PEOPLE HAVE AN uncanny ability to discern their own names amid lots of noise, something scientists call "the cocktail party effect."
Now, new research has found that dogs can do it, too—even better than human babies.
In recent experiments at the University of Maryland, scientists found that our furry companions can perceive their name spoken at the same intensity as or louder than background noise.
The canines also recognised their own names when spoken by an unfamiliar voice and through a loudspeaker—suggesting they were not responding to a person’s body language, tone of voice, or other cues. (Read about how dogs pick up on human emotions.)
This is valuable insight for people handling working and service dogs, who may need to take urgent commands from people other than their owner in a noisy environment, according to the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.
It also highlights the value for dog owners of using a dog's name in any busy situation.
"Some people say you're better off giving hand signals—but the dogs are often scanning the room to see what's going on around them, so they miss them," says Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
"So this says, no, you can cut through the noise by using the dog's name."
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"He's a rascal who is too smart for his own good and knows it," says owner Adrian Coakley, multimedia producer for digital. "[He] thinks he can coast by on his cute looks. But he's hilarious, so it's OK."
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK THIESSEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Dogs vs. babies
For the study, cognitive scientist Amritha Mallikarjun and colleagues recruited owners of various breeds of dogs, including both pets and working canines such as service dogs, therapy dogs, and search-and-rescue dogs from around Maryland.
In the lab, the team placed each dog with its owner between two loudspeakers in the center of a testing booth, so that the animals had to turn their head 90 degrees to look at a speaker.
The scientists then played recordings of a woman unknown to the dogs repeating either the dog's name or another dog's name with the same number of syllables and stress pattern. The recordings were coupled with background noise—similar to the din of a coffee shop—at three increasing levels of loudness.
The experimenters then noted whether the dog turned toward a speaker that played its name and how long it listened. The results showed the dogs paid more attention to their own name, and could pick it out from background noise—to a certain extent.
Though the canines could pick out their names at the first two levels of background noise, they could not when the noise was louder than their names.
Adults can hear their names at all three levels, though 13-month-old babies can only hear the first level—when their names are spoken louder than background noise.
Working dogs at an advantage
Perhaps not surprisingly, service and other working dogs performed somewhat better at the task than did pets.
This is likely at least partly because the former have had more training.
What’s more, "I suspect one of the reasons working dogs do better is because people use their names more consistently," says co-author Rochelle Newman. "We often end up using nicknames so much."
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So if you call your dog "Puggy-Wuggy Boo-Boo" half the time, her proper name may not be as potent a cue when she's about to run across a bustling street.
Dog trainers traditionally say a dog’s name to get its attention before asking it to do something—for example, "Lassie, come"—but not necessarily because it's assumed to mean something to the dog, notes Coren, who wasn’t involved in the study.
"Some of the old guard say the name is just a bit of noise that is made by the handler, and the dog is familiar with the handler's voice, so anything the handler says is going to get their attention," he says. (Does your dog prefer you over anyone else? It's complicated.)
Yet because the study dogs responded to strangers saying their names, it's likely the name itself that has the attention-getting effect.
Give Fido a break
Mallikarjun also suggests owners realise their dog is not quite as good at detecting their name as we are.
"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."