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Thresholds: The Movie

Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.
Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a complete script of the video; or expand the audio (only) transcript below the video.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Threshold Movie Script

[Dogs barking]

>>EILEEN ANDERSON:

Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. But the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.” Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear. This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[vet clinic noises]

>>EILEEN:

She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.  This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[Neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]

>>EILEEN:

She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!


Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

Threshold Movie Script

Threshold Movie Script

This is the full script of the video, Thresholds in Dog Training.


[0:00 Clip of two dogs barking reactively while looking out a window]

>>EILEEN ANDERSON: Thresholds in Dog Training

[0:08 Text: Over Threshold??]

>>EILEEN: Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

[0:13 Photo of door threshold with light coming through underneath]

>>EILEEN: A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. but the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

[0:23 Text: There are three thresholds in dog training]

[0:31 text: 1. Sensory Threshold]

>>EILEEN: The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology.

[0:37 Clip of a feather lightly touching the palm of a hand]

>>EILEEN: Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.”(Psychology, Peter Gray, 5th edition, 2007)

[0:45 Text: Can you hear the 15.5 KHz noise? Your computer is probably generating it.]

>>EILEEN: Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

[1:02 Photo of Rhodesian Ridgeback alertly looking at something in the distance]

>>EILEEN: The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

[1:10 Text: 2. Threshold of Fear]

>>EILEEN: Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear.

[1:15 Series of photos of dogs aggressing or looking afraid]

>>EILEEN: This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

[1:37 Text: Examples of dog over threshold of fear]

>>EILEEN: Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[1:44 Video of frightened dog at the vet. We hear vet clinic noises.]

>>EILEEN: She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

[2:08 Video of small dog cowering and very still]

>>EILEEN: This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

[2:19 Text: What’s in between the threshold of sensory perception and the threshold of fear?]

>>EILEEN: But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

[2:33 Text: 3. Threshold of stimulus aversiveness]

>EILEEN: The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.

[2:38 Photo of dog lying on mat licking its lips]

>>EILEEN: This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

[2:43 Text: Example of a stimulus over the threshold of aversiveness]

>>EILEEN: Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[2:54 Clip of dog on a front porch with me looking and acting very nervous as she is practicing some trained behaviors. We hear neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]

>>EILEEN: She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

[3:22 Text: What would it look like if we made diagrams of the thresholds?]

>>EILEEN: In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

[3:35 Main diagram of thresholds and protocols.]

>>EILEEN: The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

[4:36 Diagram with thresholds of stimulus perception and stimulus aversiveness close together.]

>>EILEEN: The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

[5:03 Diagram with threshold of stimulus aversiveness and threshold of fear close together.]

>>EILEEN: Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

[5:15 Animation of threshold of stimulus aversiveness and threshold of fear moving closer and closer to scary stimulus, then disappearing]

>>EILEEN: Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

[5:33 Main diagram of thresholds and protocols.]

>>EILEEN: For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!

[5:42 Credits: Thanks to Blanche Axton, Debbie Jacobs, Marge Rogers, and Florrie Bassingbourn]


Link to blog post introducing the thresholds movie

© Eileen Anderson 2014 

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

I recently gave a webinar entitled, “Over Threshold: The Changing Definition,” for the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). The webinar is still available as a recording, and I encourage any interested folks to check it out. It is not expensive. (And thank you to everybody who already came! That was so cool to recognize some names!)

I am outlining here some basics from the webinar. The reason I created the webinar in the first place was to allay confusion in the dog community about definitions and to aid in communication. I think some straightforward definitions and a “map” will help many people and their dogs.

I argue that there are three distinct, necessary, and useful definitions of the word “threshold” in dog training. They are:

  1. Sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here is one textbook definition: The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.—Psychology, Peter Gray, 5th edition, 2007. In the webinar I go into the history, discuss types of thresholds in psychology (yes, even within the discipline there is more than one), and cite several more definitions and supporting information. There are many sensory thresholds: hearing, different aspects of vision, smell, touch, etc. One way the psych definition of absolute threshold is unfamiliar to our common use of “threshold” in training is that it is the stimulus that is above or below the threshold of the organism’s sensory capabilities. We say, “That sound is under the threshold of hearing,” not, “The dog is over its threshold of hearing.”  Organisms’ responses to sensory stimuli are often invisible to the naked eye, and the responses generally do not correlate to overt, “dramatic” behavior.
  2. Threshold in the common training sense. You can find definitions of this usage in books by Leslie McDevitt, Debbie Jacobs, Laura VanArendonk Baugh,  and more.  These definitions roughly agree. Here is Debbie Jacobs’, which is very straightforward:  The threshold is the point at which your dog can no longer deal with a trigger before reacting in a negative way (with fear or aggression).” — A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog, 2011I argue that this usage of the term generally corresponds to the response of the sympathetic nervous system: the fight/flight/freeze response or the fear response.  In this usage, it’s the dog that is said to be over threshold, not the stimulus. I also cover usages of the term “threshold” by behaviorists including Steven Lindsay, Dr. James O’Heare, and Dr. Karen Overall. They discuss dozens of sensory, physiological, and behavioral thresholds, and always specify which one they mean.
  3. Threshold of stimulus aversiveness. This threshold is the point at which an existing stimulus becomes aversive, generally because of the intensity of the exposure. I gave this threshold a name, but I didn’t invent the concept. It is necessary to locate this threshold through our dogs’  behavior when doing both desensitization/counterconditioning protocols and operant learning processes. Jean Donaldson defines it thusly: In DS/CC,  “under threshold” is: An intensity of stimulus that elicits no fear (and so the intensity of stimulus that would not function as R-)…. Not “mild fear” or “manageable fear,” it’s NO fear.–The Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement, PPG Webinar, 2012.  Attention to this threshold is necessary also in negative reinforcement protocols that involve escape,  since the stimulus exposure must be over the threshold of aversiveness in order for escape to function as negative reinforcement.

I believe that most of the problems in discussion of thresholds in the dog training community are due to two major points of confusion: 1) Whether we’re talking about the dog or the stimulus being over threshold (confusion between Definitions #1 and #2); and 2) The fact that many of us haven’t realized there is a difference between Definitions #2 and #3.

Mapping it Out

Here is a graphic showing these three different thresholds, and where the major types of protocols for working with fearful, aggressive, or reactive dogs fall among them:

Thresholds for blog
 This graphic may be shared for educational purposes with the copyright and credits included, and I would appreciate online citations to link back to this post or the webinar page.

The combination of desensitization/counterconditioning is performed under the threshold of aversiveness, as Jean Donaldson describes. Protocols using negative reinforcement (escape/retreat from the aversive stimulus) must take place partly over the threshold of aversiveness, or else the movement away is not reinforcing. They generally go back and forth over that threshold. Finally, flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear response. In the webinar I split things out further and map six different protocols separately; I have roughly grouped them for this graphic.

I also talk about the ways that some of the thresholds move and change, through training, external events, and the emotional state of the dog. I describe how certain protocols become more difficult if two of the thresholds are very close. For instance, for wild animals the threshold of sensory perception of a stimulus and the threshold of aversiveness of that stimulus may be practically on top of each other.  I address the often-heard claim that there is no negative reinforcement happening if the dog is “under threshold.” (Which threshold?)  Also, I discuss which protocol is likely to take place closer to the stimulus—but also why the absolute distance is not a good point of comparison.

Conclusion

I will be working further on this topic, in part because of some great questions asked at the end of the webinar, so you may expect more from me about it at some point.  For now I encourage anyone who wants further information to view the webinar.

Please note that the webinar does not have information on how to perform the above-mentioned training/conditioning protocols, on reading dog body language, or other training tips. It’s not about how to train a fearful or aggressive dog.  But the feedback I have gotten from viewers is that it has clarified an area of considerable confusion and that it will help their training.

Related Posts

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Threshold Webinar

Threshold Webinar

Guess what, folks? If you wondered why I’m not posting much right now: I am giving a webinar through the Pet Professional Guild and have been working my butt off on that for several weeks. The webinar is Over Threshold: The Changing Definition. Click on the image below to sign up. (There is a charge: $10 for PPG members and $20 for non-members. There is one CEU available for CPDTs.)

The webinar will take place on Wednesday, February 19th, at 12:00 – 1:30 PM Central Standard Time (6:00 – 7:30 PM UTC).

<<Note: The live webinar has taken place, but is still available as a recording.>>

This will be very different from any other discussion about threshold you have ever participated in.

Be ready to find out:

  • Why there are so many different definitions of “threshold” floating around out there;
  • Why the use of the term in psychology and the use of the term in animal training don’t quite “fit”;
  • What effect this confusion has on training, and discussions about it;
  • Where desensitization/counterconditioning; negative reinforcement protocols such as are included in BAT* and  CAT**; and flooding fall with regard to these different definitions of threshold; and
  • What we can do to clear up our discourse.

Yes, those are the waters I am daring to jump into. Hope you can come!

Click on the image or the URL below.

Eileen and three dogs threshold2

Over Threshold: The Changing Definition (Still available as a recording.)

Coming up:

  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Is My Dog a Drama Queen?
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* Behavior Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart

**Constructional Aggression Treatment by Kellie Snider

Using Sound Apps for Desensitization & Counterconditioning for Dogs

Using Sound Apps for Desensitization & Counterconditioning for Dogs

“What’s that noise and where’s it coming from?” Dogs’ hearing abilities are different from ours—a fact that is frequently and strangely unconsidered in the development of many audio products for dogs.

Dog trainers often recommend smartphone apps and YouTube videos for desensitizing and counterconditioning dogs who are afraid of specific noises. There are many apps designed for this, and they typically have recordings of a variety of sounds. However, the physics of sound production and the limitations of consumer audio present large problems for such use, problems substantial enough to prevent the success of many (most?) conditioning attempts.

This post describes the pitfalls of using sound apps and other recordings for this purpose. It maps out a strategy for sound desensitization that avoids most of the problems.

Why Many Audio Conditioning Products Fail

If quizzed, most people would likely guess that dogs have hearing abilities that are vastly superior to ours. In fact, it’s a mixed bag.

Humans can hear slightly lower frequencies than dogs can (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). We can also locate sounds quite a bit better than they can (Mills, 1958), (Fay and Wilber, 1989, p. 519). But dogs are the big winners in the high frequency range—they can hear tones over about twice the frequency range that humans can (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166), (Heffner, 1983). Also, dogs can also hear sounds at a much lower volume level than humans can over most of our common audible range (Lipman & Grassi, 1942).

Yet the superior aspects of dogs’ hearing are rarely considered when we decide to use sound recordings in conditioning.

There are four major acoustical problems with using human sound devices to condition dogs.

  • The inability of smartphones to generate low frequencies, such as those present in thunder
  • The limited ability of even the best home audio systems to generate these low frequencies in high fidelity
  • The upper limit of the frequencies generated on all consumer audio
  • The effects of audio file compression on the fidelity of digital sound

There are other problems when using apps that can make or break attempts to positively condition a dog to sound.

  • Lack of functional assessment before attempting conditioning
  • The length of the sound samples used for conditioning
  • The assumption that lower volume always creates a lower intensity (less scary) stimulus

Some, but not all of the above problems can be addressed with do-it-yourself work and a good plan. But sound conditioning of dogs using recordings will always have some substantial limitations that can affect success.

What Is the Frequency?

Frequency is the aspect of sound that relates to the cycles of the sound waves per second. Cycles per second is expressed in units of hertz (Hz). I’ll refer a lot to low and high frequencies because they pose different challenges.

To help with the concept of frequency, think of a piano keyboard with the low notes on the left and the high notes on the right. The low notes have lower frequencies and the high notes have higher frequencies. Keep in mind that sound frequency goes much higher than the highest notes on a piano!

Common sounds with low frequencies include thunder, large fireworks demonstrations, industrial equipment, the crashing of ocean waves, the rumble of trains and aircraft, and large explosions. Common sounds with high frequencies include most birdsong, the squeaking of hinges, Dremels and other high-speed drills, referees’ whistles, and most digital beeps.

Motorized machinery generates sound frequencies that correspond to the rotation of the motor. These frequencies can be high like the dentist’s drill or low like aircraft. Motors can also vary in speed. For instance, when you hear a motorcycle accelerating, the frequency of the sound rises as the engine speeds up.

Humans can hear in a range of 20–20,000 Hz (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166), and dogs can hear in a range of 67–45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983).

Some sounds don’t have a detectable pitch, meaning they include such a large number of frequencies that you can’t pick anything out and hum it. These are called broadband sounds. A clicker generates a broadband sound.

Missing Low Frequencies

…the better to hear you with!

Our human brains are great at filling in blanks in information and taking shortcuts. This makes it hard for us to realize what a bad job our handheld devices do in generating low-frequency sounds. Our dogs undoubtedly know, though.

Many people purchase sound apps in order to try to condition their dogs to thunder. The frequency range for rumbles of thunder is 5–220 Hz (Holmes, 1971). Handheld devices can’t properly generate those low frequencies. They generally have a functional lower output limit of about 400–500 Hertz. If you play a recording of thunder (or a jet engine, or ocean waves) on a handheld, the most significant part of the sound will be played at a vanishingly low volume or be entirely missing.

When performing desensitization, we aim to start with a version of the sound that doesn’t scare the dog, so using a handheld could possibly be a starting point. But you would have to fill in the missing low frequency sounds gradually as part of the desensitization process, which would mean using a different device after the first couple exposures anyway.

Home sound systems, including some Bluetooth speakers, can do a better job. They usually generate frequencies down to 60 Hz. This is roughly the lower limit of dogs’ hearing, so it’s a good match. But even the best home system can’t approach the power and volume of actual thunder, and the sound is located inside your home instead of outside. Some dogs do not appear to connect recordings of thunder on even excellent sound equipment to the real thing, or they will respond to recordings with a lesser reaction (Dreschel & Granger, 2005).

In one study of thunder phobic dogs, the researchers brought their own professional quality sound system to each dog owner’s home; great mention is made that the sound system was large (Dreschel & Granger, 2005). This bulk indicates that they were serious about being able to generate low frequencies. In general, the larger the speakers, the better they are at generating low frequencies. The difference today is smaller than it was 15 years ago, however. Sound systems have improved a lot in recent years.

Some of the sound apps for dog training now instruct you to send the sound to a home sound system rather than using the speaker in the handheld. This is excellent advice for any sound. But the bottom line is that you will not always be able to emulate low frequencies well enough to function as desensitization for some dogs.

This image compares the magnitude of a recording of a roll of thunder played on an iPhone 7 vs. a home sound system (Altec Lansing speakers). The Blue Yeti microphone I used to capture the sound for analysis was the same distance from the speaker in each case.

This plot shows that the smartphone speakers don’t generate low frequency sounds effectively

The part of the plot in the oval is the approximate range of the rumbles of thunder. The navy blue line represents the sound generated by the smartphone in those frequencies. The red line was from the Altec Lansing home speakers. The speakers generate sound down to 60 Hz effectively (as per their specifications).

In contrast, the output of the phone is virtually inaudible below 300 Hz. Sounds below about 44 Hz in that frequency range are generally indistinguishable from indoor ambient sound.

Missing High Frequencies

All consumer audio equipment is designed for human ears. Our handhelds, computers, TVs, and sound systems put out sound only up to the frequency of 22,000 Hz. Humans can’t hear higher frequencies than that. But dogs can hear up to about 40,000 Hz. So again, the recordings are not high fidelity for dogs.

This is different from the thunder situation. The low frequencies of thunder are present in high quality recordings, but our equipment can’t perfectly generate them. With high frequencies, it’s not only a limitation of our speakers. The sounds in “dog frequencies” are not recorded in the first place.

It’s not that it can’t be done. Biologists and other scientists use special equipment that can record or play back sound in the ultrasound range. The recording device requires a higher sample rate (how often the sound is digitally measured) than consumer equipment and the speaker for playback requires a wider bandwidth for frequency response. 

How much do the missing high frequencies affect the fidelity of recorded sound for dogs? We can’t know for sure. But virtually all sounds include what are called harmonics or overtones. These are multiples of the original frequency into a higher range. Dogs can hear these in the range from 22,000 to 40,000 Hz, but they are never present in sound recordings made even by very high quality equipment.

Because of these missing frequencies, dogs with normal hearing will likely be able to discriminate between a natural sound and even the best recording of it. 

Other Sounds Missing Due To Compression

Digital audio files are large. Most files that are created to play on digital devices are saved in MP3 format. This format was created in the 1990s when digital storage was much more limited than it is today. Hence, MP3 files are compressed, meaning that some of the sound information is removed so they won’t be so large.

MP3 is termed a “lossy” compression because sound data is permanently lost through the compression. The compression algorithms are based on the capabilities of the human ear. Sounds we humans are unlikely to be able to hear are removed.

Some of these limitations may be shared by dogs. For instance, quieter sounds that are very close in time to a loud sudden sound are removed. We can’t hear those because of masking effects, and it’s probable that dogs can’t either, although there may be a difference in degree.

However, there are other limitations of the human ear that dogs do not share. For instance, our hearing is most sensitive in the range of about 2,000 to 5,000 Hz. So very quiet sounds that are pretty far outside that range will likely be eliminated by the compression algorithm. Dogs’ most sensitive range is higher than ours, so sounds they could hear are probably omitted from compressed recordings.

Keep in mind that dogs not only hear sounds that are higher than we can perceive, but they hear all high-pitched sounds at lower volumes than we do.

So the MP3 compression process is another reason that some sounds in dogs’ hearing range that would be present in a natural sound would be missing in a recording of it.

If you make your own recordings, there is an easy thing to do to prevent this problem. You can save your sound files in WAV or AIFF formats as discussed below. I haven’t seen a desensitization app that uses these formats, however.

Behavior Science Considerations

The problems I’ve discussed so far are caused by physics of sound and how it is recorded, compressed, and played.

The following cautions have to do with applying what we know about performing classical conditioning to sound without errors.

Lack of Functional Assessment

Trainers and behavior consultants who help dogs with behavior problems perform functional assessments. They observe and take data to help them understand what is driving the problem behavior. In the case of fear, they analyze the situation in order to determine the root cause of the fear.

In the case of sound sensitivity, a dog may react because the sound has become a predictor of a fear exciting stimulus, as is the case with much doorbell reactivity. Or the dog may be responding to an intrinsic quality of the sound, as in the case of sound phobia. These are different fears that require different approaches. Sound phobia is a clinical condition that necessitates intervention. Many such dogs need medication in order to improve.

Trainers, working with veterinarians or veterinary behaviorists, can make these determinations. Consumers often can’t. And as the sound apps being marketed to consumers become more elaborate, pet owners who follow the directions have a good chance of worsening some dogs’ fears.

Jo is not impressed

For example, a newer sound app allows you to set up the app to play the sound randomly when you are not home for purposes of desensitization (without counterconditioning, although a mechanism for it is planned for the future). The instructions show an example of a dog’s doorbell reactivity going away through use of the app (although I’m skeptical that it could work long term). The app was programmed to play doorbell sounds randomly when the owner wasn’t home. This decoupled the doorbell as a predictor of strangers at the door.

This protocol would give any professional trainer pause. First, the cause of the reactivity, the dog’s fear of strangers, isn’t addressed at all. All things considered, that is not a humane or robust approach. The dog’s fear is left intact while the inconvenience of their barking at predictors is removed. Second, for a dog with a true sound phobia, playing a feared sound repeatedly when the owner isn’t home, even at a low volume (more on this below), could have ruinous results.

Apps that can play randomized, graduated sound exposures can be a good tool for trainers, as long as the trainers are aware of the physical limitations outlined in this post. They should not be marketed or recommended to consumers. Following the directions that come with the app could actually make a dog worse.

Length of the Sound Stimulus

Many noises in the apps are too long for effective desensitization and counterconditioning. Real-life thunder and fireworks both have an infinite array of sound variations. If you play a 20-second clip of either of these, there will be multiple sounds present and a sound phobic dog may react several times, not just once.

Classical delay conditioning, where the stimulus to be conditioned is present for several seconds, and the appetitive stimulus (usually food) is continually presented during that time, is said to be the most effective form of classical conditioning.

Delay conditioning would be appropriate to use for a continuous, homogeneous sound, such as a steady state (non-accelerating) motor. But fireworks and thunder are not continuous. They are sudden and chaotic. They consist of multiple stimuli that can be extremely varied.

To offer a visual analogy: if your dog reacts to other dogs and you seek to classically condition him, you might create a careful setup wherein another dog walks by at a non-scary distance and is in view for a period of, perhaps, 10–20 seconds. You would feed your dog constantly through that period. That is a duration exposure to one stimulus. (And you would try to use a calm decoy dog who doesn’t perform a whole lot of jumpy or loud behaviors!)

But for the first time out you would not take your dog to a dog show or a pet parade or an agility trial to watch 60 different dogs of all sizes and shapes coming and going and performing all sorts of different behaviors, even if you could get the distance right and the exposure was 10–20 seconds. That is the visual equivalent of the long sound clip of fireworks. There are far too many separate stimuli.

Also, if you play a longer clip, one lasting many minutes, as has been done in some sound studies, you are essentially performing simultaneous conditioning, a method known for its failure to create an association (Schwartz, 1989, p. 59). The fact that you started feeding one second after the sound started is not going to be significant if the thunder crashes and food keep coming for minutes on end. You have not created a predictor.

And if you are feeding the whole time but the scary sounds are intermittent, you are probably also performing reverse conditioning, where the food can come to predict the scary noise.

If you are working to habituate a non-fearful dog or a litter of puppies to certain noises, the longer sound clips are probably fine. They may even work for a dog with only mild fears of those noises. But the more fearful the dog is, and the closer the dog is to exhibiting a clinical noise phobia, the cleaner your training needs to be. To get the best conditioned response, you need a short, recognizable, brief stimulus. 

After you get a positive conditioned response to one firework noise, for instance, you can then start with a different firework noise. After you have done several, you may see generalization and you can use longer clips. But don’t start with the parade!

Assumptions about Volume

Most mammals have what is called an acoustic startle response. We experience fear and constrict certain muscles reflexively when we hear a loud, sudden noise. It’s natural for any dog to be startled by a sudden noise. It may be that dogs who have over-the-top responses to thunder and fireworks have startle responses so extreme as to become dysfunctional. For dogs who fall apart when they hear a sudden, loud sound such as thunder, it makes all the sense in the world to start conditioning at low volume, because this practice can remove the startle factor.

But it’s different for dogs who are scared of high-frequency beeps and whistles. These odd, specific fears are not necessarily related to a loud volume. I have observed that, with these dogs, starting at a quiet level can actually scare the dog more. Remember, dogs don’t locate sounds as well as humans do. It could be that the disembodied nature of some of these sounds is part of what causes fear. (Have you ever tried to locate which smoke alarm in a home is emitting the dreaded low battery chirp? Even for humans, it can be surprisingly difficult. And we are better at locating sounds.)

When lowering volume is ruled out as a method of providing a lower intensity version of a sound stimulus, virtually all apps for sound desensitization are rendered useless.

Solutions

With apps that can do more and more for humans, it seems odd to suggest that in order to help your dog, you might have to invent your own helpful tools. But doing so can help you make recordings of better fidelity and more appropriate length, and if you or an acquaintance are at all tech savvy, you can also alter sounds in other ways besides volume.

  • Record sounds yourself using an application that can save the recordings in WAV or AIFF (uncompressed) formats. This eliminates one of the ways that recordings can sound different to dogs from real-life sounds. Newer smartphones are fine for this. Even though they can’t play back low-frequency sounds, they can record them.
  • Create short recordings of single sounds, especially for dogs with strong sound sensitivities. Or you can also purchase high-quality sounds. For instance, you could purchase a 20-second recording of a thunderstorm, and edit out one roll of thunder to use. But be sure that the file you purchase is uncompressed. I use the site Pond5, where I can buy appropriate, high-fidelity sounds for $3–7 apiece.
  • Play sounds for desensitization on the best sound system possible, especially if you are working with thunder, fireworks, or other sounds that include low frequencies. Be aware, though, that you can’t always successfully condition to those sounds.
  • For dogs who are afraid of high-pitched beeps, create a less scary version by changing the sound’s frequency or timbre rather than by lowering the volume. Generally, lowering the frequency works well. You will then need to create a set of sounds for graduated exposures. They should start at a non-scary frequency, then gradually work back up to the original sound. See the papers by Poppen and Desiderato listed in the references for validation of this approach.
Silly human says what?

There are several ways to change the frequency of a recorded sound. You can use video software that has good audio editing capabilities, the free computer application Audacity, or professional sound editing software. You can also generate beeps at different frequencies using a free function generator on the internet.

The one advantage of working with dogs who are afraid of such sounds is that the original sounds themselves are usually digitally generated, so when you create similar sounds the fidelity will be high. (In other words, when a dog is afraid of a smartphone noise, a smartphone is the perfect playback tool.)

This is not a project to be undertaken lightly, but it can be done if you have tech skills and a good ear. Be sure to use headphones and be at least one room away from your sound sensitive dog when you start working with recordings of beeps. My dog can hear high frequency beeps escaping from my earbuds from across a large room.

I create sound series for desensitization for dogs who are afraid of whistles, digital beeps, and some other sounds (not thunder or booming fireworks). You can check out the information on my Sound Sensitive Dogs site for more information on this service.

Sound Conditioning Is Not Always a Perfect Solution

With some dogs and some sounds, it will not be possible to play recordings that are similar enough to the natural sounds to be able to carry over a conditioned response. Thunder and fireworks will always present significant problems.

We want to believe there is always a training solution. But sometimes physics foils our plans and the gap between an artificially generated sound and the natural sound will be too high. In that case, masking, management, and medications will be the best help.

References

Desiderato, O. (1964). Generalization of conditioned suppression. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 57(3), 434–437.

Dreschel, N. A., & Granger, D. A. (2005). Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95(3-4), 153-168.

Fay, R. R., & Wilber, L. A. (1989). Hearing in vertebrates: a psychophysics databook. Hill-Fay Associates.

Gelfand, S. (2010). Hearing: An introduction to psychological and physiological acoustics. Informa Healthcare.

Heffner, H. E. (1983). Hearing in large and small dogs: Absolute thresholds and size of the tympanic membrane. Behavioral Neuroscience97(2), 310.

Holmes, C. R., Brook, M., Krehbiel, P., & McCrory, R. (1971). On the power spectrum and mechanism of thunder. Journal of Geophysical Research, 76(9), 2106-2115.

Lipman, E. A., & Grassi, J. R. (1942). Comparative auditory sensitivity of man and dog. The American Journal of Psychology55(1), 84-89.

Mills, A. W. (1958). On the minimum audible angle. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America30(4), 237-246.

Poppen, R. (1970). Counterconditioning of Conditioned Suppression in Rats. Psychological Reports, 27(2), 659–671.

Schwartz, B. (1989). Psychology of learning and behavior. WW Norton & Co.

Photo Credits

  • Jo the black pug copyright Blanche Axton
  • All other photos copyright Eileen Anderson

Thank you to Whole Dog Journal, who originally published this article in 2020.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

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