effort than he could expend. Mostly, he wanted to lie on the floor and receive his well-deserved belly-scratches. “I wish I had a dog like that,” one of Ted’s friends said, and I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t a dog like that, but I was feeling just so blissfully blasé.
Throughout the party, I’d notice Rex resting his head on the knee of my editor, or sleeping at the feet of Ted’s boss, and was pleased to see that he hadn’t slobbered on her shoes. In fact, he hadn’t slobbered on anyone, or jumped, or barked. And for the first time, I knew what it was like to have a mellow dog—to have the sort of dog a co-op board would approve.
“Didn’t people, in the olden days, used to give their children brandy to help them sleep?” I said to Ted after the party.
“Yes,” Ted said. “In their milk.”
“I am a bad mother,” I said.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Ted said. We took Rex to Prospect Park as a reward. The “remedy” had worn off at that point, and he was back to his hyper, happy, hunting-dog self. We let him off-leash and watched as he chased after squirrels, manically followed scent trails, crashed through bushes and leapt over rocks, and actually bit the base of an oak tree, seemingly determined to bring it down because there was a squirrel’s nest up there. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a hangover,” Ted said. “Maybe I’ll try this herb myself.”
“Oh, you should,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly (because what wife doesn’t want to sedate her husband once in a while?).
Ted just raised an eyebrow and called for the dog. He came bounding back to us, covered with burrs and mud and panting with bliss. So much for the $70 trip to the groomer and the aromatherapy oil. He seemed positively delighted with himself and his condition. And we were delighted, too. “Perfect dogs probably get really boring,” I said to Ted.
“Perfect people, too.”
Years later, one of our guests became the president of our co-op board when our building went co-op. Rex didn’t have to go to the dog interview—he had already passed.