Sound Masking for Reactive Dogs

If you have:

  • a dog who reacts to noises while at home;
  • a smart phone or tablet that can send a signal to wireless speakers; and
  • wireless speakers

…I have a hint to share.** 

"We flunked our part of the movie!"

“We flunked our part of the movie!”

What I’m going to describe is called sound masking, and it is kind of like the auditory counterpart to putting up window film. But it can be a lot more expensive, except if you already have this stuff. Then my particular solution costs only $1.99.

The idea is to buy a sound generating app that includes white noise, beach or ocean waves, or another wide spectrum noise (randomish noise with lots of frequencies), and looping capabilities. That is, it will play this noise over and over seamlessly until you tell it to stop.

If you play that through your speakers, you can mask at least some of the outdoor noises that might cause your dog to react. My dog reacts to some engine noises, car doors closing, joggers going by, and people talking or shouting. Putting on the noise generator can mask a lot of that. Not all, but a lot.

This is a management technique, in that you are not seeking to train the dog or change their emotional response. You are just controlling the environment to limit their exposure to things that scare them. Working on sound phobias with desensitization and counterconditioning can help your dog actually recover from the fear, but in the meantime, this can be a big help.

Why Not Music?

But wait, you say. Isn’t there special music you can buy to relax your dog? Yes there is, and lots of it. I don’t use it much for three reasons.

  1. Despite some studies, the evidence is thin that music of a certain type intrinsically soothes dogs. Much thinner than the abundance of products would suggest. In fact, a recent study had the result that dogs were calmer when listening to a male voice reading an audiobook than to specially composed dog relaxation music.
  2. Since I’m a musician, or maybe just because I can’t block out certain sounds, playing music precludes me from writing or doing most mind work. I can’t stop listening. So my house is generally quiet of radio, TV, or music sounds unless I’m actually listening.
  3. More important, my goal is not to play something for them to listen to and relax to. It is to cover up extraneous sound. A much simpler and more direct goal. To that end, I’ve even been known to play very loud rock music during thunderstorms. Not anybody’s idea of relaxing, but it’s not scary to the dogs like a thunderstorm, and it has low (bass) frequencies that can compete with the rumble of thunder. But I figured there might be a better way.

The App

I bought “White Noise” by TMSOFT. There are many noise apps for smartphones; this is the one I picked and I like it a lot. I wasn’t solicited in any way, nor did I get anything for mentioning the product. It is marketed as a sleep aid and has all sorts of capabilities. I am just touching the tip of the iceberg with my usage here. It has 40 different noises, some of which definitely wouldn’t be soothing to most people, but are interesting. Dripping faucet, anyone? Ride in a jet?

Choosing a Sound

Obviously, if you are going to play this while you are home, it needs to be something that you can tolerate as well as your dogs. With regard to the science, the more low frequencies you can incorporate, the better. In other words, ocean waves are better than beach waves. Brown or Brownian noise with its abundance of lower frequencies is better than white noise. Pink noise is another option. FYI, the brown noise crossed Summer’s threshold into “scary” because it was just a tad too rumbly. Anyway, lower frequencies more effectively mask other low-frequency sounds, such as truck engines.

As with any management tool, introduce the sound you plan to use at a time when the scary sounds are unlikely, so it doesn’t come to predict them.

Here is sound-sensitive Summer (and in one case, Zani) demoing that the noises don’t bother her. (And for what it’s worth, they don’t distract me, either. I can write just fine!)

Link to the video for e-mail subscribers.

Extra Credit

By the way, this app also has thunderstorm and heavy rain sounds. A very industrious and dedicated person with good speakers might be able to use it for desensitization/counter conditioning a dog with fear of thunder. I have not chosen to do that with Summer because real thunderstorms happening when I am not home would tend to undo my work. When I am home, we have a routine that helps her.  But if you are home a lot, and/or if you want to “innoculate” a puppy, it would be great for that.

**And of course, there are other resources if you don’t have the particular setup I describe. You can buy these sounds on a CD and play them on any kind of sound system. I just haven’t done the homework for that yet. When I realized that New Year’s Eve was right upon us, I decided to go ahead and publish in case this could help some other dogs.

Would love to hear if anyone else tries this or is doing anything similar. We are all listening to running water as I write this.

Addendum, 7/12/14

Just read a great tip by Yvette Van Veen  of Awesome Dogs. She suggests that running the clothes dryer with a couple of shoes in it can mask thunder to some extent. I think this is a great idea. It is at least partly random and includes fairly low frequency bumps and thuds. You might need to desensitize your dog to it beforehand, but that would be “money in the bank” for later. Karyn K. on the FaceBook group Fearful Dogs, where the discussion took place, also suggested tennis balls in the dryer. Great ideas and I can’t wait to try them!

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Dogs' hearing, Fear, Management, Sound sensitivity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Sound Masking for Reactive Dogs

  1. Thank you for this article, Eileen. Do you have references you could share about the science of why lower frequency sounds are better to incorporate?
    TIA!
    Virginia

    • Hi Virginia, the article on auditory masking from Wikipedia covers some of the points.

      Under the subheading “Similar frequencies”:

      [referring to Figure B]…The greatest masking is when the masker and the signal are the same frequency and this decreases as the signal frequency moves further away from the masker frequency.

      That means if you want to mask low frequency noises, you need a mask that includes low frequencies.

      Under the subheading “Lower frequencies” :

      [again referring to Figure B]…This demonstrates that high frequency maskers are only effective over a narrow range of frequencies, close to the masker frequency. Low frequency maskers on the other hand are effective over a wide frequency range.

      That means that low frequency masks in general are more effective at masking.

      There are links to primary sources in the article.

      There is one more factor to consider, one that most of us know intuitively. That is that low frequency noises “carry” further. The sound waves are so large that things like buildings and trees don’t absorb them well. They do absorb higher frequencies just fine. That’s why we can hear thunder from many miles away, but not a loud car alarm at the same distance.

      So the low frequency tones are the ones that get indoors with us with more ease to begin with.

      This is not a scholarly article, but one that explains some of the difficulties of dampening low frequency sounds: Practical Soundproofing.

      The trick with masking is that if a dog is scared by very low frequency rumbles, they will likely be scared of some similar sounds that one can play through speakers. But I did find some sounds that included some lower frequencies that my dog thought were just fine, and that did successfully mask many of her outdoor noise triggers. With a little desensitization of the generated sounds, I could use even more of them.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Robin J. says:

    About a year ago, a cousin of mine with working dogs on a working farm shared a tip he uses when one if his border collies needs to be kept housebound during illness: the
    Golf Channel. :). He said it was the only TV that seemed soothing to the dogs, probably because it’s pretty much nonstop calm talking voices. He had previously tried white noise generators with no success.

    My son’s pet border collie is sound sensitive and very independent. We had also had no luck with other masking noises, so we tried the Golf Channel, and sure enough, it worked! She finds it interesting and calming.

    This won’t work with dogs who are anxious about stranger voices, of course. But it might be worth a try.

  3. La Trenda says:

    Thanks for this. We like air purifiers – the noisy round honeywell ones. Box fans seem to work well also but with our allergies (dogs and me), purifies seem to be the way to go.

    I have Through a Dog’s Ear playing all the time. If things get extra noisy outside – like hammering, I will turn it up.

    Also, I’ve found that doing the same things as the neighbors seems to help. i.e the dogs bark when neighbors are mowing lawn,but don’t bark when I’m outside mowing. So I sometimes mow at the same time as the neighbors :). I’ll also take when the neighbors are talking.

    I’ve been experimenting with a thunderstorm CD. The dogs don’t even notice it. So I’m thinking about using it to mask the fireworks this year (I’ve used action movies in the past). I wonder if the thump of hip hop music would be useful. My Murphy doesn’t care for hard beats.

    Too much whistling in the fireworks CD that I have. the dogs alert to it even at low volumes. So I’m not sure it’s going to work well for desensitization and certainly not for masking.

    I tried some sound absorbing foam. No luck.

    • Thanks for these tips, as well. Sound absorbing foam has to be comparable in size to the sound waves, and low frequency ones are BIG (several feet in amplitude). So the foam would have to take up your house! Thinner might help with those whistles, though! I love reading about all the clever things you do for your dogs.

  4. Peggy mccallum says:

    Great post, as usual, Eileen!

    We’ve had quite a lot of success with thunderstorm masking. We started out with the Desensitization plan, playing a loop on my old iPod through the big speakers. Once we were at full volume, we’d play that loop for hours every night, through training and tv watching. I’d also leave it on when I left the house. I think it helped some, as did a Thundershirt.

    We discovered early on that it really helped by masking real storms. It’ll be on tonight, as we get a few booms from the local fireworks. So glad we don’t live closer!

    • That’s great how you are combining masking and DS! Thanks for sharing. Hope it will inspire others (like me) to do more. A dog could make progress even when the people aren’t home all the time!

  5. brian says:

    What a great way to help scared animals! Thanks for sharing. I saw this blog because Todd Moore from TMSOFT posted it on his facebook. If you have a specific sound you think would help animals, you could easily reach out to him through facebook. I am betting he would be very receptive to adding it.

    • Great, Brian! I’m glad you found your way here from there. I’ll think about what would work well, but really the White Noise app seems to have it covered pretty well!

  6. Pingback: What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia? | eileenanddogs

  7. Hi Eileen,

    I love your articles. Thank you for putting so much time and effort into each one of them!

    Here are two resources you may want to use. I recommend these to some of my noise fearful/phobic clients.

    http://www.soundmasking.com/
    http://www.acousticalsurfaces.com/ (great video and general information)

    The “Bunker” method in the quietest, non-windowed room of the house works best for many of my clients.

    Many thanks,

    Russ

    • Great resources, Russell! I remember Acoustical Surfaces back from my engineering days. We bought some fancy dampening material from them. Thanks for the kind words.

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  9. Maggie says:

    What a great solution! I may have to give that a whirl this year! Incidentally, I am the exact same way with music… if it’s on, I end up listening instead of working or whatever else I’m supposed to be doing!

    • eileenanddogs says:

      Yeah, music doesn’t work so well for me. Let me know how it works if you try some kind of noise. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Sarah Owings says:

    Do you have any tips for the best sound masking for urban noises such as: people and dogs walking past the house, construction, cans rattling, shopping carts, etc.?

    • eileenanddogs says:

      I’m sorry Sarah, nothing specific. Most of those are mid to higher frequency noises, except some of the construction stuff. I would just experiment with different white and brown noise products. I would always lean to the lowest frequencies in the masking sound that the dog could be happy with (the brown noise goes heavier in the low frequencies), but once those start getting boomy they can be aversive in themselves. Here’s one to play with from Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-ZpvN3jV38 (I didn’t know until now that such things were on YouTube, so I’m glad you asked the question.) You would need to run it through speakers (as opposed to computer or phone sound output) to get some of the lower frequencies.

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  16. Peggy McCallum says:

    Further update on sound masking– I had so much success with storm masking that I wanted to find something for fireworks– the answer is Taiko Drumming! Found an album on iTunes and it works great. Fortunately I love Taiko, and now the neighbours are learning about it too!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I love Taiko and it’s perfect as long as the dogs are OK with it. Have you ever been to a live concert? So exciting!

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