No matter whether they're floppy or fluffy, hanging down or sticking up, canine ears are incredibly useful listening devices for our dog friends. Capable of being tilted this way and that to narrow in on the source of a sound, a dog's ears allow them to detect sounds across an impressive frequency range.
Ultrasound is sound with a frequency greater than the upper limit of human hearing, which is around 20 kilohertz (20,000 hertz). Dogs are capable of hearing sounds up to 50 kilohertz and possibly even higher, so if you're wondering whether dogs can hear ultrasound, the answer is a resounding yes.
Lend us your ears and we'll investigate how doggy ears work and exactly what our furry friends are capable of hearing.
Signs and Symptoms of Dogs Hearing Ultrasound
It's easy to tell when your dog has heard a sound that you've also detected, as you're completely unsurprised by their reaction. But if your dog has detected a noise that's outside your hearing range, it can be a little harder to recognize the telltale signs. The key is to be in tune with your dog's behavior and note any changes to body language that may occur.
One of the easiest-to-spot signs is a change in their level of alertness. One minute your dog could be lying in the sun and slowly drifting towards sleep, but the next, they're on high alert. Their ears are perked up, tilting and rotating to zero in on the source of the noise, and their head shoots up.
Depending on the sound, your pooch may decide that they need to investigate further. This will usually mean sniffing the air to help identify the noise, tilting their head to focus on where it's coming from, and perhaps even getting up to explore the matter further.
Some dogs may bark or growl, maybe raise their hackles, and if the sound is discomforting they may whine or whimper. If you notice any of these signs, there's a chance that your pooch may just have detected a noise in the ultrasonic range.
The Science of Dogs Hearing Ultrasound
You see your dog's ears every day, but it's easy to overlook these fascinating parts of your pet's anatomy and what they're capable of. If you've ever watched your dog when they hear an interesting sound, you'll no doubt be aware that dogs have the impressive ability to maneuver their ears in different directions. Canine ears are home to some 18 muscles that make it possible for your pooch to tilt, rotate, and wiggle their ears in just the right direction to capture a sound. By way of comparison, the human ear only has six muscles.
However, it's thought that dogs developed the ability to hear high-frequency sounds so they could determine where those sounds were coming from. For wolves, the ancestors of the dogs we know and love today, this ability was an important weapon in their hunting arsenal.
Through a complicated process known as 'binaural spectral-difference cueing', dogs are able to compare the frequency of a sound as it arrives in each of their ears. The ear that sits farthest away from a sound is essentially in the 'shadow' of the dog's head. As a result, some of the frequencies are absorbed, so our furry friends must be capable of detecting a higher upper-frequency limit in order to work out the source of a sound.
However, while our dogs can hear much better than us at the top end of the spectrum, humans are slightly better at picking up low frequencies — we can detect sounds at around 20 Hertz, which is a little lower than the dog's limit of 40 Hertz.
Training with Ultrasound: The Pros and Cons
If you Google the words "dog" and "ultrasonic", you'll find a huge range of listings for dog training devices that use ultrasonic sound. These are commonly whistles that you can use to teach your dog to pay attention to you, or anti-bark collars designed to put an end to nuisance barking.
Ultrasonic dog training whistles and collars emit sounds at frequencies that range from approximately 23,000 Hertz up to 50,000 Hertz. This means they're well out of the range of human hearing but that your dog is perfectly capable of picking up the noises they produce.
However, ultrasonic training devices are a topic of much debate among dog owners and trainers. While some users swear by this form of training and sing the praises of its effectiveness, there are many others who have raised animal welfare concerns about using ultrasound to train dogs.
There are a few good reasons for those concerns. First, throughout the wider dog training community, positive reinforcement training is widely regarded as the most effective way to train a dog — much better than any method based on punishment. Using punishment or correction to try to put a stop to undesirable behaviors leads to fear and anxiety for your pooch, so rewarding the right behavior and ignoring the stuff you don't want is generally recommended as the best approach.
Second, although many of these products are promoted as humane, it's impossible for you to know for sure whether that's the case or not — after all, if you can't hear a sound, how can you tell whether or not it's distressing for your dog?
Finally, devices that automatically emit ultrasonic sounds (for example, whenever your dog barks) and are not actually controlled by you, may be over-correcting your dog without you ever knowing, and potentially correcting them even when they haven't done anything wrong.
If you're unsure about the best training method for your dog, speak to a vet or dog trainer you know and trust. He or she will be able to advise you on the most effective and safe way to train your furry friend.
Written by a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 06/08/2018, edited: 04/06/2020