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Category: Dogs’ hearing

How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?

How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?

There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about how well dogs hear. It’s true that their hearing is better than that of humans in a couple ways. They can hear higher-pitched sounds than humans can, and they can hear quieter sounds than we can in some frequency ranges. Because of this, they have a reputation for superb hearing. But their hearing capabilities are not better across the board. Our capabilities are superior to theirs in a few important ways as well.

Continue reading “How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?”
What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer has gotten less afraid of thunder

Is it weird to write a post saying that something really shouldn’t have worked, but look, it kind of did? Is it irresponsible even? I keep pondering why I feel the need to explain all the strikes I had against me for this project. I certainly want to be responsible and not give people false hopes that if they try something they will have great success. But at the same time, I want to show something that did help my dogs.

Consider this an attempt to balance out all the posts I have read that say,  “I tried desensitization and counterconditioning and it didn’t work” or “Positive reinforcement didn’t work with my dog!” Despite many identifiable barriers to success with something I tried, I still got a moderate change for the better in one of my dogs’ quality of life. (The others thought it was pretty cool, too.)

The requirements to perform desensitization and counterconditioning successfully are very straightforward, but can be difficult to do properly in real life. Often, people who fail  blame the science. So let’s take a look at some of the situations in which the science itself says that the method might fail.

Challenges of Counter Conditioning

(you’ll see why I’m not even mentioning desensitization here in a minute)

To do counter conditioning successfully, you have to be ultra consistent and careful about pairing the stimulus (in this case, thunder) with the goodie that you hope will create a conditioned positive response (in this case, food). So if the stimulus happens a lot without your being there to provide the food, the dog’s physiology doesn’t get “convinced” that one will always predict the other. Likewise, if you run up to your dog and give her the same treat, in the same way, that you have been doing for thunder, but at random times, you will also dilute the predictive value of the thunder.

There are more nuanced problems. If your timing is off and you repeatedly give the goodie before the stimulus, you can get reverse conditioning. In this case, that would mean that food predicts thunder. Oh oh. And if you don’t switch up characteristics of the situation, the dog can attach the response to the wrong thing. For example, if you always wear a certain hat when counterconditioning, there is a good chance that the hat is the stimulus, or a necessary part of it.

And of course, the thunder needs at all times to be under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness for the dog. Yeah, right.

So what this means is that technically, counterconditioning to thunder may be well-nigh impossible. Do you get why? It’s something we have no control over. We can’t cause it, control it, or prevent it from happening.

What’s Hard About Treating Thunderstorm Phobia?

  • Unless you are home 24/7, you can’t always be there to pair the thunder with good stuff. That can shoot your efforts down before you even get started.
  • When you are home, the dog’s likely hear the thunder before you do.
  • The sound is hard to “fake” convincingly using recordings on an audio system. Most a speakers  aren’t capable of generating the very lowest frequencies. And I suspect most dogs can distinguish the source of the sound. (It’s still probably a good idea to try desensitizing puppies via recordings though.)
  • In a real thunderstorm, you can’t do true desensitization. The thunder may start quietly, but it gets loud too fast, and goes unpredictably from louder to softer during the duration of the storm. The thunder goes over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness way too fast, i.e., the phobic dog is already scared.
  • The rolls of thunder can have considerable duration and can overlap each other, making it difficult to know when to start and stop doling out the food.
  • Around here, thunder can be audible on and off for hours. There is a limit to the numbers of treats you can safely give!
  • There may be other physical effects of thunderstorms that the dog is reacting to, such as changes in barometric pressure. If so, those can’t be mimicked for practice, nor can humans sense them in a real storm in the way that dogs do.

So, given these limitations, I never figured I would get much of an improvement for Summer. But I’m a “tryer.” Even if we didn’t get a conditioned response, I figured the distraction might be helpful.

What I Did

I used spray cheese, my go-to easy, high-value treat. As soon as I heard the first thunder clap, or the dogs appeared to hear one, I got the spray cheese. I commenced giving everyone a little lick with each roll of thunder. I did this every time I was home. During very long storms or those days where it would thunder on and off all day, I would finally stop at some point, or stop treating all but the loudest rumbles or claps. This was not ideal, but real life came barging in and it wasn’t OK to make my dogs sick.

After a year or more, Summer started showing a preference for going into the bedroom when it thundered, so I incorporated that into the routine when possible.

In the movie, you can see the progress that she has made between late 2012 and early 2014.

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

Note: my treat delivery in the movie is often slower than normal because I am trying to film at the same time.

John Visconti’s “Bunker” Method for Thunder Phobia

When I first started this piece, I had not read about John Visconti’s “Bunker” method for helping a dog with a thunderstorm phobia. If you are interested in starting a protocol for your dog, you should definitely read the article and study his well thought-out method. It’s much more complete than what I have done, and has much better odds of having a beneficial effect.

He acknowledges in his piece that he can’t “prove” that the actions he took are what helped his dog so much. (But his evidence seems very strong, especially given that his dog started prompting him for the protocol.)  I love that. I’m much more comfortable with his caution than with anyone who says, “Follow my patented, definitive, unique method and your dog will get 100% better! In only two short sessions!”

I was pleased upon reading Mr. Visconti’s piece that there are some aspects of his system that I have happened onto, mostly having to do with the routine. As I mentioned, at Summer’s suggestion we have started going to a certain room for the thunder routine.

But I did not take the care to condition a “whole package” response like Mr. Visconti did, including olfactory, tactile, and auditory cues. (What a great method, to pack in all those associations that he can control.) But I got the great food and location part. And as you can see from the movie, it probably helped.

Other Resources

Other Posts of Mine on Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Final Thoughts

In our situation, there is also habituation in play. I’ve mentioned that sometimes we have thunder rumbling for many hours on end. I just can’t keep passing out the treats every time. Generally after a bit of time has passed, I can stop and Summer manages to sack out for a nap. But habituation on its own is a fairly weak way of changing an emotional response, so I suspect that the overall change has been due to the counterconditioning.

But even if this is mostly habituation and the security of a routine, I am so happy that it has helped Summer. I think ameliorating fear is a huge quality of life issue, so I’m glad to do it wherever I can.

Coming Up:

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

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Using Sound Masking To Protect Your Dog From Loud, Scary Sounds

Using Sound Masking To Protect Your Dog From Loud, Scary Sounds

If you have:

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

…you can try sound masking to protect your dog from some sounds that might bother him.** 

Two dogs waiting to listen to some sound masking to see if it protects them from scary sounds
“We flunked our part of the movie!”

What I’m going to describe is called sound masking, and it is the auditory counterpart to putting up window film. Because I already had a smartphone and wireless speakers, my solution cost only $1.99 for the app.

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

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

This is a management technique, in that you are not seeking to train the dog or change their emotional response. You are just controlling the environment to limit their exposure to things that scare them. This is counterintuitive, but sound masking is actually more effective than trying to build a barrier against the sound, especially at low frequencies.

Working on sound phobias with desensitization and counterconditioning can help your dog actually recover from the fear, but in the meantime, this can be a big help.

Also, you may want to review my article on dogs’ hearing capabilities compared to humans’ and also my article about what to do if your dog is afraid of the clicker.

Why Not Music?

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

  1. Despite some studies, the evidence is thin that music of a certain type intrinsically soothes dogs. Much thinner than the abundance of products would suggest. The background research of what dogs can perceive and discriminate in music is missing. A recent study had the result that dogs were calmer when listening to a male voice reading an audiobook than to specially composed dog relaxation music.
  2. My goal is not to play something for them to listen to and relax to. It is to cover up extraneous sound. A much simpler and more direct goal. To that end, I’ve even been known to play very loud rock music during thunderstorms. Not anybody’s idea of relaxing, but it’s not scary to the dogs like a thunderstorm, and it has low (bass) frequencies that can compete with the rumble of thunder. But I figured there might be a better way.
  3. When I tried the special music, it didn’t work.

The App

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

Choosing a Sound

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

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

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

Link to the video for e-mail subscribers.

**And of course, there are other resources if you don’t have the particular setup I describe. You can buy these sounds on a CD or playlist and play them on any kind of sound system. Whatever you use, test it on your dogs first. With ultra-long recordings such as you find on YouTube, you’ll have to listen to the whole thing to make sure there is nothing scary embedded in there.

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

Addendum, 7/12/14

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

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