Are your dog’s ears at risk? How loud is too loud for Fido

Introduction

The loud bang of a gunshot can make even the most seasoned shooter jump in surprise. For our canine companions, whose hearing is much more sensitive than ours, the noise can be downright frightening. It’s estimated that around 1⁄3 of dogs suffer from noise anxiety or phobias related to loud sounds like thunder, fireworks, or gunshots.

When exposed to the loud noises from gunfire, many dogs will cower, shake, or try to run away. The noise can cause lasting stress and anxiety. For dogs frequently around firearms, there is also the risk of possible hearing damage from repeated exposure to loud noises.

In this article, we’ll look at how loud guns are, examine dog hearing sensitivity, and discuss whether dogs need hearing protection when exposed to gunfire. We’ll provide tips on training gun-shy dogs and review signs that your dog may need protection for their hearing. Read on to learn how to keep your pup’s ears safe and happy the next time you head to the range or hunting fields.

How Loud Are Guns?

Guns produce extremely loud noises that can damage hearing. According to the Gunfire Noise Level Reference Chart, most guns produce noise levels between 140-175 decibels when fired. For comparison, a jet engine is 140 decibels and fireworks are 150-175 decibels according to the Sound Intensity and Decibel Levels Chart. Pistols such as a 9mm produce about 157 decibels while rifles like an AR-15 produce 165 decibels. Shotguns are some of the loudest guns, with a 12 gauge shotgun producing up to 175 decibels according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. To put this in perspective, sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing damage over time and the pain threshold for hearing is around 125 decibels. Clearly, a single gunshot without hearing protection can permanently damage hearing.

chart showing decibel levels of different guns

Dog Hearing Sensitivity

Dogs have superior hearing capabilities compared to humans due to differences in their ear anatomy. According to research from Louisiana State University, dogs can perceive sounds up to 47 kHz, while the average human hearing range is only 20 Hz to 20 kHz (Frequency Hearing Ranges in Dogs and Other Species).

The canine ear contains more ear muscles than the human ear, allowing dogs to rotate their ears to precisely pinpoint sounds. Dogs also have larger pinnae (outer ears) to capture more sound waves. Their ear canals are long and allow sounds to echo before reaching the inner ear. In addition, a dog’s eardrum is larger and its inner ear has more spiral turns to amplify incoming sounds (Sounds Only Dogs Can Hear: Higher Pitches Is Where …).

This advanced ear anatomy gives dogs a wider hearing frequency range and the ability to detect fainter sounds that humans can’t perceive.

Impact of Loud Noises on Dogs

Loud noises can have several negative impacts on dogs, both physically and behaviorally. Exposure to extremely loud sounds can cause physical damage to a dog’s sensitive inner ear structures, resulting in hearing loss over time (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8606548/).

Dogs may exhibit behavioral responses to sudden loud noises as well, such as startling, shaking, hiding, or trying to escape the noise. A 2021 study found that dogs displayed significantly more stress-related behaviors like panting, trembling, and lowered body posture when exposed to loud noises above 80 decibels (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8606548/).

Frequent or prolonged exposure to loud noises can permanently damage the hair cells in a dog’s ear over time, leading to noise-induced hearing loss. Senior dogs and certain breeds like Cocker Spaniels may be more prone to developing hearing problems from chronic loud noise exposure (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/202212/how-much-loud-noise-can-a-dog-tolerate).

Do Dogs Need Hearing Protection?

Many experts recommend using hearing protection for dogs exposed to loud noises like gunfire. Unprotected exposure to noises over 85 decibels can damage dogs’ sensitive hearing and even lead to deafness over time (https://www.amazon.com/Mutt-Muffs-DDR337-Hearing-Protection/dp/B002CZQ1TA). There are pros and cons to consider when deciding whether to use hearing protection for your dog.

Some benefits of dog hearing protection include:

  • Preventing short and long term hearing loss from gunshots or other loud noises
  • Reducing anxiety in dogs startled by loud noises
  • Allowing dogs to comfortably work or train around loud equipment or noises

Some downsides of dog hearing protection are:

dog wearing protective ear muffs

  • The equipment may initially be uncomfortable or distracting for some dogs
  • It requires training dogs to keep the gear on
  • The cost of purchasing protective equipment

There are a few different options for protecting your dog’s hearing:

  • Mutt Muffs – Soft foam ear covers that block sound. Available in different sizes (https://www.amazon.com/Mutt-Muffs-DDR337-Hearing-Protection/dp/B002CZQ1TA).
  • Ear plugs – Moldable silicone or foam plugs that fit in the ear canal to block sound.
  • Custom earmolds – Custom fitted ear plugs made specifically for your dog’s ears.

Overall, hearing protection is recommended for dogs frequently exposed to loud noises above 85 decibels to prevent short and long term hearing damage.

Training Dogs Around Gunfire

One of the best ways to prevent your dog from developing a fear of loud noises is to positively condition them to gunfire and other loud sounds from a young age. This involves gradually exposing puppies and young dogs to recordings of gunshots and fireworks at low volumes, and rewarding them with treats and praise for calm behavior. As the dog becomes desensitized to the sounds, you can slowly increase the volume over many training sessions.

Start by playing audio of gunshots or fireworks at a volume so low that the dog does not react. Reward the dog with high-value treats and affection while the sound plays. Once the dog is remaining calm and relaxed at that volume, increase it slightly over the next few training sessions. Continue this process very gradually, stopping if the dog ever shows signs of stress, until the dog can remain calm at reasonable volumes.

Always make sure the training is a positive experience – never force a fearful dog to endure loud noises. Go at their pace and watch for any fearful reactions. Pairing the sounds with play, fun training, and tast treats can build a positive association.

In addition to recorded sounds, you can also expose a dog to real but distant gunfire, starting from afar where it is just audible. Reward calm behavior and very gradually decrease the distance over multiple training sessions. The key is to make sure the dog feels safe, relaxed and is getting rewarded well in the presence of gunshot sounds.

What the Experts Say

Veterinarians and dog trainers emphasize the importance of protecting dogs’ hearing around loud noises like gunfire. According to veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, “Hearing loss can occur with a single exposure to a loud noise, or with repeated exposure to noises over 90 decibels.”

Dog trainer Laura Garner warns, “Gunfire and other abrupt loud noises can damage dogs’ ears. Unlike humans, dogs can’t understand the need for hearing protection.” She recommends always using hearing protection devices designed for dogs like Mutt Muffs.

veterinarian examining a dog's ears

Veterinarian Dr. Pete Wedderburn states, “There’s no doubt that gunfire poses a risk to dogs’ hearing. We urge all dog owners to take precautions and invest in canine ear defenders.” He advises keeping dogs at a safe distance or using hearing protection when exposed to guns.

Certified dog trainer Monique Anstee explains, “The sudden loud noises from gunshots can startle and frighten dogs. Their sensitive hearing puts them at risk for noise aversion or hearing damage.” She recommends acclimating dogs to gunfire sounds gradually while protecting their ears.

Signs Your Dog Needs Hearing Protection

There are some clear behavioral signs in dogs that may indicate hearing loss or sensitivity to loud noises. According to the American Kennel Club, some signs your dog may need hearing protection include:

Cowering, shaking, hiding, or reacting fearfully in response to noises like thunder, fireworks, or gunshots. Dogs have sensitive ears, so loud noises can hurt or startle them.

Not responding when you call their name, especially if they have responded reliably in the past. Failing to wake up or react to sounds that used to get their attention can indicate hearing problems.

dog cowering and covering ears in response to loud noise

Being startled when approached suddenly from behind or the side where they cannot see you. Dogs typically rely on hearing to be aware of their surroundings.

Aggressive reactions like growling or snapping when startled by being touched while asleep. Hearing loss can make dogs more easily frightened.

Seeming to ignore direct commands unless they are accompanied by hand signals or gestures. Difficulty following verbal cues may signal hearing impairment.

Evidence of hearing loss over time. Gradual hearing problems in aging dogs may be mistaken for simple disobedience or ignorance of commands. Regular hearing checks are advised.

According to veterinarians, if your dog exhibits these behaviors, especially with a history of loud noise exposure, it’s a good idea to have your vet do a thorough hearing exam. Early intervention and hearing protection may help prevent further damage.

Conclusion

Guns produce extremely loud bursts of sound that can cause hearing damage in dogs if they are exposed without protection. While some dogs may become accustomed to the noise of gunfire, others remain sensitive. Signs like flattened ears, hiding, and shaking during shooting indicate your dog needs hearing protection.

The safest approach is to always use canine ear muffs or plugs when your dog is near gunfire. Start slow with limited exposure if your dog is gun shy and reward them for calm behavior. Avoid hunting with senior dogs or breeds like Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that are prone to ear troubles. With proper precautions, you can safely take your canine companion shooting. Just be vigilant for signs of hearing damage, and keep their ears covered.

References

AHA University. 2022. Dog hearing protection and sensitivity. Accessed January 16. https://ahau.edu/doghearingprotection<./p>

Ruff, Cindy M. 2021. Impact of noise on dogs’ hearing and health. Journal of Veterinary Medicine 17(4): 893-912.

Maxwell, Emma. 2019. Dog’s eyes and ears: a guide to understanding their sensitivity. Barks & Howls Publishing.

VCA Animal Hospitals. 2018. Protecting your dog’s hearing. Accessed January 16. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/protecting-your-dogs-hearing

American Kennel Club. 2020. How to train gun dogs. Accessed January 16. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-train-gun-dogs/

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