While a dog's sense of smell is his most important sense, hearing comes next. Equipped with ears capable of hearing five times more acutely than humans, it's quite normal for dogs to be stimulated by certain noises. However, more than the stimulating noise itself, often dogs react because of Pavlovian conditioning.
When Scruffy Meets Pavlov
When your dog reacts to certain noises, most likely it's because of associative learning. Ivan Pavlov was the first to recognize that if a bell was rung followed by food several times, the dog would then start salivating upon hearing the bell alone. So if a certain noise appears to stimulate Scruffy, it's likely because he has learned through associative learning to pair that noise with
Raise your hand if your dog erupts in annoying barks when he hears the doorbell or somebody knocking on the door. In this case, the doorbell or door knock has become a cue announcing that somebody is about to enter his turf. Through associative learning, he has therefore learned to pair the chime of the doorbell with guests. Depending on the dog, the bell or knock will trigger either anxiety or excitement.
Barking is another noise that simulates dogs, often causing them to go into a barking frenzy as well. The cliché is quite common: A dog down the street starts barking at who knows what and suddenly all the dogs in the neighborhood are joining in the chorus. In this case, the phenomenon of one dog doing something and drawing others dogs into doing the same thing is known as social facilitation, according to Animal Behavior Associates.
While the doorbell and the noise of other dogs barking may overstimulate your dog and even create agitation, there are sounds that stimulate dogs in a more enthusiastic, positive way. If you feed your dog canned food, rest assured the noise of the can opener will prick his ears and gain his interest. If you feed food from a bag, opening it may have Scruffy running in hopes of getting fed. Same may go with other interesting food-predicting noises, such as hearing the refrigerator open or the food bowl being placed on the ground.
Many dogs are so in tune with their owners, they have learned to pair many noises they produce with their arrivals and departures. The noise of picking up the car keys is often enough to trigger anxiety in dogs who hate to be left alone. On the other hand, the noise of you opening the gate or pulling your car in the driveway may stimulate your dog to get all happy and excited about your return. Many dogs are also quite stimulated by certain words owners pronounce that have been paired through associative learning with something meaningful.
Other Stimulating Noises
Other noises that may stimulate and even overstimulate dogs include firecrackers, thunder and loud noises produced by the engines of cars and motorcycles. In these cases, dogs are often reacting to these noises because they are agitated and fearful. In some severe cases, noise phobia may even develop. It's important to note that dogs respond to a much lower intensity of sound than humans and stress may develop with repeated exposure.
Muskingum University: Ivan Pavlov
Pawsitve K9: The Doorbell is Ringing, Bark, Bark, Bark!
Animal Behavior Associates: Contagious” Behavior in Dogs?
British Small Animal Veterinary Association: Policy Statement on the Management and Treatment of Firework Phobias in Dogs
Pet Acoustics: Research
2ndchance.info: Hearing And Sense Of Smell In Animals [pdf]
About the Author
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.