Sometimes I call my dog's name when he's hanging out on the couch or nearby in the yard and he doesn't even turn his head. I'm not sure if he doesn't hear me, isn't listening or is just being ... well, my dog.
It turns out that dogs truly have no problem picking their names out, even in a noisy environment. It's called "the cocktail party effect" and they're good at it.
Imagine you're in a noisy room and people are chattering all around you. You pretty much ignore the mindless babble and start drifting away until you hear your name. Your ears (figuratively) perk up.
Dogs are the same way. So found a new study published in the journal Animal Cognition.
Researchers at the University of Maryland had human and canine volunteers sit in a booth between two speakers. Scientists played a recording of either the dog's name or another name with the same number of syllables and similar stress pattern. (Like "Henry" and "Sasha.") The recordings had three levels of background noise that increasingly got louder.
The dogs turned toward the speaker when they heard their names. It was only at the third level, when the background noise was louder than their name, that they didn't respond.
Dogs vs. babies and adults
By contrast, adults were able to pick out their names no matter how loud the background. Babies, however, could only recognize their names at the lowest level.
"Dogs are social creatures who pay attention to the adults around them and have evolved to do so," said co-author Rochelle Newman, professor and chair of the University of Maryland Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, to Maryland Today. "In some sense, they are a really good comparison to infants."
For the study, researchers used pet dogs, as well as service and working dogs. Interestingly, service and working dogs performed better than garden-variety pets.
This is probably because those dogs have more training and also because handlers tend to use their proper names more consistently instead of nicknames, researchers told National Geographic. So they're used to responding only to their names versus the cute monikers we tend to call our pets.
What we can learn
Researchers were able to conclude several things from the study.
First, they said, infants likely struggled in the loud environment due to where they are in their development, not because of a lack of language skills. After all, they said, "Dogs don't have language either and are doing better."
They also had advice for people who work with their dogs. It's simple, but it makes sense. If you're in a loud situation, you probably have to raise your voice or move closer to your four-legged companion if surrounding noise makes it hard to be heard. They point out this is especially key if you're dealing with a service or working dog.
And for those of us exasperated when our dogs seem to ignore our calls, co-author and doctoral student Amritha Mallikarjun tells NatGeo:
"Dog owners shouldn't be frustrated if their dog doesn't respond to his or her name in a noisy environment like busy city streets or crowded parks," she says. "Your dog isn't being stubborn — he actually might not be able to understand you."