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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