What’s the Frequency, Fido?

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday.

Today’s blog is inspired by my precious English Bulldog, Patty. My husband and I adopted Miss Patty about a year ago. As first-time dog owners, we have been a bit overprotective when it comes to our pup (what she eats, what noises she makes and why, etc.). Prior to adopting Patty, I typically practiced my flute and piccolo in my home office with the door shut, as to not disturb the rest of the household. One Friday a few weeks ago, I moved my practice session to the living room (which has a much higher ceiling and significantly better resonance) while Patty slept in her favorite green chair across the room. As I was belting out a few high C#s, I started to wonder if the sound and frequency of my playing could potentially hurt my pup’s ears. If so, how will I know if she experiences any pain or hearing loss? In today’s blog, I will discuss the connection between the flute and hearing sensitivity in dogs. Disclaimer: I am so not a veterinarian – just an overprotective dog mom. If you are reading this and know something animal sciencey that I don’t, please comment below! A lot of us flutists are proud puppy owners and would love to know more about updated hearing data.

So, first thing’s first – There is not very much research on the impact of loud noises on dog’s ears. Bummer! Most of our understanding is based on comparisons with human hearing thresholds as the structure of our ears is similar (outer ear – pinna – ear cannel – eardrum). One of the most significant differences, however, is that a dog’s ear canal is longer and deeper than a human’s, allowing dogs to funnel sound more efficiently than humans. Loud noises may effect dogs in two ways – physical pain and/or hearing loss. As we will see below, is it unlikely that flute music (or piccolo music) will cause a dog physical pain, but hearing loss is a different story. It is important to carefully monitor your dog’s behavior if you are practicing in close proximity. Are they hiding? Are they covering their ears? Are they howling? Dogs experiencing pain will most likely run away from the sound, hide, or cover their heads. If you notice this, you should move your practice behind closed doors ASAP or plan to move your daily sessions off-site. If your dog is howling along to your playing, you may have more than just an adoring fan. The modern dog’s ancestor, the wolf, howls to other wolves in the wild to communicate to other pack members where they are or to warn off other animals from moving into their territory. They also howl to assemble the pack (Patty joins in a similar howl chain when the neighborhood dogs start yipping in the backyard). This behavior is ingrained in a dog’s genetic code. They may be trying to communicate with a sound from what they perceive to be another pack member. Or they may be howling along to something that you can’t even hear as dogs can pick up higher frequencies than the human ear (overtones, perhaps?). Dogs also surprisingly have a sense of pitch and may howl in a different pitch to individualize their own howl against the cacophony of other sounds. If your dog is howling along to Ibert, you are probably okay. If they are covering their ears or cowering in the corner, they are likely experiencing pain. Poor pups! Time to move your practice elsewhere ASAP.

And now for some science – Sound is generally measured by loudness/intensity and frequency (or pitch). Sound intensity refers to the number of decibels a sound emits. A dog barking is roughly 60 decibels while fireworks are around 140-150 decibels. According to the article, Piccolo Playing and Noise Inducted Hearing Loss by Kelly Wilson, The Noisy Planet website (National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders) states that any sound over 85 decibels can damage hearing in humans. Again, we don’t have much research on where dogs fall on this spectrum, but it is safe to assume that if it can hurt our ears, it can hurt theirs as well. A sound registering 90 decibels over an 8-hour time period can cause serious damage while sounds at 140 decibels or higher can cause pain and immediate hearing damage. When it comes to sound frequency, according to Pet Dog Owner, humans can hear sounds from 64-20,000 Hz while dogs can hear from 67-45,000 Hz. Sounds can become uncomfortable for dogs around 25,000 Hz. The rule of thumb is the higher the frequency and the louder the noise (or higher the decibel), the more discomfort it will cause your pup.

When it comes to the flute, Kelly Wilson outlines in her article that the flute ranges from 92-103 decibels and the piccolo from 90-106 decibels. Elsewhere on the interwebs (particularly from hearnet.com), this can also range from 85-111 decibels for the flute and 95-112 for the piccolo. These are both above the 85 decibel threshold for potential hearing damage. As far as frequency, the flute ranges from 262 Hz to 2096 while the piccolo can reach up to 4096 Hz. Although these are not comfortable frequencies for humans, they are within the comfortable ranges for dogs.

All dogs are different. The science suggests that our flute/piccolo playing is unlikely to cause physical pain to dogs but the decibel level may eventually lead to hearing damage. Some dogs may also have behavior or emotional sensitivity to certain sounds. Again, it is important to monitor your dog if you practice in the same room or nearby. If they are experiencing pain, stop your practice immediately and relocate to another safer location (possibly off-site). If they seem cool, you are not necessarily in the clear as they may eventually experience a degree of hearing loss. Protect your pet if possible, and practice in another room. If they howl along to your sweet flute tunes, don’t panic – It’s just in their nature to sort out pitches and differentiate their voice from Bach’s. An after-practice treat is also a good idea (Patty’s note).

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Do you practice in close proximity to your pet? Does your pet howl along to your playing? What other behavior does your pet exhibit while you practice? Please comment below.

Happy fluting!

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