It's common knowledge that dogs' ears can hear more and higher frequencies than humans can — for example, the dog whistle is a device that emits a sound in the ultrasonic wavelength that us mere humans can't hear at all, but dogs can. It's not just their frequency range that makes a dog's sense of hearing different than ours, but the shape and position of their ears as well. But what do dogs actually hear, and how is it different from what we humans hear?
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How does a dog's hearing work?
Dogs have far more sensitive hearing than humans. One difference is a dog's sense of hearing allows it to detect much quieter sounds. Their sense of hearing is about four times as sensitive as ours — meaning what we hear at 20 feet, a dog can hear at about 80 feet. They are also able to hear much more high frequency sounds than we can.
Scientists believe dogs hear in frequencies as high as 67,000 cycles per second (also called hertz), whereas humans only hear from 20 to 20,000 hertz. This allows them to hear the tiny high frequency squeaks of mice and other small rodents, which would be their natural prey. While a young human can listen to sounds at 0 decibels (dB) — the measure of intensity or loudness of a sound — dogs can hear low sounds at -5 to 15 dB per the AKC.
Whether a dog's ears are long and short, floppy, or stand upright, they are able to move in surprising directions. More than 18 muscles control the earflap alone (called the pinna), which allows them to twitch slightly, prick up, or swivel to pick up a sound that is almost behind them. The pinna funnels sound into the ear canal — dogs with cropped ears lose some hearing functionality because their anatomy is altered, whereas dogs with long floppy ears like basset hounds may have slight loss of functionality because their ear canal is covered up.
A dog's everyday sense of hearing
Because a dog's hearing is so much more sensitive than that of human ears, there are many sounds that we take for granted in our everyday environment that could be disruptive or bothersome to dogs. For instance, they can hear a car approaching sooner than we can and hear someone walking towards our front door sooner than we can, but it goes beyond that. The sound of their dog tags jangling together could be extra loud, and the sound of the vacuum could be anxiety producing.
Additionally, some of the electronics in our homes may emit constant high frequency sounds that we don't notice. One benefit of turning off or unplugging unneeded electronics may be that you not only save money on your electric bill over time, but your dog may be calmer.
Dogs' ears are also for communication
A dog's ears not only hear, they are also used for communication. A dog's pricked up ears means they are paying close attention, for one thing. Ear position is important during dog social encounters, including play. For example, flattened ears can signal submission if combined with submissive body posture, and "up" ears can signal excitement and intention to continue play. Flattened ears might also be a way for a dog to avoid getting them nipped.
Hearing loss in dogs
If a particular sound is bothering your dog, you'll notice signs of them being uncomfortable. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine says those signs include include:
- Quivering, shaking or trembling
- Crawling in your lap or following you closely
- Restlessness or pacing
- Trying to escape
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, hearing loss in dogs can be either acquired or hereditary. Acquired deafness may result from inflammation, infection, or excessive ear wax. Trauma or loud noises such as gunfire can result in permanent deafness. Hereditary deafness can sometimes be a result of irresponsible or unintentional breeding.
Other sounds dogs can hear
The AKC cites the book "How Dogs Think" written by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, who says that dogs have an amazing ability to detect tiny differences between frequencies. For example, they can hear the difference between the musical note C and another note that differs by one-eighth of the distance between that C note and C sharp, which is an incredibly small difference in tone.
A dog may be able to predict earthquakes, not because they have a psychic sense, but because they may sense or hear the seismic waves generated by a seismic event that is already happening that humans simply can't detect.
- Amplifon: The Human Hearing Range
- Psychology Today: How Dogs Hear and Speak With the World Around Them
- Psychology Today: Dog Tags May Be an Unintended Pain in Their Ears
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine: Help Your Noise Averse Dogs Thunder Firework Season
- Merck Veterinary Manual: Deafness In Dogs
- AKC: Dogs Don’t Have a Sixth Sense, They Just Have Incredible Hearing