My friend Doug and I were walking along an old logging road in the woods when we heard the faint sound of an ATV coming towards us from way off in the distance. A few moments later, our dogs appeared to hear the sound, and visibly perked up and acted interested. Doug asked me why. Surely, he asserted, our dogs must have heard the sound long before we did, so why were they just now reacting?
Interestingly, his question is based on a common misconception: that canine hearing is far more acute than human hearing. My impression is that many people have learned that dogs, when compared to humans, have hugely superior olfactory sensitivity and that dogs can hear higher frequencies such as dog whistles, and have concatenated these two facts into a fallacious belief that canine auditory sensitivity is far greater than human.
Given the prevalence of this belief, I figured I would share with my readers the answer I gave:
In general dogs’ auditory sensitivity is almost identical to that of a typical human: both species generally begin to hear sounds at a volume level of around -7 dB. And human spatial acuity is significantly superior: we can generally localize a sound to within less than one degree of accuracy, while dogs can usually localize to an area of approximately 6 degrees. And humans can hear lower frequencies than dogs, and can generally detect low frequencies at lower volume than dogs. Dogs can however hear frequencies considerably higher than humans—humans generally cannot detect much over 18 kHz while dogs can generally hear sounds up to around 45h kHz.
So if there is a sound of more than -7 dB in volume and a frequency between 20-45 kHz, you will not be able to hear it and your dog will, but if its frequency falls within a range that humans can hear, you and your dog will hear it at right about the same volume level…
Just in case you want to verify this with your own eyes and ears, take your dog for a walk and pay attention. You will quickly recognize that his reactions to interesting sounds are virtually simultaneous with yours.
Here is the same information in a chart taken from Wolves by David Mech and Luigi Boitani: