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A Dog’s Sense of Hearing: Happy Dog Expert Explains

In today’s society, our pets are just as much a part of our family as our fellow humans. We look after them and care for them intimately. But in order to understand their needs, it’s best to understand exactly how they communicate and experience their surroundings. 

Have you ever wondered how your pet perceives the world? Or how good a dog’s hearing really is? Well, a dog’s sense of hearing is exactly what we’re exploring in today’s article! This is the final blog in a five-part series delving into how dogs experience and use each of their five senses.

Hear We Go Again

As we mentioned in the first part of our series on vision, cats and dogs can hear better than humans. Auditory signals have a greater importance for dogs than visual signals, especially when it comes to communication. They can also be exchanged at a greater distance. In fact, a dog’s hearing is important for many aspects of canine life, including:

  • Locating prey
  • Communication between parents and their young
  • Communication between dogs and humans

Some training regimens utilize a dog’s sense of hearing. For instance, training can often include verbal cues or sound markers. Historically, silent dog whistles were also used, relying on a dog’s ability to hear ultrasonic sounds beyond a human’s range of hearing.

Black and white dog training outdoors.

The Anatomy of a Dog’s Hearing

A dog’s pinnae – or external ears – are highly mobile and rely on more than 20 separate muscles to achieve 180 degrees of movement. In many breeds, they also act as funnels to direct sounds into the ear. This function is less effective in dogs that have droopy ears as the ears may inherently dampen sounds entering the ear canals. Either way, a dog’s pinnae mean they can hear sounds from a distance up to four times farther away than humans can. Any reader whose dog is afraid of storms will be able to attest to this fact as dogs often appear to predict storms before they arrive!

The pinna and external ear canal give way to the middle ear, where the tympanum (ear drum) and the only bones of the auditory canal are located. Then we find the inner ear, where a specialized fluid fills the auditory canals to help transmit sounds to the tiny hair cell receptors. These structures are essential for transmitting sounds to the auditory cortex in the brain for processing. Certain genetic abnormalities (especially seen in some Merle or white-coated dogs) sometimes occur that cause these hair cells to develop abnormally and result in deafness.

Understanding Dog Vocalisations

Researchers have identified 10 different and distinct sounds made by dogs. The most common sounds are the bark, whine, howl, and growl. The propensity to make each sound depends on the individual dog, breed, and situation. Acoustic features of these vocalizations are context-dependent and often vary between individuals, which may allow other dog or even humans to identify the vocalizing individual.

Small dog looking up at camera.

Here's an overview of the main types of dog vocalization:

  • Barking: A dog’s barking may range from a high-pitched repeated bark – resulting from alarm or isolation – to a low-frequency sound directed at unfamiliar visitors. 
  • Growling: Growls, which are also variable and context-specific, are used to communicate information about the growler’s body size. This in turn guides the listener to decide whether they want to leave the situation or engage. A dog’s growl is meant to be a distance-increasing behaviour.
  • Whining: Whining is a very specific type of dog vocalization that is reserved for care-soliciting events, such as puppies communicating with their mother. 
  • Howling: Howling is also more specific in its use or meaning. For the most part, a dog’s howling is reserved for responding to other dog vocalizations.

Dog vocalization, while normal, can have a negative effect on the immediate community. Many dogs bark during the day which can be particularly aggravating to neighbors sensitive to the volume. In shelters or veterinary clinics, the volume of barking can even exceed 90 decibels. This intensity constitutes a safety hazard that can potentially lead to hearing loss among people working in those environments!

There is one dog breed that has a uniquely different manner of vocalizations. Basenji dogs, which originated from Africa, are one of the oldest breeds of dog in the world. They have an unusually shaped larynx (voice box) and so are unable to bark like other dogs, but instead make a sound more like a yodel.

Do Dogs Respond to Music?

Several studies have compared how dogs in different environments respond to various styles of music. Interestingly, the results suggest that dogs are quieter and more restive when classical music is played than when pop music is on. The studies also show that dogs spend more time barking when heavy metal or rock music is played.

Man playing guitar for a relaxed dog.

It is still unclear what factors of the music – such as pitch, tempo, timbre, and volume – influence these different behavioural responses. However, since dogs and other species (including humans!) can become habituated to sounds that play repeatedly or consistently, any beneficial effect from dogs hearing a certain type of music may only be temporary.

Noise Phobia in Dogs

Noise phobia is the term that refers to fearful responses in dogs to fireworks and other loud noises. Dog noise phobia can be triggered by anything from gunfire, lawn machinery, and vehicles, to everyday beeps and buzzes from household appliances. Studies have shown that almost half of the pet population suffers from noise phobias. In fact, some dogs have an underlying chronic pain condition that contributes to their distress. 

Noise phobias in dogs have also been linked to other behavioral problems. For instance, pets with noise phobias might be more likely to have storm phobias and separation anxiety. Many treatment modalities are available including certain supplements, pheromones, and behavior therapy, and also medication when needed.

Pair of dogs peering out from under a blanket.

So, How Good is a Dog’s Hearing?

The sense of hearing in dogs is very important for communication, not only between other dogs but also between dogs and humans. It’s also key for prey location and predator avoidance. As such, it shouldn’t be any surprise that a dog’s hearing is more advanced than a human’s! Here’s a recap of what we’ve looked at:

  • Dogs’ ears are specialized to help funnel sound toward the eardrum to allow for maximal discernment of sound near and far. 
  • Dogs hear a different spectrum of sound than people do, and they create a variety of vocal sounds to communicate specific auditory messages. 
  • The same type of dog vocalizations often vary between breeds, between individuals of the same breed, and even in the same individual in different situations. 
  • Dogs often have specific reactions to different music genres, and sometimes develop anxiety disorders that stem from different auditory stimuli. 

To be certain, a dog’s sense of hearing is complex and important for so much more than just listening for dinner being served!

Do you want to learn more about how dogs sense the world around us? Check out our other blogs! You can also get in touch to ask any questions, or stay informed with our latest tips, advice, and Q&As by signing up to our newsletter.


Additional Resources:

Brayley, C., & Montrose, V. T. (2016). The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs at a rehoming kennels. Applied Animal Behaviour Science174, 111-115.

Bowman, A., Scottish, S. P. C. A., Dowell, F. J., & Evans, N. P. (2015). ‘Four Seasons’ in an animal rescue centre; classical music reduces environmental stress in kennelled dogs. Physiology & behavior143, 70-82.

Carlson, N. R. (2012). Physiology of behavior. Pearson Higher Ed.

Cohen, J. A., & Fox, M. W. (1976). Vocalizations in wild canids and possible effects of domestication. Behavioural Processes.

Houpt, K. A. (2018). Domestic animal behavior for veterinarians and animal scientists. John Wiley & Sons.

Lindig, A. M., McGreevy, P. D., & Crean, A. J. (2020). Musical Dogs: A Review of the Influence of Auditory Enrichment on Canine Health and Behavior. Animals10(1), 127.

Pongrácz, P., Molnár, C., & Miklósi, Á. (2006). Acoustic parameters of dog barks carry emotional information for humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science100(3-4), 228-240.

Riemer, S. (2020). Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Journal of veterinary behavior37, 61-70.

Serpell, J. (Ed.). (2017). The domestic dog. Cambridge University Press.

Wells, D. L., Graham, L., & Hepper, P. G. (2002). The influence of auditory stimulation on the behaviour of dogs housed in a rescue shelter. Animal Welfare11(4), 385-393.

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