That’s a serious question on my part, not clickbait. I don’t know the answer. And I’m not talking about fear; I’m talking about being bothered. I’m wondering about it because of a recent experience.
My little Zani is clinically sound phobic of high-frequency sounds such as beeps and whistles. Because of meds and careful application of desensitization and counterconditioning, her default response these days to hearing any sort of digital beep is a positive one. She turns to me or even runs to me to look for a treat. Take a look/listen.
Caution: the following before/after movie has digital beeps in it.
Once in a while when she will still melt down if she hears something quiet in the distance that’s within her “scary” category It might be a bird, an alarm, or even some kind of clicking. And we still haven’t tackled the low battery chirp of the smoke alarm. But even with the remaining scary things, her recovery time is minutes, rather than the hours or days it used to be.
She has never been afraid of thunder or fireworks (except the whistling kind). She has an apparently normal startle response to unexpected loud noises, but doesn’t stay in a fear state.
Even though she isn’t bothered by booms and roars, what happened the other day surprised me.
What a Lovely Day To Get Some Sun!
Looks pretty idyllic, right? It was a lovely spring day. And as much as I’d like to leave the punchline inside the movie, here’s a spoiler for those people with dogs who are afraid of roaring engines. There is a terrible noise of that sort in the video.
That noise, my friends, is the neighbor’s generator. It has not one, but two unrelated low frequencies that spin off a pack of unlovely overtones. You probably can’t hear the lower frequencies if you watch it on a handheld. If so, you’re lucky. The full effect is extremely unpleasant—although apparently not for my dogs. Go figure.
Response To Noise: Fear Vs. Irritation
Most studies about noise affecting animals deal with either sounds that are loud enough to be physically damaging, or sudden sounds that evoke a startle response. There is at least one study about the response of dogs to noise. It took place in a shelter and centered on barking. In the kennel environment, the sound was chaotic, varying, and loud enough to cause hearing damage. That’s a crucially important welfare issue, but it doesn’t fit the situation I’m curious about: lower level but constant/repetitive noise.
My teacher reminds me now and then to watch for dogs “voting with their feet.” If something bothers them, they will often leave.
But thinking back, the only time I see them do that is when they are afraid, or when they are being hassled by another dog. (Of course I intervene but I’m not as quick as a dog!) I’m sure it happens when dogs are being bothered by humans or other species as well. But those all qualify as space invasions, either tactile, or via body pressure, or through staring.
Have I ever seen a dog leave the scene because of a sensory irritation? Have I seen them leave in response to an ongoing repetitive noise, blinking light, or even an overwhelming odor? I don’t think so. I’ve seen the equivalent of an “eww” response when a dog sniffed citrus, but they just backed off a little. They didn’t leave the room.
This is especially interesting given the sensitivity of dogs’ noses. We are warned not to overwhelm them with odor. But given the comparative strengths of our olfactory senses, we probably overwhelm them all the time.
Response to Obnoxious Odor
I don’t use many scented products. I don’t use incense (dated myself there!), room sprays, plugins, or scented laundry products. There’s but one exception. I make melt and pour soap, and I do have some small amounts of high-quality essential oils. I sometimes scent the soap lightly. A while back I made some bars of soap, and I accidentally dumped way too much violet essential oil into a batch. The odor was so “loud” it gave me a headache.
I hate to waste stuff. So I tried to get the odor out of the soap. I left the completed bars of soap out in a closed room for a few days to air out. Didn’t help, and the odor in the house was still strong. I let them sit in the sun on the back porch for a few days. Didn’t help. Finally, I remelted them, which the soap mavens say gets rid of fragrance. We’re told that the oil will vaporize before the soap melts. I even let it boil for a while. This did help, but it only took the fragrance down from headache range to obnoxious. But at that point, I was able to bag them up and put them in a drawer, and that was tolerable. The house returned to normal (per my olfactory sense). I take them out one by one to use. I’ll probably never use violet fragrance again after I use them up.
Now, what did my dogs do during this assault by odor? Nothing. They didn’t come in the kitchen saying, “What the hell?” And whenever they were in the kitchen during a bloom of violet odor, they didn’t leave. They didn’t ask to go outside. As far as I could observe, they didn’t respond at all. This seemed like just another stupid human-related occurrence that was irrelevant to them.
What Have You Observed?
I am making no claims about dog behavior in this post. I don’t have enough information. But I’m curious. What have you observed? Have you ever seen a dog leave the scene in response to an ongoing (not sudden) visual, auditory, or olfactory stimulus when they weren’t afraid of it? Have you seen the equivalent of the human irritation response? The “I can’t listen to that incessant scraping/roaring/rattling noise for one more minute!” response?
How about you folks with border collies? Just asking, grin.
I do wonder if it’s a difference in cognition. A lot of the stimuli humans don’t like are repetitive, my neighbor’s generator included. And our irritated response is functional. Noise that is well under the threshold for human ear damage has been shown to have negative neurological and cognitive effects on humans.
I have used brown noise to mask scary sounds for the dogs, but it is not something I would choose to leave on otherwise.
We do habituate. But case-by-case, it’s hard to predict whether we will habituate or sensitize to a stimulus. I don’t mind the repetitive swell of cicadas in the summer, that is, when I’m inside. For those who haven’t heard them—they can be loud. When you are out there with them, it’s hard to hear anything else. That’s another possible function of irritation. I am awed by huge waterfalls and crashing ocean waves, but I confess that the masking effects bother me. I don’t feel safe because I can’t hear other things in the environment. That’s another effect my neighbor’s generator has on me, but apparently not on my dogs.
Some astute folks are going to point out that perhaps the dogs found being in the sun so pleasant that they were tolerating the noise. That’s possible, but it’s a big yard with lots of places they like to bask. From their behavior, it seems to me that either they really don’t mind, or they don’t know that they could escape at least some of the continuous noise by moving to a different sunny place in the yard. As a friend said recently, “Don’t you wish they could tell us?”
- How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare to Humans’?
- Using Sound Masking To Protect Your Dog From Loud, Scary Sounds
- How to Soundproof a Dog Crate
Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson