She's played over 250 concerts for stressed and lonely dogs, bringing a little peace to shelters—one note at a time.

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cellist playing a concert for a dog
Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl Wallace

For the past three years, three days a week, Cheryl Wallace loads her cello into her car and drives from her home in Des Moines, Iowa, to animal shelters as far away as Oklahoma. Once she arrives, she gives the next in a series of very special concerts—250 and counting—specifically for dogs.

"I have kind of an itinerant lifestyle," Wallace tells Daily Paws. "So, since I can't be there on a regular basis, I wouldn't make a great volunteer. But this way I can go into a shelter and do something for all the dogs at once."

By her count, Wallace has played at 37 different shelters across the Midwest, and each concert is similar: She sets up a chair in the middle of the kennels, draws her bow across the strings, and plays, sometimes in the midst of all the noise and stress and chaos common in shelters.

"Playing for dogs is a lot like Italian cooking," she says. "Low and slow."

Though it might just sound like only a feel-good story, there's emerging science showing there are genuine benefits to canine music therapy. In a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) article published last year, researchers found animals generally "appear less stressed or anxious when exposed to classical music than to control conditions." The article cites eight studies into dog behavior and music therapy conducted between 2002 and 2019, concluding six of them found that the music affected the dogs' behavior, "with most revealing that classical music had a calming effect."

Wallace isn't a scientist, but she does have a cello and an innate desire to help dogs in need. She saw firsthand how playing for a friend's dogs made them more relaxed. She thought to herself, if music can calm animals in a loving home, maybe it could do something similar for dogs in shelters, where stress can be a daily part of life.

So she started calling shelters and offering to play for their dogs. But, much like some of the doggos in those shelters, it was an idea that took some time to find a home. One local shelter laughed at her, she says. Several others were hesitant. Finally, in April 2019, the Town and Country Humane Society in Papillion, Neb., took her up on her offer. Once she'd gotten a foothold in one shelter, others started to come around. Now, Wallace has a stable of shelters that keep her on the road as often as she likes.

"I always call a day or two in advance," she says. "I like to know that when I'm playing it won't interfere with the dogs eating or exercise schedule. There are a couple shelters that I've been playing at for so long that I can just walk in and start playing."

So what does one play in a concert for dogs? Keeping to her "low and slow" ethos, Wallace says she tries to keep to music that plays around 100 BPM, similar to the dogs' heart rates. There's some classical music, to be sure, but she also opens her sets up to some more contemporary tracks.

"Even though I know that dogs don't think in words, I try to play things that might match their sentiment, [like] 'Are You Lonesome Tonight,' 'You Don't Know Me.'"

Her sets will range between an hour and 90 minutes, and Wallace has played as many as three concerts in a day. She says the calming effects don't just manifest while she's playing but will linger after she's done, sometimes for hours.

"It's amazing, the longer she plays, the quieter it gets and it's enjoyable for our dogs," Rachel Buchanan, manager of the Almost Home Humane Society of North Central Iowa in Fort Dodge told the Fort Dodge Messenger earlier this month. "Last time she came, they were calm for the rest of the day. It was just a quieter afternoon even after she left."

But, for as passionate as she is about helping dogs, Wallace knows she can't be everywhere at once. To help spread the idea of music therapy in shelters, she's mailed dozens of CDs and CD players to shelters around the country, and she's always on the lookout for fellow dog-loving musicians who want to join her. In fact, anyone interested can find out how to help on her website: cello4dogs.com.

"That's what I want—what I'd really love—is for other people to get involved," she says.