He moves in the room like a breeze as hundreds of brown eyes under softened brows settle on him.
“Now. I’m going to play something,” Matthew Roy Leoniak’s whisper carries over the barks at the Grand Strand Humane Society just after closing time.
A large white dog sprinkled with black spots watches the man slide into an office chair in the back of the room near the isolation area. Her caged neighbors don’t distract her gaze while the man nudges a guitar close to his chest and strums once.
Most continue to bark, pace and fret from their cots to the outside runs. Most fret but not the white dog with the black spots. She sits. She stares. She wags happily out of time with the tune.
“I’ve always liked how music therapy works on humans of all ages and temperaments. So why can’t it be applied to animals?” he asked. “It helps them focus on things other than the bars.”
Leoniak divides his days between the humane society animals, working at an Italian restaurant, tutoring Russian to several area adults and caring for his senior dog, two cats and foster kitten. And, he smiled, learning how to play the guitar better.
Leoniak has played the guitar for 10 years but only about once a month until he recently decided to play for the animals. He grew up playing the piano and trumpet.
“Trumpet. Dogs, they don’t really like the higher tones,” he laughed when thinking about using the trumpet for music therapy.
But reaching into the corners of his mind, Leoniak uses his life lessons to patch the troubles of the animals in his care.
By trying to put himself in the animal’s mindset, he said, it is similar to speaking another language or learning an instrument.
“It’s part of the same patience you have to work through here. It’s tedious. It’s like learning an instrument or playing for people is tedious because you’re memorizing all the movements,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. When you get into a rhythm, the animals appreciate it and it makes it feel more like home. Not as chaotic.
“Learning another language that’s helped me to realize that just thinking another way - having connotations of words in another language. So you have to think, could maybe animals have connotations to certain sounds, pitches, noises? Why do certain dogs howl at a certain sound? Maybe it’s their vocal chords. Maybe they do the pitch they do for a reason. Maybe high to low pitch could be mourning. Maybe low to high could be, ‘Hey, I’m just calling out to all the others out there in a cage.’”
Carrying the guitar by the neck, the white dog with the black spots watches Leoniak walk toward the front of the building where the cats wait.
Frisky, a grayish tabby, dips her head low looking out between the silver bars and expecting a few fingers to greet her from the human side.
In the same easy motion he used in the dog room, Leoniak softly settles under Frisky’s gaze.
“Maybe it will be a memory or something they dream about that can be happy and calm,” he said flicking at a nearly bloody spot on his right thumb. “This is one thing they can take away the way it just comes in, floats around, nice and easy going and then I just disappear.”