What do dogs actually hear when we speak to them?
Isn’t this the single most important question of dog ownership? Isn’t getting it wrong the reason why so many dogs end up unhappy or worse?
I’m not going to solve it, because in 2021 that still isn’t possible. What I can do is show you some tantalising recent science that’s starting to give us glimpses of the truth . And what is said is probably also true for how cats hear us.
By the end of this article, you should be better at:
- Choosing a good name for your dog, and
- Giving commands a dog can perceive, not just hear as noise
Dog vs Human Perception
First, some theory. What sets humans apart is our exceptional ability to communicate. When I did psychology there was a ferocious debate between two camps:
- Those who believed our language skills emerge as a general result of our intelligence
- Those who believed that we are ‘hard-wired’ to learn language
In other words, is language software or hardware? Today, the consensus is that it’s both. Intelligence gets us a long way, but our brains do appear to have in-built language structures. That’s why any toddler can master all the complicated rules of grammar without seeming to get enough to work on.
If true, this matters a lot for dogs. If we have brains dedicated to language, what they hear will be very different from us.
The best way I can explain it is to compare a musician’s experience with the rest of us. Functional studies show that a larger number of their neurons are dedicated to music processing. Therefore, although we all hear the same tune, only the musician is likely to hear:
- the key it’s in
- the actual note values
- the individual instruments
- whether it’s in tune
The difference between dogs and humans is likely to be even greater. We need to throw out any assumptions about what dogs are hearing, and try to only use hard evidence to make decisions.
Canine Speech Discrimination
Here is all the available evidence for how dogs hear human words.
- Dogs can discriminate ‘ga’ versus ‘ka’1
- Dogs can discriminate between ‘a’ and ‘e’2 and ‘a’ and ‘i’3
- Their name before a command reduces the response to a new command but not a known one4
- The addition of a new word reduces the response to both known and new commands4
- Dogs who know ’sit’ respond better to ‘sik’ than ‘chit’5
- Dogs do not discriminate a change in the first vowel in a command (e.g ‘beck’ vs ‘back’6
- Short rising notes are more effective than one longer continuous descending note8
- Dogs hear a vowel change in their name more than a consonant change (e.g. Digger will respond better to ‘pigger’ than ‘dogger’)7
Point 6 seems contradictory, given that (unlike us) dogs hear vowels better than consonants. However, it’s either saying that dogs miss many details that we think are obvious, or that when it comes to commands they choose to obey similar sounds.
Choosing A Good Dog Name
Now let’s make the best evidence-based dog name for your new puppy!
- Use different vowel sounds from commands (e.g Pitt and Sid are not great choices)
- Choose names that everyone can say in a distinctive and consistent manner
- Create ’singsong’ calls (most dog owners do this instinctively)
- Use the fewest words needed
- You can even start names with a vowel*
* For example, one of our nurses’ dogs called Akira doesn’t answer to ‘Kira’, showing he hears the difference
For helping dogs hear their names around other dogs or people:
- Use different first letter and vowel sounds (e.g Loki & Tinker!)
- Avoid names that rhyme with household members (e.g. Johnny & Bobby)
- You might even check this list of common Adelaide dog names if you plan on visiting dog parks or beaches
I don’t think it matters if you choose one or two syllables as dog owners tend to lengthen or repeat names when they need to.
Let’s not forget that there are a lot of other factors that influence how well dogs understand our voice. Some are:
- Our emotional state
- Our voice character
- Local distractions and noises
And lastly, it would be criminal of me to not mention the obvious: that dogs probably get most of their information from non-verbal cues. Dogs rely on gestures, facial expressions and lip movements more than we realise.
Thanks for reading! If you (like me) have already chosen names that don’t fit all these parameters, it really doesn’t matter that much. Names that come from the heart create their own special connection. And the fact that you’re reading this means you’re interested in being the best dog owner you can.
I would love to read your own examples of what dogs can and can’t hear below!
- Adams, C. L., Molfese, D. L., & Betz, J. C. (1987). Electrophysiological correlates of categorical speech perception for voicing contrasts in dogs. Developmental Neuropsychology, 3(3-4), 175-189
- Athanasiadou, P. (2012). Studying speech sound discrimination in dogs (Master’s thesis)
- Baru, A. V. (1975). Discrimination of synthesized vowels (i) and (a) with varying parameters (fundamental frequency, intensity, duration and number of formants) in dog. In Auditory analysis and perception of speech (eds Fant, G., Tatham M. A. A.), pp. 91-101. Waltham, MA: Academic Press
- Braem, M. D., & Mills, D. S. (2010). Factors affecting response of dogs to obedience instruction: A field and experimental study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125(1-2), 47-55
- Fukuzawa, M., Mills, D. S., & Cooper, J. J. (2005). The effect of human command phonetic characteristics on auditory cognition in dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of comparative psychology, 119(1), 117
- Magyari, L., Huszár, Z., Turzó, A., & Andics, A. (2020). Event-related potentials reveal limited readiness to access phonetic details during word processing in dogs. Royal Society Open Science, 7(12), 200851
- Mallikarjun, A., Shroads, E., & Newman, R. S. (2020). The role of linguistic experience in the development of the consonant bias. Animal Cognition, 1-13
- McConnell, P. B. (1990). Acoustic structure and receiver response in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour, 39(5), 897-904
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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