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Category: Dogs and sound

How to Tone Down That Plastic Dog Collar Click (and Why)

How to Tone Down That Plastic Dog Collar Click (and Why)

bright colored fabric dog collar with plastic snap

Plastic collar clicks are loud! And we often snap them right next to our dogs’ ears. I realized I habitually dampen the sound with my hands; this practice undoubtedly came from my experiences with little Zani, who was clinically sound phobic. During bad periods, she would startle at any kind of sudden noise.

I imagine I’m by far not the only one who does this. But in case there are dog owners who haven’t worked this out, here’s a kind thing you can do for your dogs. If you use collars or harnesses with plastic snap buckles, you can use your hands to damp the sound of the click when you snap the collar closed.

I wanted to know just how loud the snap might be and how much quieter I could get it. I ran a seat-of-the-pants experiment with a good mic and a sound analysis app. The click was about 83 decibels at its peak frequency, undamped. (That’s just one measurement; the intensity of the sound will vary with the type of collar, the flexibility of the plastic, the distance from the ear, and many other factors.) Eighty-three dB is not normally in the painful range for humans (or likely dogs), but since the snap is an impulse noise, it can be shocking to the ears at that level. One study with rats showed that a sudden sound can evoke the startle response if it is between 80–90 dB (Ladd et al, 2000). Bingo.

If you hold a plastic buckle three inches from your ear and snap it together, you will feel an uncomfortable sudden blast of sound pressure in your ear. I’m guessing it doesn’t feel great to dogs, either.

This plot represents that sound. It has frequency on the x-axis and sound pressure level (roughly the same as volume) on the y-axis. More about the plots at the end of the post.

Sound pressure level graph with frequency on the x axis showing the SPL of the peak of the collar noise at 83.2 dB
83 dB—and note the sharp peak

How to Dampen the Sound and How Much That Can Help

Many of you have probably figured out, either analytically or subconsciously, to hold the pieces of the buckle a certain way to reduce that loud click.

But I bet you haven’t seen how much it helps if you dampen the snap with your hands.

If you simply press the two parts of the snap collar together, they click loudly.

plastic dog collar snap about to be clicked
Loud click (83 dB) is about to happen

But if you use your fingers to dampen the sound, you can lower the intensity substantially. Not all collars have the same design, but I got an optimal reduction of the sound when I fit my fingers into the curves of the receptacle as shown in the next image. I not only damped the vibrations; I could slow the progress of the plastic prongs. I was able to ease them over the internal part that makes them snap (you can see that in the movie). You can also get a decent reduction in the sound if you hold the flat parts or put your whole fist around that side of the buckle, but though it will be quieter, the snap will still be sharp.

Fingers pressing on the receptacle portion of a plastic collar buckle so as to dampen the sound
Nice quiet click: 54 dB

The damped click is about 54 dB, 29 dB lower.

Sound pressure level graph with frequency on the x axis showing the SPL of the peak of the collar noise at 54.2 dB
54 dB and no sharp peak; this is a thud, not a click

In the weird world of logarithmic scales, that translates to the loud click being almost 1,000 times louder than the damped one. See the note at the bottom of the post if you are interested in more detail about the math behind these diagrams.

Here’s a quick video showing how I optimally damped the click of the collar.

Be careful with damping, though. I did pinch my thumb once and got a blood blister.

Woman's hand with closeup of small blood blister on thumb

Some people with sensitive dogs avoid snappy collars and harnesses entirely. I find them handy enough that I do use them but take care to keep my dogs’ ears (even my non-sensitive dog) from being clobbered by the sound. I hope the points in this post weren’t painfully obvious to every dog guardian already.

What things do you do to improve your dog’s sound environment?

Related Posts

Sciencey Addendum

The diagrams I use above to show the comparative sound pressure levels in decibels (dB) are in the form of a Fast Fourier Transform. (Believe it or not, the previous link is one of the more understandable explanations of the FFT.) What the FFT does is transform a signal, in this case a sound, from the time domain to the frequency domain. In these diagrams, the FFT is showing the sound pressure level (roughly speaking, the volume) at its different component frequencies. There are at least three interesting things about the diagrams.

First, you can “see” that the undamped click is much sharper. Check out the sharp peak on the plot. That’s a click. The damped sound is more like a thud. It’s quieter but also spread out farther over a range of frequencies. That makes the sound less startling.

Second, the sound pressure level stays high in the frequencies above the peak in the undamped version. The overtones and other contributing high frequencies are free to do their loud thing. You can see in the damped version that I pretty much killed those higher frequencies with my fingers. What nice news for dogs, who hear these high frequencies better than we do.

Third, those two other “humps” to the left of the peak frequency in the damped diagram are interesting! But I can’t explain them, except that I changed the contour of the sound by slowing down the plastic prongs as they passed over the internal clasp. But I’d like to know more about what’s going on. It’s possible the lowest hump is now the fundamental frequency. I’ll do it again one of these days and check out the center frequencies of the other humps and see if I learn anything interesting.

References

Ladd, C. O., Plotsky, P. M., & Davis, M. (2000). Startle response. George Fink. Encyclopedia of Stress. (ed), 3.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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

Impulse Sounds and the Startle Response: Why Some Dogs Fear the Clicker Sound

Impulse Sounds and the Startle Response: Why Some Dogs Fear the Clicker Sound

In 2018, I wrote a post titled “My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?” I told the sad story of how I scared a dog with the clicker, then scared her even more by following the standard advice to remedy the situation. In the post, I did something I rarely do, which was to give straight-up advice. I advised people whose dogs were afraid of the clicker to switch to a verbal marker if they really needed a marker, and to leave the click sounds alone for a bit while they determined the extent of the dog’s fears.

I stand by that advice. And now I am going to show you why switching to a quieter mechanical click is not enough of a change to remediate some dogs’ fear.

It’s been great to see more research on training with and without the clicker and the comparison studies rolling in. Many people would be surprised at how many studies of markers, bridges, and secondary reinforcers have been made over the years. I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of them for quite a while now. For instance, it’s often said that the click sound has special properties in that it is processed by the amygdala. But it turns out that the amygdala is involved in reward expectation and the processing of all predictors and secondary reinforcers—not just the click sound. There is research on this dating back to at least the 1980s.

People have long speculated that the clicker has special effectiveness because the sound is unique. Its short duration and salience seem to help with precision. But do you know what I have never seen? An analysis of that sound compared to other sounds. How long is it, really? What kind of sound is it?

I’m going to show you. Then I’m going to put forth some ideas about the ramifications.

How Can We Communicate about Sounds?

We don’t have enough words in English to describe sounds. As an auditory-oriented person, I run up against this problem a lot. Here is one thing that helps a little. Waveform diagrams allow us to translate the aspects of a sound wave into a visual presentation. So I’m going to give you some examples of what various sounds “look like.” We’ll examine their amplitudes (volumes), rhythms, and onset times graphically over time.

Instead of talking a lot about it, I’m going to show you a lot of examples. You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.

Examples to Get Started

The x-axis (horizontal) is time in seconds. The y-axis is amplitude (volume). I am not including details for the y-axis. These would properly be in decibels. But because these sounds were recorded in different situations, I didn’t control for the distance between the sound source and the mic. Giving readings in decibels would be misleading. I want you to look at the shapes. (If you are curious, the y-axis is on a linear scale to help the user know their recording level. Several of the click sounds “saturated” the scale, meaning that their volume exceeded the bounds of the scale at the distance from the microphone I used. Bad audio engineering behavior on my part!)

I’m not going to get into pitch, because if there are many different frequencies playing at the same time, we don’t hear pitch at all. Most of the sounds I’m going to show you are of this variety. For the piano and violin, the frequency is too high for us to see individual oscillations at the given scale on the page. But most of the sounds are too complex to show oscillations at all.

Here is the C above middle C (C5) on a piano, played at loud, medium, and soft levels. Note how the sound starts off very suddenly (the piano is actually in the percussion family of instruments). Even the very soft one has a definite beginning. Then the amplitude decreases (decays) quickly over time on each one.

Here is the same C played on the violin. String instrument sounds played with a bow don’t necessarily decay. This particular sound starts abruptly, but stringed instruments can also fade in.

Here is what talking looks like. (This is the image of me saying, “Here is what talking looks like.”)

Here is a chainsaw being used to cut down a tree. The last shape is the tree falling.

OK, now we get to the good stuff, the point of this article. I want to show you what the sounds of the clicker and other mechanical markers look like.

Impulse Noises

The following noises are all what acousticians call impulse noises. An impulse noise goes from zero to a high volume in such a short time that it is perceived as instantaneous. Impulse noises are likely more common in human society than in nature. Sudden thunderclaps are impulse noises. Natural explosions can be. But humans create all sorts of impulse noises. Exploding gasses, mechanical impacts, and explosions are impulse noises. Digital noises that are not deliberately faded in, but just “turn on” can be impulse noises. Noise is well studied and regulated by OSHA and the CDC because it can be harmful in several kinds of ways. For instance, very loud impulse noises can cause ear damage because of the suddenness, whereas a gradual noise that peaks at the same volume would not.

You may suspect what I’m working up to. Even though these sounds are quieter, clickers and other mechanical markers have the other characteristics of impulse noises: sudden, with a very fast onset. They are of the mechanical impact type. The suddenness is one aspect of their precision. If you want a short marker, you want it to start (and stop) fast. Here are some examples.

Here is the pop of bubble wrap. Check out the time scale: the loud part is over in less than 1/10 of a second. The loud part is about 0.07 seconds, or 70 milliseconds. I’m going to use milliseconds from here on out. Just remember that 1,000 milliseconds comprise a second.


Here’s the click of a dog’s plastic buckle collar. Hmmmm, imagine that right next to your ear.


Here is a box clicker. The two clicks are about 110 milliseconds apart.


Here is a “bug” clicker. This one was a little harder to do quickly so the two clicks were about 160 milliseconds apart.


Here is a baby food lid. Note: I learned that they are very unwieldy. Trying to click with a round disc that keeps slipping out of your fingers is not practical! The amplitude is also very different, with the second click much quieter. These clicks are about 100 milliseconds apart.


Here is a retractable ballpoint pen. I had never noticed that the second sound is louder than the first one, but it is. These clicks are about 170 milliseconds apart. You’ll see in a minute why I’m mentioning the time between the clicks.


Less Abrupt Sounds

All those clicking sounds started very abruptly. Here are some verbal sounds and a mouth click for comparison.

Here’s the verbal marker “Yip.” It is about 110 milliseconds long. But look how gradually it starts compared to the clicks above.


Here’s a verbal “Yes.” It also starts gradually and is about 150 milliseconds long.


Here is a mouth click. It is about 75 milliseconds long.

Onset Comparisons

One of the characteristics of impulse noises is the fast onset of the noise and the quick rise to the maximum amplitude. So for the following images, I zoomed in 10x, that is, we now see the detail in a tenth of a second (100 milliseconds) in the space we were seeing a whole second. This is so we can see the time it takes for the onset of the sound.

Here is the “Yip” zoomed in. It may be only 110 milliseconds long, but almost all of that is the comparatively gentle onset of the Y sound.


Here is the mouth click zoomed in. Even though the mouth click looks a lot more sudden than the verbals in the images above, check it out when zoomed in. It still doesn’t have the almost instantaneous onset of the mechanical sounds.


So we can compare the above with a mechanical sound, here is the plastic buckle zoomed in. The amplitude rises to its maximum within just a couple of milliseconds.

Impulse Sounds and the Acoustic Startle Response

I’ve shown graphically how much faster mechanical clicks start than our verbal noises. Here’s why I am focusing on that fast onset.

Mammals have a reflex called the startle response. It can be triggered by a sudden noise, an unexpected touch, or even a purely visual stimulus (think of a silent jump scare on a computer or movie screen). But it is so commonly triggered by noise that that variety has its own term: the acoustic startle response.

In the startle response, the body responds with a rapid extension, then flexion of several muscles. (In humans, these often center on the head, neck, and shoulders, but also extend down to the legs. You probably can summon the kinesthetic memory of your shoulders tensing when you have been startled. If you were sitting down, the quick muscle movement of your legs made you jump out of your seat a little as well.) The criteria for an acoustic stimulus to trigger a startle response have been studied in several species, although not in dogs that I can find. The criteria to acoustically evoke the startle response in rats are 1) that the sound reaches full intensity within 12–15 milliseconds (0.012—0.015 seconds) of its onset, and 2) that the sound is about 80-90 decibels (Ladd et al, 2000). Many texts note that quick onset is essential to the startle response. If a sound is equally loud at its peak but takes more time to rise to that volume, it won’t trigger a startle.

With the onset criteria in mind, take another look at the zoomed-in image of the buckle collar. The time from onset to maximum of that sound is well under 12 milliseconds: it’s less than 5. On the other hand, the onset of the mouth click is more gradual and does not reach as high an amplitude (volume). Again, the amplitudes are not exactly at the same scale, because I did not maintain an exact distance from the microphone over the time I recorded them. But they are roughly representative of the comparative volumes. The mouth click is indeed much quieter than the buckle collar.

Finally, look again at the zoomed in verbal “Yip.” It takes fully 100 milliseconds to reach the peak amplitude.

The Takeaway

  • While clickers may not quite reach the criteria to evoke the startle response, they come close. A sensitive animal could be startled by a clicker, especially if the click happens close to its ears. Animals can habituate to startling stimuli, but there is a chance that a sensitive animal will instead become sensitized. And a dog who is sound phobic may respond with fear to a click at any volume.
  • If an animal becomes sensitized to the clicker sound, changing to another mechanical sound (jar lid, ballpoint pen) or dampening the original clicker may not work. I’ve tried this with unfortunate results, and I know some of you have, too. I hypothesize that it is because these quieter mechanical sounds still have the sudden onset of an impulse sound.
  • From a bioacoustical standpoint, switching to a verbal marker will generally solve both of the problems. It is quieter, and the onset is much slower than that of a mechanical device.
  • The total time of a quick verbal marker is comparable to the time between the two clicks of a clicker, so you may not be losing much in precision.

Mechanical clicks, even quiet ones, have the characteristics of impulse sounds, which can trigger the mammalian acoustic startle response. If you’ve scared an animal with a clicker, it’s probably wise to move away from mechanically generated sounds until you know more about their particular sensitivities.

These are my own deductions, based on the acoustic properties of mechanical clicks, the nature of the mammalian startle response, and what I have observed in dogs. I’m not saying that clickers are dangerous for all dogs, or even most dogs. I’m saying that some fearful or sensitive dogs will not habituate to these startling noises, that they may get sensitized instead, and that the sensitization can generalize to other similar sounds, even at lower volumes. There could be errors in my assumptions, and I am open to any discussion on the topic.

References and Further Reading

Götz, T., & Janik, V. M. (2011). Repeated elicitation of the acoustic startle reflex leads to sensitisation in subsequent avoidance behaviour and induces fear conditioning. BMC neuroscience12(1), 30.

Ladd, C. O., Plotsky, P. M., & Davis, M. (2000). Startle response. George Fink. Encyclopedia of Stress.(ed), 3.

Rooney, N. J., Clark, C. C., & Casey, R. A. (2016). Minimizing fear and anxiety in working dogs: a review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior16, 53-64.

Yeomans, J. S., Li, L., Scott, B. W., & Frankland, P. W. (2002). Tactile, acoustic and vestibular systems sum to elicit the startle reflex. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews26(1), 1-11.

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

What are we here for this time?

Every year I post an article about last-minute things you can do to help your dog who is afraid of fireworks. We are coming up on Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day, and that means bangs and booms. Over the years I have tweaked my list. I’ll be posting it in a few days.

But here is an early reminder with the most important tip of all.

  1. See your vet.

If you see your vet now to discuss prescription drug possibilities, you have time to make sure they work for your dog and your vet can adjust them if necessary. There are new products on the market, as well as several options that have been around for years.Here is what Dr. Lynn Honeckman, veterinary behavior resident, says about the benefits of medications.

Now is the perfect time to add an anti-anxiety medication to your firework-preparation kit. The right medication will help your pet remain calm while not causing significant sedation. It is important to practice trials of medication before the actual holiday so that the effect can be properly tested.

There are a variety of medications or combinations that your veterinarian might prescribe. Medications such as Sileo, clonidine, alprazolam, gabapentin, or trazodone are the best to try due to their quick onset of action (typically within an hour) and short duration of effect (4–6 hours).

Medications such as acepromazine should be avoided as they provide sedation without the anti-anxiety effect, and could potentially cause an increase in fear.

Pets who suffer severe fear may need a combination of medications to achieve the appropriate effect, and doses may need to be increased or decreased during the trial phase. Ultimately, there is no reason to allow a pet to suffer from noise phobia. Now is the perfect time to talk with your veterinarian.

Dr. Lynn Honeckman

Sound phobia is a serious condition. The best way to help your dog get through the coming holidays in the U.S. and Canada is to contact your vet for help. Call now.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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