Finding ‘Fido’: HESP Researchers Study Canine Name Recognition in Noisy Environments

Researchers at the University of Maryland’s Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) are studying whether dogs can still recognize and respond to their name in situations where there is background noise, or in which multiple people talking at once. The findings will be of special interest to humans who work with service animals, as it is important for service animals to hear, recognize and respond to calls, even in noisy environments.

The researchers, led by department chair Professor Rochelle Newman, are particularly interested in dogs because they are often used as an animal comparison to human infants; dogs have been shown to demonstrate joint attention with humans, and to show word learning and processing in a manner similar to human toddlers.

“This makes dogs ideal candidates to test in the same setup that we use for infants. Our lab has long been studying the extent to which noise interferes with infants’ and young children’s understanding of the language spoken to them—here, we are testing dogs using the exact same procedure we typically use with infants,” Newman said.

Some of the dogs assisting in the study are police dogs working with the University of Maryland Police Department (UMPD). HESP is also reaching out in hopes of working with other local area police forces, as well as local area service dogs. Additional dogs who have participated so far have been companion animals, including one dog who has participated in dog shows.

Both canine companions and young children are frequently exposed to language in multi-talker or noisy environments, and need to understand sentences or commands in these environments. The auditory processing systems of the brain in both species evolved in what were presumably far quieter ambient environments than present-day settings, where noise from traffic, other people, and machinery/devices are ubiquitous, particularly when outside the home environment.

On a theoretical level, researchers have already established that young children are affected by background noise much more than are adults, despite having adult-like auditory thresholds. The reasons for this discrepancy remain unknown, but proposals have revolved around distractibility, poor selective attention, weak cognitive systems, and limited top-down linguistic knowledge.

“On the applied level, understanding the limitations of dogs’ ability to understand commands in real-world settings will have important implications for how best to train these animals as service dogs. Although some dogs can respond to a substantial number of commands or words, they presumably do so on the basis of an auditory pattern-matching system that is quite distinct from the language-system used by human adults; comparing canine and infant performance can thus provide clues to way that noise impacts the auditory—as compared to linguistic—processing system,” Newman said.

Findings from this study could potentially inform training methodology and exercises for service animals and police dogs in the future.

Great care was used by Newman and her team to ensure each dog’s safety and comfort during the testing. Each dog was accompanied in the testing room by a human companion. The noises that dogs heard in the testing room were human voices, and the voices were never raised to a decibel level that would be uncomfortable for the dogs to hear.

Canine studies fall under additional oversight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and this study worked within USDA guidelines. Research and testing will continue in the fall semester.

“Our study is actually one intended to be fun for the dogs—they get a toy and a treat while participating. We’re testing the dogs exactly the same way we test human infants, so there is clearly nothing being done that is expected to disturb the service animals, or upset them, or hurt them,” Newman said. “We have worked with human infants a great deal on very similar studies, and we are using the same level of care with our service dogs that we are using with babies. As researchers and as humans who benefit from the efforts of service animals, we are especially grateful for these canine participants.”

Pictured: UMPD Corporal Matt Suthard and Jimbo.

HESP study