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We all know that a dog’s hearing is exceptional, but how does a dog’s ear really work? And how does it affect a dog’s behavior?
The physiology of the dog ear
First let’s look at the physiology of the ear. The outer ear called pinna directs the sound waves into the ear canal. Here, the sound waves are transmitted by the tympanic membrane and the bones of the ear and carried further to the organ of Corti.
The ridges in the pinna helps the dog to better detect where the sound is coming from. This is helped by 18 little muscles that helps move the ear in a periscope-like way to better capture the sound.
In the organ of Corti the final decoding of frequency and volume is done by specific auditory neurons in the basal membrane. The auditory neurons senses the pressure changes from the sound waves with cilia.
Cilia are mechano-sensory cells that transform the sound energy into electric impulses which are then send through the auditory nerve to the brain.
Dogs can hear in the frequency range between 41-44000 Hertz whereas humans hear in the range of 20-20000 Hertz. This means that dogs hear things that humans don’t. This could be the high-pitched chirping of mice or the high frequency sounds from electronics in our home, which can be rather disturbing for our dogs. Imagine constant tinnitus :O.
A dog’s hearing and behavior
Back in the days the primary function for a dog’s hearing was to locate prey. Nowadays it seems it is to listen to what cues their humans give them. Dogs mainly rely on our body language to read our intentions (Read Do dog’s understand us), but of course also use our verbal cues to figure out what it is we are asking them to do.
It has been found that the beginning of the word is the most significant part to the dog despite hearing everything we say. Try to say “si” instead of “sit” to your dog and see if it makes a difference. Let me know in the comments if it does.
Training experiments have shown that if you want dogs to learn a passive cue, such as sit or stay, in the fastest way possible, the best way to do that is to use a long note with descending frequency.
Whereas if you want to teach them an active cue for them to follow while they are in motion, the best words to use is short notes with increasing frequencies. This shows that the tone of voice pays a massive contribution to a dogs learning and how dogs are hearing us.
Hearing high pitched praise words such as “good boy/girl” activates the reward center of the brain which is something we should always aim for.
The 18 muscles in the pinna doesn’t only help the dog locate where a specific sound is coming from. It also helps them communicate how they feel both to humans and to other dogs. Flat ears tells us and other dogs that a dog might be scared or insecure, whereas upright ears might tell us that the dog might be attentive or excited.
As always one should look at all the body signals a dog is giving, before contemplating what the dog is saying, hence the “mights” above. Dogs with cropped ears are of course limited. Not only in their communication but also the acuity of their hearing is affected along with the ability to rotate their ears fully.
Noise Phobias in dogs
Our world must be rather loud to our dogs and it is our job as responsible dog owners to always give them a quiet place for them to go. We must learn as dog owners to read if our dogs might experience an auditory overload causing them distress. Dogs can also suffer from noise phobias, a common example is fear of fireworks (How to get your dog through the New Year) and thunder. In order to reduce the chance of noise phobias it is important to socialize puppies to hearing many different sounds and avoid exposing them to sudden loud sounds that might frighten them.
If you already have a dog with noise phobias it is important to start working with your dog to eliminate the fear as best as possible. An ethologist can help you with that, writing out a plan for you to follow and help both you and your dog live a noise phobia free life.