Soothing Victimized Dogs With Bach and Beethoven
Pro-musician Martin Agee brings his violin to the ASPCA to play the classics for dogs recovering from abuse
Martin Agee loves Bach and so does his two- and four-legged fans. The two-legged ones have heard him perform at Lincoln Center, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New York Chamber Symphony, American Symphony Orchestra, and many others. Soon he’ll play his violin in Hugh Jackman’s world tour and in December will be in the orchestra pit for the Broadway production of West Side Story.
When he’s not performing for people, he brings his violin to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) so the dogs in attendance can be soothed by Bach’s, Beethoven’s, and Handel’s sonatas.
Agee became a volunteer at the ASPCA a little more than two years ago. “It was at a point in my life that I wanted to reconnect with animals,” he says. “It was a few years after Melody, my greyhound, died.”
Agee took it hard and thought about volunteering. “My schedule keeps me busy,” he says. “Volunteering was a good way to be around dogs.”
“I took the ASPCA’s orientation training and became an adoption counselor,” he says.
The one program that caught his attention was reading to the animals. “Storytelling was designed specifically to socialize victimized dogs brought in through the ASPCA’s partnership with the New York Police Department (NYPD),” says Kris Lindsay, Senior Director, of the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center (ARC) and Canine Annex for Recovery and Enrichment (CARE).
The dogs in ARC and CARE also arrive through the ASPCA’s partnership with its Humane Law Enforcement and Community Engagement programs. “The dogs often have a wide range of socialization experience, with varying levels of medical and behavior issues,” says Lindsay.
Agee watched the dogs calm down while volunteers read to them. “A friend suggested I should bring my violin and play for them,” he said. “It wasn’t done before. I thought listening to the violin would relax them and keep them calm. The people at the ASPCA gave me the go-ahead and I’ve been performing here when I’m not working. I come about once every other week. It’s been emotionally rewarding.”
The dogs welcome him with loud barks. They scratch on the glass doors that line a narrow vestibule separating him from them. Agee, a tall man, immediately sits on a low stool so as not to intimidate the dogs. Many dogs cock their heads to listen and fiercely wag their tails. All intently watch, and many curl up on their beds.
“I get immediate reactions,” he explains. “The barking dies down the minute my bow touches the strings. Some will sing along. I take that as a compliment.”
One dog, an American Pit Bull Terrier, let out a loud “woo.”
Professionally, Agee plays show tunes and classical music. Here, at the ASPCA he sticks with classical. “The Baroque solo violin compositions work because there’s nothing missing,” he says.
“I’ll never forget my first day,” he says. “Many of these dogs have been traumatized. Here they enter a process of recovery. We’re being kind to them. Some days, I have to hold back the tears. The dogs I play for, it’s at different stages of their recovery, have been injured and/or neglected. The reactions I get from them, wagging tails, singing, and watching them lie down and relax, is stunning to me. Not all of the dogs react in the same manner. They do seem happy.”
Many of the dogs have injuries related to trauma. “We see animals who have endured long term neglect resulting in emaciation and chronic neglected medical conditions,” Lindsay says. “We also see animals who have been physically abused and have suffered traumatic injuries such as multiple bone fractures. Some animals require extended crate rest periods so that their fractures can heal. As many of these dogs aren’t even ready to be walked by volunteers, opportunities to socialize through other means are invaluable and help them to trust again. Martin generously donates his time and skill as a performer to our dogs that need the most love, and it’s incredible to see these animals transform into loving pets through our work and the help of socialization activities.”
One dog who was led out of his enclosure for a walk by a volunteer was about to exit the area. As soon as Agee started playing, the dog sat to listen despite the volunteer telling him it’s time for his walk. The two waited until the sonata was over before leaving the building.
It’s clear the dogs, the volunteers, and the workers at the ASPCA all enjoy listening to the music.
“Through our storytelling program and Martin’s musical contributions,” Lindsay says, “we often see a change in their body language and comfort with new people. This socialization helps to prepare them to eventually interact with potential adopters, as the ultimate goal is for these dogs to transition smoothly to a loving home.”
Agee benefits, too. “I feel great playing for them,” he says. “I get attached to a few and [I feel] happy when they’re moved out because that means they’re better.” He also plays at home for his cat, Jack, who he adopted from the ASPCA.