Your dog can hear visitors arriving well before they've knocked on your door. They can also pick up high-frequency sounds well outside your range of hearing, and detect the sound of dinner hitting a doggy bowl from a block away.
All dog lovers know that our pets have a quite remarkable sense of hearing that's much more powerful than our own. However, what you might not know is that our canine companions are not as adept as us at picking up sounds at low frequencies. So, why are we (slightly) better at picking up low frequencies and why can dogs detect high-frequency sounds well outside our range of hearing? Let's find out.
Dog Hearing Signs
You and your partner are sitting down to a coffee. It's a peaceful, sunny morning and the house is silent, when all of a sudden your dog leaps to their feet, instantly alert. They've heard something — but what? Neither you nor your partner detected anything, so to work out that your dog has picked up a sound you've missed you'll need to rely on their body language.
One of the key areas to watch is, unsurprisingly, your pet's ears. Canine ears come in all shapes and sizes and have a number of unique features designed to improve their sound-capturing ability. The first sign of sound detection is when those ears perk up and stand to attention, and then start rotating and tilting this way and that as your pet works to track down the source of the noise.
However, the exact way your dog responds to a sound can depend on both the nature of the noise and how they're feeling at that point in time. On some occasions, your pet may be instantly alert and on the move, tilting their head to try and isolate and identify the noise. Their tail could be up or wagging, and they may also use their incredibly powerful nose to solve the problem of the mystery sound.
Some noises can provoke excitement and enthusiasm, such as the sound of you opening a bag of dog chow. Others can lead to fear or cause your dog's protective instincts to kick in, such as an unexpected visitor arriving on your doorstep late at night.
Whatever the case may be, if the sound is in a high-frequency range of 20,000Hz and up, your dog will be much more likely to hear it than you. However, this won't be the case with some low-frequency sounds.
The Science Behind Your Dog's Hearing
Dogs have a much wider range of hearing than humans — let's get that out of the way up front. While the average human can hear sounds ranging from 20Hz (low) to 20,000Hz (high), dogs can hear sounds from 40Hz up to 50,000Hz or even 60,000Hz.
It's thought that wolves, the ancestors of today's domesticated dogs, used this high-frequency hearing ability to when hunting. Using a process known as binaural spectral-difference cueing, dogs are able to detect where a sound is coming from. Basically, this allows dogs to compare a sound's frequency as it arrives in each ear. The ear furthest away from the sound is partially "shadowed" by the dog's head, with higher frequency sounds absorbed more than lower ones.
This means that we're a little bit better than our furry friends at detecting low-pitched sounds. However, don't use this as a reason to start feeling superior to your four-legged friend, as dogs have plenty of other special features that see them outperform us in the hearing stakes.
Dogs have 18 muscles in their ears, allowing them to rotate and adjust their ears in whatever way necessary to best capture a sound. They also have much longer ear canals than us and are capable of hearing sounds from up to four times further away than we can. It's pretty impressive stuff, and even more remarkable when you consider that hearing isn't even your dog's most powerful sense — this prize goes to your pooch's sense of smell.
Training Your Dog to Listen
No matter how good (or otherwise) your pet may be at detecting low-frequency sounds, it's more or less irrelevant if your pooch doesn't listen to you. Known as selective hearing or selective deafness, this is when your dog chooses to listen to you only when it suits them — if there are treats or a walk on offer your dog is all ears, but if you want to give them a bath or take them to the vet they're suddenly very hard of hearing.
To help improve this frustrating situation, focus on teaching your dog that listening to what you have to say is very much worth their while. If you offer your pet a reward when they listen or pay full attention to you, they'll soon come to realize that following your instructions can lead to wonderful things. The right reward for your dog will depend on their personality, but it could be a tasty treat, play time with their favorite toy, or maybe just heaps of praise and cuddles.
Regular training to instill all the basic commands is also crucial. Start training behaviors like "sit", "stay", "come", and "drop it" from as young an age as possible. Use a patient, rewards-based approach from day one, and remember that you'll have more chance of success if you start in an environment without any distractions. Once your dog has a good grasp of what you want from them, you can head out into public to see whether your dog is willing and able to "hear" you when there are a whole lot of fascinating smells, sights, and sounds just waiting to be explored.
If you can maintain a calm and consistent approach, and avoid getting angry or frustrated, your pet will respond to the repetition and soon come to understand the importance of listening to you. This will hopefully ensure that your pooch's selective hearing become a thing of the past, and ensure that you can help them avoid dangerous situations at all times.
Written by a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 03/06/2018, edited: 04/06/2020