The better to hear you with -- oh squirrel!
August 30, 2019 5:21 AM   Subscribe

From how far away can a dog hear a specific car?

My dog starts whining at the door a full 7 to 10 minutes before my friend arrives to do a dog walk with us. Though I walk my dog every night, this walk with the friend happens roughly once a week at roughly the same time of evening. But the dog whines at the door before my friend arrives even when it's a different day or time.

We were curious, so last night I texted my friend when the dog started whining, and it was the exact same moment he had started his car. He lives 2 miles away from us and we are in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Years ago when I used to have kids taking the school bus the dog would also whine when the bus was approaching our neighborhood. But at the time, I figured that the specific sound of the school bus, with its hydraulic brake and all, and the more or less regular schedule, and the fact that often I was at the bus stop with the dog as the kids debarked, all made it cool but not exactly insanely superhero amazing.
But this thing with my friend's car! Can my dog hear my friend start his car 2 miles away? Among all the other noises in the world and dozens of cars between here and there, not to mention the distance and the granular specificity of this one particular Honda that is probably the most common model around here? I know dogs are superheroes, but this level of keen hearing is so wonderful, if it's true, I would hardly be able to believe it.
Almost as amazing would be if my dog can sense my anticipation waiting for this particular person to come over.
I suppose it's possible that the dog often senses something else outside, like a deer or squirrel, and when my friend is about to come over I interpret her responding to it this way. But I don't think so.
Sorry I don't have a photo account to link to with dog photos! She is a shaggy gray mutt mostly multi-hound/pit bull mix.
posted by nantucket to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Almost as amazing would be if my dog can sense my anticipation waiting for this particular person to come over.

That seems totally within the realm of possibility to me, not even that amazing. If you feel some special sense of anticipation that's noticeable to you, I wouldn't be surprised if your dog could pick up on it. Is there anything you do differently if your friend is coming over? Do you talk to your friend on the phone or exchange text messages right before they come over? Do you think maybe you subconsciously glance toward the window or door more often while you're waiting for them to show up? Things like that could be clues to your dog.
posted by Redstart at 5:43 AM on August 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

The farthest I have heard of a dog hearing is about a mile, but I suppose two miles could be feasible if the acoustics of your neighborhood permit it. Certainly, each engine makes a slightly different sound, which dogs can differentiate even if we can't, and has sounds at ultrasonic frequencies, which dogs can hear and we can't. If the environment between your friend's place and yours has lots of reflective surfaces, it could make it more likely. I think it's way more likely than the alternative, which is doggy telepathy.
posted by ubiquity at 6:07 AM on August 30, 2019

If your dog is whining even at different times of the day, and presumably your friend uses his car more often than just to come over to you once a week, it doesn't seem like the car the dog is reacting to. My guess would be body language - but whatever it is, it is amazing that our dogs are so good at interpreting subtle signals!
posted by gaybobbie at 6:30 AM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

My dog can hear my daughter's car from about a mile away. We have a hilly neighborhood that is full of trees and traffic, but if the traffic is low, he starts getting excited when she is at the same place (confirmed by GPS), about a mile away. I don't think it's my anticipation because he does it even when I'm not aware that she is so close to home. He never alerts to a stranger at the door, but he will let me know when a family member is a mile away. Sigh.
posted by pearlybob at 6:32 AM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I heard a radio segment or perhaps read it somewhere, and I'll go looking for it when I have time, but what the dog is doing is basically telling time. Dogs apparently have a very keen sense of time and are incredibly tuned into routines. But the way they "tell time" is related to smell. So your dog is probably smelling the routines of the day; you probably leave home and come home at the same specific times on friend-walk-days and she's most definitely reading the cues that you are sending out that you don't even know you're sending out.

It was a really compelling segment/piece and it makes so much sense. I hope I can find it!
posted by cooker girl at 6:58 AM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

There was a whole, long debate between Rubert Sheldrake (the believer) and psychologist Richard Wiseman (the skeptic) about whether dogs have a supernatural ability to anticipate when their owners are about to come home. Sheldrake argued in favor of some kind of telepathic link between the dog and the owner. For what it's worth, my money is on the skeptical viewpoint.
posted by JD Sockinger at 7:25 AM on August 30, 2019

Almost as amazing would be if my dog can sense my anticipation waiting for this particular person to come over.

This is called the Clever Hans effect, and it is very real and very powerful. It must be carefully controlled in any study of animal behavior.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:44 AM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Acoustics are weird. My mum has moved from one part of town to another, and today she asked me about the fireworks she is hearing every night. Those specific fireworks are a local mystery, but then we got to talking about the Tivoli fireworks. Her new apartment is at almost exactly the same distance from Tivoli as the old one. But in her new apartment it sounds as if they are happening in her back yard, and not 2.2 kilometers away, because of the many reflections that enhance the sound in that direction. It must be the same for sounds dogs can hear.
That said, if your dog whined every time your friend started her car, wouldn't she whine every day, and not only on the days she drives to your house?
posted by mumimor at 8:06 AM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do they come over at the same time every day? My dog always goes into the kitchen and starts whining exactly 15 minutes before her dinner. We feed her at 5 pm on the dot every day.
posted by gryphonlover at 8:19 AM on August 30, 2019

The wonderful combination of answers here convinces me that my dog indeed hears my friend's car -- the timing is too accurate for it to be just my general anticipation -- but only reacts to his car sound when she senses through the Clever Hans effect that I'm expecting him. Dogs are geniuses! Thank you everyone!
posted by nantucket at 8:34 AM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

A useful experiment would be to have your friend come over at an unanticipated time (even to you). Say, sometime between 1pm and 5pm on a Saturday. If your dog can predict his arrival even when you can't then I think you're on to something with the hearing.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:20 AM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Definitely more than timing. I visited my ex for the first time in several months, and (as usual) the dog got excited well before I arrived. Only other person that gets that treatment is her daughter, whose visits are more random than mine were, but the dog has no problem 'anticipating' her either.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:25 PM on August 30, 2019

I have witnessed, recently, our two dogs suddenly getting up from napping and going to sit at, and facing, the front door, tails wagging, about 15 minutes before my spouse came home in an Uber from an out-of-state trip. Arrived home 10 hours earlier than expected. Only time I have seen that, though.
posted by bz at 2:55 PM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m not a dog but I used to live in a quiet town where I was only a little higher elevation (it was not noticeable but I am assuming because I could hear things from really far away that I couldn’t hear if I walked a block). Anyways, my husband would often come home late and I could hear our car (which was a normal car that wasn’t excessively loud) from over almost two km away. It is not a stretch for me to think a dog could hear further, separate out the specific sound of individual cars, and hear your friend’s car from two miles away.
posted by saucysault at 3:32 PM on August 30, 2019

So, fun fact I learned from my vet - dogs, like humans, can have hypersensitivity of a given sense. I know this because I suffer from a very weird and chronically under-studied hearing disorder called "hyperacusis" - basically the latin medical term for "this human hears too well." Roughly 99.99% of research in the ears and sense of hearing are around hearing loss, because that's what most of us suffer from.

Me? My right ear can hear a quiet conversation on the other side of a moderately full bar. One time we were walking 2-3 miles away from my college campus and I heard the band start playing for the alumni weekend football game and told my friends we needed to leave if we were going to get there for the start of the game. This was early days of cell phones but it turned out I was right, the band had started playing 15 minutes ahead of schedule for some reason. Weird stuff like that.

Unfortunately for me, it means that any particularly loud situation basically overloads my auditory nerves. Instead of hearing a given REALLY LOUD SOUND, I hear what I can most closely describe as static, like the scratchy noise when you turned an old TV to a channel without a signal. Goes for anything loud, from chewing corn chips to a high pressure shower to riding the subway to watching an action movie in a theater to a jackhammer to a plane flying low overhead to yadda yadda...

I had all kinds of tests, saw myriad ENT's, had MRIs of my brain done to make sure it wasn't a tumor, had special devices made to limit the amount of sound getting to my ear, and tried a bunch of different medications - nothing worked for me. Doctors speculated that either a fever as an infant had damaged the nerve, or that I just had a blood vessel grow to close to the nerve. If it was the latter, the only way to find out was an exploratory surgery to the side of my head and all the potential horrific side effects that I could wake up with from surgery that close to the brain. So I never did that.

Eventually one doc - the last ENT I ever saw, said at one point "Hey maybe you should just quit trying to protect your ear from hearing those sounds when you are in a loud environment. Maybe that will wear down your nerve to more normal levels and cause the over-stimulation to happen less over time. So, that's what I did, and it seems to have worked fairly well over the last couple decades. I still get it from time to time, but it's not nearly as constant as it was in my twenties.

Fast forward to a few years ago, mrs. allkindsoftime told me how our Doberman always goes on point at the door when she heard my motorcycle coming home. I was like, "You mean when I turn down our street?" and she was like "No I mean when you're like 3-4 minutes from home." That's easily 2 or more miles in a crowded city where we live - granted we do live next to a long park that my route home hugs and the low hills in it naturally reflect sound back into the neighborhood. But at one point I had a conversation with our vet about it and she said she hears about this kind of thing pretty regularly, and I told her about my particular mutation and she said it's entirely feasible that a dog could have the same kind of random thing. So there's that.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:00 PM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

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