Category: Review

Review of Pawnix Sound Cancelling Headphones for Dogs: Unlikely to Work as Described

Review of Pawnix Sound Cancelling Headphones for Dogs: Unlikely to Work as Described

A pink Pawnix headset for dogs and the box it came in

The claims made by the Pawnix company sound too good to be true. I believe that is the case. The company makes assertions about its sound-cancelling headset that are not possible with current consumer technology and for which they don’t provide evidence.

There are many products that market to the concerns we guardians have for dogs who are sensitive to thunder and fireworks. Like many of the others, Pawnix’ touted benefits are not well supported by evidence.

Sound phobia is a serious condition. If you have a dog who is sensitive to sound, please seek the help of a vet who specializes in behavior, a certified behavior consultant, and/or a veterinary behaviorist. These professionals often work together and can help your dog by changing his emotional response, implementing behavior change protocols, and prescribing medications.

When investigating a product that fits snugly on my dog’s head and contains electronics, I expect to find details on safety testing performed by the company, cautions and step-by-step instructions for conditioning the unit, and a clear assessment of the product’s strengths and limitations. After buying a Pawnix, I studied the instructions that came with it, studied their website, and watched their videos. I found none of the above. I came away with grave concerns.

Looking for Ways to Protect Dogs from Unwanted Sound

Many of you have read my post about how you can’t soundproof a dog crate, especially from low-frequency sounds. The same goes for other soundproofing attempts within the home.

Some have seen my presentations (my webinar Sound Decisions hosted by The Science Dog and my webinar “Beethoven for Your Dog…Really?” at the Lemonade Conference 2021) in which I talk about the weak evidence for calming effects of music for dogs, and the fact that music specially written for dogs has been unsuccessful in peer-reviewed studies.

So many disappointments! I hoped for the possibility of active noise cancellation for dogs. It would work best in an enclosure like this prototype crate by Ford, where speakers could be mounted at a distance from the target area (you’ll see why below). This setup would have a better chance of working for sudden noises like thunder than sound cancelling headphones, but when I saw the Pawnix headphones advertised, I still bought a pair. Then I reviewed the literature. It turns out I should have done that first.

Sound Cancelling Headphone Technology

My master’s thesis was on active sound cancellation in an enclosure. Active sound cancellation works by using one or more microphones to sample incoming sound, an electronic processor to compute a sound wave that is 180 degrees out of phase with it, and one or more speakers to play this computed “anti-sound,” all before the original sound wave reaches the subject’s ear or a target area in a room. (I can hear my professor wincing at the term anti-sound, but it gets the point across. It’s still normal sound, though.)

The sum of two sound waves 180 degrees out of phase is approximately zero

When I performed the literature review for my thesis, I included articles on sound cancelling headphones. The particular challenge created by active noise control (ANC ) headphones, as opposed to ANC in a room or enclosure, is that the length of the path between the microphone and the speaker is very short. ANC implements a race between the speed of sound and the speed of electronics. Speaking from experience, it’s easy to lose that race, even in a large enclosure. So being able to compute and output the new sound wave during the time sound travels about an inch from the outside to the inside of the headphone is a challenge. However, when the sound is regular and predictable, ANC headphones can be effective. That’s why the ones for humans are marketed for riding on planes and subways.

Current Headphone ANC Doesn’t Cancel Sudden Sounds

I knew the limitations of active sound cancellation in headphones in 2008, so I focused my recent studies on whether they have been surmounted. They have not. Experts agree that ANC still works best for low-frequency, periodic sounds, such as engines and fans (Kuo & Morgan, 1999; Zhang & Wang, 2021). Consumer products are not yet available for sudden sounds (impulse sounds) or sounds above 1000 Hz because of the technical complexities, although there is progress in that area (Zhang & Wang, 2021).

The limitations of active noise control in headphones mean that the sounds that bother dogs most, the things we are trying to protect them from, are the very ones that sound cancelling headphones can’t really help with.

Active noise control is comparatively ineffective on:

  • thunder claps (it may have some effect on the following long-term rumbles)
  • fireworks
  • gunshots
  • short digital pops and clicks
  • all digital beeps over about 1,000 Hz

The last three items can largely be addressed with passive sound control: the insulation in headphones. Some beeps and pops could be practically inaudible, and the intensity of gunshots could be lowered considerably. But as for the rest—insulation doesn’t provide much protection from low frequencies, and today’s sound cancelling headphones can’t significantly shield dogs from sudden sounds. A company that markets its noise cancelling headphones for thunder and fireworks is putting out incorrect information.

Pawnix’ Claims and Characteristics of the Headphones

This Pawnix unit is a size extra small, so a bit tight on mystuffed dog

The Good

  • Pawnix has a conservative limit for the volume of the sound output to protect dogs’ ears.
  • Pawnix recommends that the headset be worn in non-scary situations first, so as not to make it a predictor of scary things. (They do not thoroughly instruct how to create a good association through counterconditioning, though, nor do they link to the online resources that are available on the topic.)
  • The stated active frequency range covers dogs’ hearing range well: 10–40,000 Hz (although it’s unnecessary since consumer ANC is ineffective for more than 95% of that range).
  • Pawnix incorporates the option for playing music, which could provide a masking effect.
  • Pawnix headphones provide some passive sound control via insulation.

The Bad

  • Pawnix headphones have not been experimentally tested for efficacy or safety on dogs in a controlled setting. The only “evidence” of their performance Pawnix presents consists of perceived changes in behavior of one dog who belongs to the founder of the company. Here is what they say:

    “How Do We Know That It Works? First, we used audio testing technology to prove that the electronics were in fact cancelling the frequencies that were found to be problematic. Then, only after we felt it was mathematically sound, we put it on Emma in different loud situations and it worked. We could visibly see a difference in Emma’s behavior.

    I think the Pawnix company means well. But the above statement demonstrates a certain naiveté about science and evidence. The founder’s dog? That’s it?

    Without unbiased testing, there is no evidence that the headphones work as claimed, and there is no assurance that they are safe (see below about the missing safety warnings). I emailed Pawnix to ask whether they plan on funding a study, but they did not reply.
  • Pawnix explicitly claims that the headphones protect dogs from the sounds of fireworks and thunder. This is not possible to a significant degree. Check out these New York Times Wirecutter articles that include info on the limitations of sound cancelling headphones.
  • Several standard safety warnings and instructions included about headphones for humans are missing. You can read the safety instructions for Bose headphones to get an idea.
    • Pawnix does not caution to remove the headphones if they get warm or if there is loss of audio. How can we check them frequently enough for overheating? And how would we know if there is loss of audio? If one of the most respected makers of sound equipment for humans gives these warnings about their headphones, should we not worry about a company only a few years old that shows us no evidence of quality control or serious testing?
    • Feedback (often a crackling noise) can be a problem with sound cancelling headphones. How can we know if the Pawnix unit is generating it? Feedback could be a nightmare for a sound sensitive dog. The headphones might sensitize rather than protect. Here is an article about crackling feedback sounds from Bose.
    • So-called “eardrum suck” may be present on the Pawnix. This is an unpleasant sensation some people experience when wearing some models of sound cancelling headphones. It is thought to be due to the filters used to control feedback (see previous bullet). We don’t know whether dogs are vulnerable to this disorienting phenomenon. We need to know this, and we need to know if there is help for our dogs if this were to happen on the Pawnix.
    • The welcome video for the Pawnix includes the following statement: “The noise cancelling portion is a wavelength and always tuned up to 100%, because since this is a wavelength it does not hurt our dogs’ hearing.” This doesn’t make sense and raises doubts about the company’s knowledge of its own product. A wavelength is literally a distance. For example, the wavelength of a 200 Hz sound is about 5.6 feet. A sound’s wavelength doesn’t describe its intensity or volume. Every single sound has a wavelength (almost always a group of them) and this does not prevent loud sounds from damaging our ears.
  • Two design annoyances:
    • The built-in fabric hood prevents humans from testing the headphone output on our own ears and certainly appears that it would be hot for the dog.
    • The control button and status lights are underneath the fabric, which makes them hard to use and is also worrisome from a safety standpoint.
The status lights and control button are underneath the fabric and the USB charge cord goes through an opening

More Problems

“30 dB Noise Reduction”

The Pawnix, along with many other ANC headphones, claims a reduction of sound of up to 30 dB. This bears discussion.

First, when a company claims a 30 dB reduction in sound without specifying a frequency range, this doesn’t guarantee that any particular sound or frequency band will be reduced by that much. It’s an average. So, for instance, a low frequency rumble that we were concerned about might get only 10 dB of reduction, even if the sound overall is reduced by 30 dB. Some frequencies might actually increase in volume (see the scholarly articles linked below).

Second, the cap on the volume output of the headphones is a double-edged sword. It’s absolutely necessary; it would be dangerous to allow the unit to put out sound at a high volume. Dogs can’t turn down the volume or let us know why if they become uncomfortable. But a higher volume might be necessary to effectively cancel a particular sound. You can’t cancel a shout with a whisper.

Your Dog Can Still Hear You—But Why?

Zani listening

Pawnix states that your dog will still be able to hear you speak because they designed the headphones to cancel sound in frequencies that “affect dogs the most.” You can find this claim here, on the fourth page. A common way to exclude certain frequencies from an algorithm would be with a “band-stop filter,” which prevents a range of frequencies from being affected. The reason that this is a troubling claim is that the frequency range of human speech, 80–8,000 Hz, completely encloses the range where ANC works best. If they excluded that range, the headphones would hardly cancel sound at all.

Some headsets designed for human ear protection from gunshots claim to leave speech audible but attenuate guns. A common algorithm is for the electronic cancellation to turn on whenever there is a sudden, loud noise, but stay off otherwise. Then speech would be discernible during the quiet periods. This cancellation is not perfect—speech isn’t be very clear if the headset cancellation gets turned on by a gunshot close by—but is helpful combined with the passive control provided. However, this algorithm is probably not added to what the Pawnix does, since the company describes their process as selecting by frequency only.

The good news is that your dog can likely hear you just fine wearing Pawnix, but it’s probably because of inherent limitations to ANC and not a special adjustment the company made. Speech is unpredictable and irregular. That’s why your dog can hear you (and any other irregular noises like speech).

This may seem like a minor point, but it indicates a company that may not understand the technology behind its product and one that is not accustomed to how scientific evidence works.

The Paradox of “Relaxation”

Pawnix has in common with compression garments for dogs such as the Thundershirt that if poorly conditioned, it could shut down a dog. Some dogs appear to go into tonic immobility when swaddled. This can appear to some people that the dog is “calm.” This stillness and the caregiver placebo effect can both cause guardians to believe that a product is helping when it may be neutral or even harmful.

Somehow, we have gotten it into our heads that dogs who are freed of their fear and anxiety should just lie down and relax. Perhaps this is because of the sedative effects of some anxiety-reducing medications. Perhaps it’s because of the longstanding belief that quiet dogs are being “good.” But the opposite of a scared dog isn’t necessarily a snoozing dog. It’s a dog going about its daily business. It’s a dog exploring, eating, playing, and interacting with its human and animal family. And yes, sometimes napping. But not as a default.

I haven’t seen a dog acting normally in this way in any Pawnix videos. In the videos Pawnix provides, the dogs are motionless or moving stiffly while wearing the headphones. They seem unnaturally still; they crouch or sit with their heads motionless and often only their eyes moving. I haven’t seen a dog in a video wearing Pawnix with loose body language, soft eyes, a relaxed lower jaw, or anything to indicate they are happy and comfortable.

Extraordinary Claims

By stating that their headphones can protect a dog from the sounds of fireworks and thunder, Pawnix is claiming that their product can do something that the highest end human headphones currently can’t. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Any evidence would be a great start. Pawnix states they used audio testing technology to prove that the electronics were in fact cancelling the frequencies that were problematic. So how about they publish the data? Show us the performance of the headphones, not only with constant sounds, but with sudden thunderclaps and the pops and booms of fireworks. And if the headphones were tested when not on a dog, which they imply, they need to be tested on dogs for behavioral responses as well.

I hesitated to publish this review for a long time. I wanted to test the output of the Pawnix, but the headset design and my lack of the equipment to give a fair test prevented me from doing so. Finally, I realized it was not up to me to disprove that they work. Pawnix is the one making the extraordinary claims. They are marketing a product that fits snugly on dogs’ heads and plays sound directly into their ear canals. It’s up to them to give us solid evidence of safety and efficacy.

What’s the Alternative?

There is not a consumer product on the market that can protect your dog from the sudden, low-frequency sounds of thunder and fireworks or make him feel significantly better about them.

Clara wearing properly conditioned Mutt Muffs

If you want to try pure passive sound control, Mutt Muffs are effective at protecting dogs’ ears from engine noises and the company is straightforward about the capabilities and limitations of their product. They do not claim that Mutt Muffs help with thunder or fireworks.

For a dog with sound phobia or sound sensitivity, please see a certified dog behavior consultant, a veterinarian who specializes in behavior issues, or a veterinary behaviorist. And in the meantime, use careful sound masking to the best of your ability.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson


Consumer-Aimed Articles

Scholarly Articles Cited

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

There are thousands of people searching for that perfect stuffed toy: the one their dog will love playing with and which will last longer than a couple of days.

The Tearrible sounds like that toy, but for us, it wasn’t. It’s a toy meant to be played with in one limited way—a way a dog might or might not enjoy. Surely there are dogs for whom this would be a great toy. But be sure to understand how the toy actually works before you assume your dog is one of them.

Continue reading “Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy”
Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

I don’t know how she did it. How could anyone write a book so comprehensive, so authoritative, and so readable all at once?

Book cover: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

I was privileged to be an early reader of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, by Zazie Todd. It’s a revolutionary book. Dr. Todd identified the major aspects of caring for pet dogs and shared with us what scientific research says about how to do it best. Why do I call it revolutionary? When we consult the research, most often we seek research about dog training. Even though we want to train humanely, we are often seeking the best ways we can get dogs to change or do stuff for us. This book covers training, of course, but the theme is using the existing research to cover what we can do for our dogs, not the other way around.

I believe a whole, evidence-based book about this is unique in all the literature.

Continue reading “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review”
Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Dr. Brennen McKenzie released his blockbuster on alternative veterinary medicine on November 1, 2019. Placebos for Pets? The Truth About Alternative Medicine in Animals is out, and I recommend it highly. I am not a veterinarian, so keep that in mind as you read my review. But this is a great book for all pet owners, pet professionals, and others interested in animals who need help sifting through all the information on alternative veterinary medicine.

Book on alternative veterinary medicine: Placebos for Pets
Continue reading “Placebos for Pets? A Book Review”
Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

I bought my own LickiMat and this is an independent, unsolicited review. 

Here I go again, trying to figure out whether a food toy is fun, neutral, or a drag. This time it’s an Industripet LickiMat Buddy, a rubber mat with texture that you can spread food on. The texture makes it a challenge for the dog to lick all the food off.

I bought one of these mats, and immediately had to ask my trainer friend Marge how you use these without the dog just carrying it off and chewing on it. She said people cut them to size to fit into a pan. Aha!

Continue reading “Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.”
How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

small black dog Zani gazes at a Lotus Ball toy with Velcro enclosures

Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, toys, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures.

This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears.

I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a Continue reading “How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro”

Books in Review: Eileen’s Essentials

Books in Review: Eileen’s Essentials

A brown dog appears to be reading a book on learning theory by Paul Chance. Books keyword
This book is on the list!

Since this is a gifting season for many folks, I thought I would share the books I own that are almost never on my bookshelves. By that I mean the books that are next to my computer or open on the kitchen table or mixed up in the bed covers. The books you see me quoting here. The books I open up when I need to solve a problem or I need a high quality reference.

I could easily name 20 more dog books that I dearly love and highly recommend. Maybe I’ll do that next year. But these are the ones I need the most. Continue reading “Books in Review: Eileen’s Essentials”

Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

If you have a small dog with little experience with food toys and who is not prone to chewing hard plastic, the new toy called the Foobler might be the very thing for him.

If you have a larger dog, a determined dog, one who thrives on chewing hard plastic, or most important, a dog who has a lot of experience with food toys, I have some cautions about the product.

That’s right. I’m recommending the Foobler for dogs who are new Continue reading “Fooled by the Foobler? A Review”

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise. Continue reading “Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?”

Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Because I read this incredible book, that’s why. 

Book Review

Dog Food Logic book coverDog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case, MS

Available at Dogwise.

A book about dog nutrition and feeding choices that talks about cognitive biases and logical fallacies? My kind of book!

Author, trainer, canine nutritionist and consultant Linda Case has written a unique book on how to make decisions about what to feed your dog. She has the right credentials:  B.S., Animal Science, Cornell University, M.S. Canine/Feline Nutrition, University of Illinois, Urbana, and tons of high-level professional working experience. Continue reading “Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?”

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