Study: Dogs Can Tune Out Noise Just Like We Can

You know that weird thing that happens sometimes, when you can be a in a crowded party or restaurant and thinking, "Wow, it's so loud in here, I'm not going to be able to hear a thing," but then someone says your name and you hear it clear as day? It's not just a fluke. It's a real phenomenon that scientists refer to as the "Cocktail Party Effect." The truth is, we're just better at hearing our own names than just about any other word in the human language. As it turns out, the same thing is true of dogs.

A dog listening to music with headphones
credit: artparadigm/DigitalVision/GettyImages

In a new study from the University of Maryland, researchers discovered that dogs are able to hear their own name in the midst of even equally-loud ambient noise—which means that you don't even have to yell Fido's name for him to hear it. You just have to be as loud as whatever else is happening around you.

For the study, which was published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers (led by cognitive scientist Amritha Mallikarjun) brought in various breeds of dogs and their owners for the test. The dogs studied included a mix of pets and working dogs (like service animals and search-and-rescue dogs). For the test, each dog was placed, along with its owner, between two loudspeakers in the center of the testing booth in such a way that the dog had to turn its head a full 90 degrees to look at either speaker. Then, the researchers played recordings of a woman (whom the dogs did not know) saying the dog's name and another word with the same number of syllables and stress patterns as the dog's name and made a note of whether the dogs turned at the sound of their name and, if so, how long they listened.

dog in headphones listening to music
credit: IgorChus/iStock/GettyImages

The study showed that dogs do pay more attention to their own name and that they can even pick it out of background noise—as long as the background noise is at the same level or quieter than their name. Once the background noise gets louder than the voice of the person saying the dog's name, they can't hear it. For context, human adults are able to pick out their name even when the background noise is louder than the person speaking their name, but human babies only respond to their name if the background noise is quieter than the person saying their name—meaning dogs are better at the Cocktail Party Effect than infants, but not as good as fully grown adults.

The results of the study are especially interesting for the handlers of service dogs, who have long been told that dogs will respond better to hand signals than to verbal cues. This study suggests that verbal cues (at least when paired with the dog's name) can be very effective after all.

"Some people say you're better off giving hand signals—but the dogs are often scanning the room to see what's going on around them, so they miss them," Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, explained.

One note, however: Dogs are better at hearing and responding to their own names if they're consistently called just one name—meaning that the more nicknames you use for your dog, the more you dilute his or her Cocktail Party Effect.