How Dogs Hear and Speak With the World Around Them
More than 18 different muscles control dogs' ear flaps for nuanced movements.
Posted Mar 07, 2019
To learn the most we can about the behavior of our canine companions and what we can do to give them the best lives possible, we need to pay careful attention to how they use their different senses and what they're capable of doing. In previous essays I focused on their senses of smell, taste, touch, and sight, and here I turn to their sense of hearing: Their lovely ears are not only are used to hear what's happening around them, but also to send various messages to other dogs and to humans.
Dogs’ ears come in many shapes and sizes—long and short, floppy and stiff, and all variations in between—and they are surprisingly mobile. More than 18 muscles control the pinna (or earflap) alone, which allows the nuanced movements that make dogs’ ears so expressive and so good at picking up sounds. Dogs move their ears to facilitate hearing; every dog owner will recognize the “pricked ears” of a dog who is suddenly attentive. The up-and-open ears allow dogs to best capture sound. The ear muscles also allow dogs to turn their ears like a periscope to follow the direction of a sound.
If we watch a dog’s ears for cues, we can likely gather information about our surroundings that we would have missed. I used to watch my dogs’ ears when hiking around our mountain home, which they shared with all sorts of wild animals. When there were cougars, black bears, or other potential predators around, the dogs’ ears perked up and their noses often tilted upward. I took these responses as signals that it was time for all to head home immediately.
Dogs have far more sensitive hearing than humans and can detect much quieter sounds. Their sense of hearing is about four times as sensitive as ours, so what we hear at 20 feet, a dog can hear at about 80 feet. They also hear a lot of things we don’t because they can hear higher-frequency sounds. From available data, scientists suggest that dogs hear in frequencies as high as 67,000 cycles per second (also called hertz), while humans hear frequencies up to 64,000 cycles per second. This means there are some sounds that are inaudible to us but quite available to our dogs. For example, they can hear the high-pitched chirping of mice running around inside the walls or in the woodpile. Also, some of the electronics in our homes emit constant high-frequency sounds we don’t notice but which can be distressing to dogs.
How dogs use their ears
Relatively little systematic research has been done on how dogs use sound and hearing in their interactions with the world and in their encounters with people and other dogs. We know that dogs make a lot of different sounds, including growls, barks, whines, whimpers, howls, and pants, but scientists don’t fully understand how these different vocalizations function in interactions with others. And we also don’t know which aspects of vocal communication have evolved specifically to facilitate social interactions with humans. For instance, dogs are the only canid species to bark frequently, but perhaps surprisingly, we still don’t know all that much about what dogs are trying to say with their barks. Preliminary data also suggest that dogs seem to “laugh.” During play, dogs will emit a kind of forced exhalation called the “play pant,” which seems to be used to initiate play and to signal during play
Many people use verbal commands or vocal signals to communicate with their dog. Dogs may pay more attention to gestures than they do to spoken commands, and they may get confused when our visual and auditory signals don’t align. Researchers have also found that dogs listen not only for certain words but to tone of voice, and intonation may be more important in how dogs read a signal than the actual word spoken. Using fMRI techniques, researchers at a dog cognition lab in Hungary scanned the brains of dogs as the dogs listened to recordings of their trainers’ voices. The trainers used praise words (such as “well done”) and neutral words (such as “however”) and spoke them in a high-pitched “good dog” voice and in a neutral voice. When praise words were spoken with a praising intonation, the reward center of the brain was activated, but not when praise words were spoken with neutral intonation.
Like a tail, a dog’s ears are an important visual signal in dog-dog and dog-human interactions. Ears are part of the group of composite signals—which include a dog’s face, body, tail, vocalizations, gait, and odors (some of which we are only partially privy to)—that complete the sentence of what a dog is feeling. 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.
People often want to know if dogs like basset hounds with long, floppy ears have a harder time communicating through ear positions. It’s possible that floppy ears don’t allow for quite as much expressiveness, but we really don’t know. As with tails, we support breed standards that don’t involve cropping or otherwise changing the natural shape of a dog’s ears. Doberman pinschers, Boston terriers, and Great Danes are a few of the breeds in which ear cropping is still common. During the ear-cropping procedure, the pinnae (earflaps) are altered. The pinna functions to funnel sound into the ear canal, and so dogs with cropped ears lose some acuity in their hearing; they also lose the ability to rotate the ear fully, and this makes it harder for them to communicate with their ears.
What follows is a deeper look at aspects of hearing and communication that Jessica Pierce and I consider in Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.
Barks and Growls: The Language of Dogs
Barks and growls are two of the most common dog vocalizations, and they are used to communicate with both other dogs and humans. Vocal communication in dogs is extremely complex and not very well understood. In her analysis of dog vocalizations, German ethologist Dr. Dorit Feddersen-Petersen notes that even the meaning and function of barking is controversial.
Some scientists consider barking a highly sophisticated acoustic form of expression, while others think barking is “noncommunicative.” Dog barking is difficult to study for a whole variety of reasons, including the fact that dogs come in many shapes and sizes. There are big differences in the length of the vocal tract and thus in the sound quality of vocalizations. Just think of the difference between the bark of a Great Dane and of a Yorkie. Are they even speaking the same language?
Dr. Feddersen-Petersen believes that barks have definite communicative significance, and dogs use them to convey information about motivation and intention. Dog barks have a mixture of what scientists call “regular” (or harmonic) and “irregular” (or noisy) acoustic components. Dogs use a whole range of harmonic and noisy forms in various mixtures. Different breeds seem to have evolved unique vocal repertoires, ones based on the human environments in which they have lived. Assessing the meaning of a bark—or more accurately, a string of barks, since barks are rarely singular—is challenging and requires looking at the context and whether the bark elicits a response from a social partner (either a dog or human). It may be that barking and other vocalizations have evolved particularly to facilitate dog-human social interactions.
Letting our dogs be dogs means letting them talk with one another, which means letting them vocalize. Of course, barking is often treated as a problem, and “excessive” barking—which is always defined by humans—can become a very serious issue for dog owners. A barking dog can be incredibly annoying to us and perhaps to other dogs and animals. Excessive barking is a common reason for dogs being relinquished to shelters, and it can be one of the more frustrating aspects of dog ownership. While some barking is normal, too much barking can be a sign of boredom, frustration, or stress. Trainers and dog psychologists can often help identify underlying issues that might drive excessive barking. If dog barking really bothers you, it’s probably best not to get a dog.
Sometimes people deal with a dog who barks too much by having the dog’s voice box surgically removed. In one particularly shocking case of “problem barking,” a couple in Oregon was ordered by a court to have the voice boxes of their six dogs removed because they had failed to control the dogs’ barking over 10 years. “Debarking”—or “bark softening,” as some euphemistically call it—involves severing the vocal cords and is, simply put, seriously harmful to dogs. The procedure permanently eliminates one of the dog’s main means of communication. A dog who has been subjected to this procedure can no longer really function comfortably as a dog.
Whereas barks are often used to communicate at a distance, growls are generally low volume and used in close communication. Different kinds of growls carry distinct meanings and have different emotional content. For example, during play, including during tug-of-war between dogs or between a dog and a human, a dog may growl quite loudly, without showing any teeth, but this is usually meant as part of play and not to signal genuine anger or aggression. Growls produced as serious warnings will likely be low-pitched and come either from the chest or mouth, with varying levels of teeth. Research has shown that dogs growl “honestly” in serious encounters (the “size” of the growl accurately reflecting the size and aggression-level of the dog), but they show more variability in their growling when they play. Even when dogs growl during play, it almost never leads to fighting.
Whatever else growling may mean, it clearly can be used as a serious warning or signal of potential aggression, so we need to pay very close attention to the rest of a dog’s body language when a dog growls. Humans are not always very skilled at reading the intention of dog growls, though people with more experience around dogs are better at distinguishing between playful and aggressive growls, and women appear to do better than men. As with all the senses, it’s important to become dog literate and learn as much as you can about your dog’s growls.
Whining and Whimpering: A Call for Help
Two other common types of vocalization are whimpering and whining. These are distinct vocal communication patterns, although they are sometimes hard to distinguish and many people lump them together as “crying.” Whining tends to be louder and higher-pitched, while whimpering is quieter and lower. Whimpering usually means that a dog isn’t feeling well and is sick, nervous, or in pain. The communicative function of whining is not as clear.
Excessive barking is typically considered one of the main symptoms of separation-related disorder (SRD) in family dogs, but in a 2017 study, Péter Pongrácz and his colleagues wanted to confirm whether dogs with separation anxiety vocalize their distress through barking, through whining, or by using both vocalizations. Pongrácz’s team found, contrary to popular belief, that dogs with separation anxiety were more likely to whine than to bark, particularly at the departure of their human, and that “early onset and abundance of whining may serve as a reliable tool for diagnosing SRD.”
One common myth about “crying” in dogs is that dogs always whimper when they are in pain. While it is true that dogs in pain will sometimes whimper, they don’t always vocalize their distress. A lack of whimpering does not mean a dog isn’t in pain, since sometimes dogs only whimper when pain has progressed to an intolerable level. At that point, just as in humans, the cause of the pain has often reached a point where it is more difficult to treat. With any injury or medical problem, the ideal is to notice pain early and address the cause quickly with appropriate care or medications.
There are two lessons here: 1) If your dog is whimpering, it’s possible that something is seriously wrong, so please seek the advice of a veterinarian; and 2) don’t rely on vocalizations alone to determine whether your dog is uncomfortable. Be sensitive to other behavioral cues, such as body posture and mobility, and investigate any suspected problems right away.
Baby Talk and Your Dog
Nearly everyone has either baby-talked to their dog or seen it done. Someone kneels down, vigorously rubs a dog’s face and head, and starts cooing and babbling: “What a sweet boy! Aren’t you a sweet boy? Look at those sweet little paws! Who loves their baby, huh?” Dogs often feel like furry, excitable children, and so we use “baby talk” with them, or as scientists call it, “infant-directed speech...characterized by higher and more variable pitch, slower tempo and clearer articulation of vowels than in speech addressed to adults.”
Is this a problem? Do dogs like it or care, or do they simply tolerate it because they have no choice? And why exactly do we engage in this bizarre behavior? A study published in 2017 tried to shed some light on pet-directed speech. The researchers learned that although people are more likely to use baby talk with young puppies, they also consistently use this speech pattern with older dogs. For their part, young puppies were more drawn to baby talk than normal human speech, while older dogs seemed to ignore it.
Since baby talk nearly always expresses our affection, many dogs probably enjoy it to one degree or another. Then again, older and other dogs may find it grating and confusing, much like human adults would if spoken to that way.
Turn Down the Volume: Protect Your Dog’s Hearing
Our world can at times be very loud and noisy, and certain sounds can be very distressing to our canine companions, so it's important to respect a dog’s need for quiet and to avoid auditory overload. Always make sure your dog has a place to go that is protected from the sound. Above all, pay attention to a dog’s behavior for signs that an environment is too painfully noisy for them, for whatever reason. Just as with people, it’s also likely that dogs can suffer permanent damage and hearing loss from long-term exposure to extremely loud noises. There has been no research into noise-related canine hearing loss, but plenty of research confirms the effects on human hearing, and there’s no reason to think that a dog’s ears are any less sensitive to damage.
Be Sensitive to Noise Phobias
Many dog guardians know that certain sounds send their canine companion into a tizzy fit. Some of the common culprits are fireworks, gun sounds, and thunder. Indeed, studies suggest that nearly half and perhaps as many as three-fourths of all family dogs are afraid of certain noises and will show at least one sign of fear when exposed to them. These include trembling, shaking, panting, salivating, hiding, and peeing or pooping in the house. These fear responses are often called noise phobias, particularly when the fear is related to a specific stimulus (such as a thunderstorm) and when the behavioral response is extreme, such as scratching through a wooden door, trying to escape.
To help reduce the chance that noise phobias will develop, we can avoid exposing puppies to frightening sounds, and we can socialize puppies to a wide variety of sounds. There’s some evidence that early exposure to a frightening sound increases the risk of developing a related phobia, so as much as possible, protect puppies from sudden or loud noises.
Dogs Need You, Not the Radio
Sometimes when a dog must be left alone for long periods of time, people turn on the TV or radio, hoping that this will comfort or “entertain” the dog the way it might a person. However, this may not actually be doing a dog any favors. It’s unlikely that television images—even of jumping squirrels—music, or an audiobook will be inherently interesting to them. If anything, the noise of a TV or radio might interfere with a dog’s ability to hear outside sounds, which might be more important. Most dogs consider it a vital part of their job to protect their family and their home, so they may prefer to spend their day listening to “natural” sounds from outside.
Leaving a radio on all day won’t hurt a dog (unless the volume is too loud), and indeed, some dog trainers and veterinarians report that certain kinds of music and recorded sounds can have a calming effect and may have some application in treating separation anxiety and noise phobias. But all in all, TV, radio, and music aren’t substitutes for human interaction. The best treatment for separation anxiety, loneliness, and boredom is to not leave a dog alone for long periods of time.
Dogs' ears are very important to them. There's still a lot to be learned about how they hear and speak to the world around them. The more we learn about how dogs sense the world, the more we can do to give them—and us—the best lives possible. (Also see Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.) People who choose to share their homes and their hearts with dogs, along with those who try to teach dogs to live in a human-oriented world, will benefit from becoming dog literate and unleashing their dog whenever possible.
Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.
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Tamás Faragó, “Dog (Canis familiaris) Growls as Communicative Signals” (PhD thesis, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, 2011),
Dorit Feddersen-Petersen, “Communication — Vocal: Communication in Dogs and Wolves,” in Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, ed. Marc Bekoff (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 385–94.