Just Like Us, Dogs Can Tune Out Noise

You are at a party, talking to someone and tuning out all the background noise and chatter occurring around you. Yet, when someone from across the room says your name, you respond.

Known as the “cocktail party effect,” dogs apparently are able to do the same thing – which can be useful for handler/working dog relationships, when canines must be able to recognize their name.

Researchers at the University of Maryland recruited 20 dogs, both pets and working canines, including those involved in service, therapy and search-and-rescue.

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They then had the dogs stand between two speakers. They wanted to see if a dog would turn his head when he heard his name over the loud speaker. For the test, a woman’s voice was on the speaker, speaking in a monotonous tone. She was saying the dog’s name and other names, along with background noise, similar to what you would hear at a coffee shop. The team tested three different background noise levels.

They wanted to see if the dog would respond to his or her name when the woman said it on the speaker. They found that indeed, the dogs did respond – turning their head to the speaker — but only on the first two noise levels. However, when the background noise was louder than the dog’s name, the canine did not turn his or her head to the speaker.

“Studying name recognition in noisy environments is very important, especially given that service dogs often accompany their handlers to malls, grocery stores and other noisy public places, where they must still listen and respond to commands,” Amritha Mallikarju, the researcher who led the study, told This Dog’s Life. “Noise recognition in pet dogs is important, too. If you need to recall your dog in a noisy park, you would want to know whether the background noise is so loud that your dog has trouble hearing you.

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Adults can hear all three levels, yet babies (defined here as 11 months old) can only hear at the first level.

As for pets vs working dogs, the latter performed better. The reason is obvious: they have more experienced training on taking commands.

“Working dogs had more success for several potential reasons, but the most likely one is that working dogs are more regularly called by one single name, a ‘call’ name, and respond very strongly to it,” Mallikarju said. “Pet dogs often have a number of nicknames in addition to their own name, and as a result may have responded less strongly to their own name.” 

So, the next time you are calling your dog’s name in a busy or loud environment, and she doesn’t respond, your pooch isn’t being stubborn; she just may not understand you.

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