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Do They Hear What We Hear? Dogs and Holiday Music

By this time of year, you’re either really grooving on the last few days of the annual holiday music barrage as you dive deep into the spirit of the season…or you’re totally tired of it. You can’t help but hear it everywhere, because it is everywhere. Even if you choose to ignore it, you’ll hear it at the grocery store, on television, on the radio, from passing cars, etc. You always hear it. And you just have human ears. Now imagine having ears that can hear twice as many frequencies, up to four times as far. Do dogs hear all this holiday music? Do they even notice it?

There are a few schools of thought on what dogs “think” of music. Classical composer Richard Wagner (“Ride of the Valkyries,” or, if you’re of a certain age, “Kill the Wabbit”) kept a special chair in his studio for his Cavalier King Charles spaniel. He paid special attention to the dog’s reactions to certain notes or sequences and would allegedly change things that his dog didn’t seem to “enjoy.”

Psychology Today details how psychologist Deborah Wells at Queens University in Belfast exposed dogs in an animal shelter to different types of music to judge their reactions to pop, classical and heavy metal music. These dogs got agitated by metal, didn’t seem to acknowledge pop and were calmed by classical. Are these dogs or your grandparents?

There are confirmed instances of dogs “hearing” music and responding in specific ways, but are they hearing the songs or just responding to certain notes or pitches? For instance, you might be annoyed by a loud Metallica song in the same way that you’re annoyed by lawnmower outside your window, but your ears can still tell the difference between an annoying song and an annoying sound, or a song you love and a soothing sound like raindrops. Do dogs also distinguish these categories?

According to Scientific American, while dogs can hear a lot more frequencies than humans, they may not have the same ability to tell the difference between sound and melody because human neurons are unrivaled at discerning sensitive changes in pitch. But if a dog can hear more frequencies, why can’t they hear what we hear, you ask? Think of it like this. Your dog can hear a dog whistle, which is a frequency higher than even Mariah Carey can hit. Most humans can’t hear frequencies that high. But all of the diverse sounds that Carey does hit in her famous holiday songs, the notes that are so pleasing to human ears (well, some human ears) might sound kind of jumbled and murky to dogs.

This is because, according to Scientific American, human ears can hear differences between notes as fine as one twelfth of an octave — a half step in musical terminology. Dog ears, however, are not nearly as sensitive: they are only able to discriminate between differences of one third of an octave. They can hear a wider range than humans, but they have trouble with nuance. And it is nuance that makes Jingle Bells a song and not just a grating collection of bells and chimes. Although, depending on when your local radio stations switched over to holiday music, random bells and chimes might be more pleasurable to your ears by now.

So does your dog like holiday music? Just like with people, every set of ears likes something different. If your dog does react positively to that jazz fusion cover of “Frosty the Snowman,” however, he or she is likely reacting to the overall tone and not tapping their toes to the melody.

On the other paw, a lot of people love those Mariah songs this time of year. Maybe your dog does, too!

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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