#81 - How to do a Sound Preference Test

[00:00:00] Allie: We all have sound preferences. And that’s one of the reasons you should do a sound preference test. But why would you do a sound preference test other than you want to get to know your animal and you are interviewing them?

Sound can be a really useful tool. We talked with Eileen last week about that, and we will continue to talk this week about how sound can be a useful tool to help you achieve results. And the really nice thing about sound is that it’s often very cheap or free, and it’s usually a pretty easy to implement option. It’s often a low hanging fruit when it comes to different options that we have.

[00:00:34] Emily: Yeah. I feel like this is one of the quick wins that I can give clients whose dogs have auditory stressors. Whatever that looks like, right? Regardless of how the animal responds, I find that this can be a quick win that we can give our clients.

[00:00:48] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:05] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:07] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

 Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Eileen Anderson, and one of the topics we discussed was understanding sound sensitivities and phobias. This week, we’re going to dive further into how to do a sound preference test, and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about: 

  • how dog snoring is the cutest, most heart meltiest sound, 

  • how Emily and I have accidentally taught relaxation through sound, 

  • and why the sleepy music stopped working.

So we’ve done a lot of preference tests on this podcast and that is because as you all know, we believe in treating the individual as an individual, and individuals have preferences. That includes you. That includes your pets. And that also includes sound! We have sound preferences. There are sounds that I absolutely love. I have, like, a bamboo wind chime and I adore that, like, little soft bamboo sound. Uh, And then there are sounds I don’t love, like dogs licking their butts. That’s a slurpy, gross sound that I’m not a fan of.

[00:02:35] Emily: For me, it’s Bayu contact calling when I don’t know what he wants. And so while it might sound cute when it’s just like the faintest little background sound on the podcast, it is not cute when you’re in the house with him. That’s the one for me that I’m like, okay, I love you. I love you. I love you.

[00:02:54] Allie: Are there sounds you love?

[00:02:55] Emily: There are absolutely sounds I love. We also have a wooden wind chime. To be fair to Bayu, I love it when my birds do their like soft, sweet little chatter when they’re talking. So I’ll, if I’m gonna, if I’m going to talk some smack about my bird, I got to also say that he has cute sounds as well that I, that give me all the warm fuzzies. Yeah.

[00:03:15] Allie: Like dog snoring is the cutest, most heart meltiest sound.

[00:03:21] Emily: Yeah, no joke. Yes.

[00:03:23] Allie: No joke. Anyhoo, so we all have sound preferences. And that’s one of the reasons you should do a sound preference test. But why would you do a sound preference test other than you want to get to know your animal and you are interviewing them?

Sound can be a really useful tool. We talked with Eileen last week about that, and we will continue to talk this week about how sound can be a useful tool to help you achieve results. And the really nice thing about sound is that it’s often very cheap or free, and it’s usually a pretty easy to implement option. It’s often a low hanging fruit when it comes to different options that we have.

[00:03:59] Emily: Yeah. I feel like this is one of the quick wins that I can give clients whose dogs have auditory stressors. Whatever that looks like, right? Regardless of how the animal responds, I find that this can be a quick win that we can give our clients.

[00:04:13] Allie: I agree. I think sound masking can often be a quick win for my clients. And yes, it’s often one of the first things that I give to them. If they have a kiddo who has sound sensitivities or phobias. So, let’s dive right into how do you do a sound preference test?

And the first step should surprise absolutely no one, and that is to figure out what goal you are trying to achieve with sound. Now, when we were talking with Eileen last week, we talked a lot about sound masking. That is one of the options, but there is a second option that I use sound for, which I’m just gonna have you wait with bated breath, let’s talk about sound masking first and then get into a common second goal of sound.

[00:04:58] Emily: So, as I mentioned, when I was speaking to Eileen in last week’s episode, sound masking is something that I’ve always attempted to do with clients with greater or lesser degrees of success, and watching her webinar really helped me to identify why sometimes my sound masking wasn’t actually effective.

And the thing that just really blew my mind was her comment about low frequency sounds masking high frequency sounds, but not vice versa. So for that reason, It’s really important to use some type of sound masking that includes brown noise. Both in the webinar and in our discussion yesterday, she really emphasized that the sound has to be homogenous so that there aren’t little peaks that could, in and of themselves, be aversive to the dog or frightening to the dog.

And so for me thinking about what types of sound masking I’m going to try, that really helps to sort of narrow the field and be like, okay, what sounds meet the criteria of being both brown noise and homogenous. And that really helps me to be more targeted in the sounds that I test with my client’s dogs. So I’m not just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, right? However, sound masking is only one of the goals. And so here we are, we’re about to reveal the big mystery. Allie, take it away,

[00:06:33] Allie: So in addition to sound masking, which for me, when I’m talking with my clients is: just make it so they can’t hear the scary noise. That’s the goal. Like, truly mask the sound. The second goal that I will often use sound for is for calm relaxation, sleep, whatever variation of that you want to use. And this is especially where it’s about the learner’s preference.

 One of the ways that you can look into your learner’s preference. And when I say learner, I mean your pet – realistically, that’s what, that’s who we’re talking about today when we’re talking about learners – is: what do they do with the sounds that already happen in their daily lives?

So, is it that you have a personal sound routine at bedtime? Like, I listen to pretty much like a specific podcast at night. And whenever I hear the, like, little intro music, I just feel myself getting calm because that’s my sleepy time sound is that particular podcast. That would be an example of maybe Oso has the same. I don’t know. I haven’t actually watched because it’s dark and he’s usually, I don’t know, already asleep.

[00:07:45] Emily: Oso doesn’t have sound sensitivity, so you don’t have to pay attention to that for him.

[00:07:49] Allie: In that moment, he does not have sound sensitivities. So that’s an example. I’m also somebody who just always has music on. I work from home. And if I am not talking to another human being, I am playing music.

And so I know exactly how he feels about different genres of music. There is one band in particular that is like a moody kind of alt band, and he just like passes out if I play them or anything like them. He’s fine with what I usually play, but if I’m, like, in a, like, an angry, like hard rock mood, he just skedaddles out of my office. He’s like, “I am not here for this.” So I already know how he feels about different sounds because there are sounds happening all the time in my house.

So it would be pretty easy for me to look at his preference, but I could absolutely play different types of sounds, play different types of music to see what is his natural response to those things.

Now, when we’re talking about sound for sleepy time, what I like to do is, if there’s already a type of sound or music that puts them to sleep, that’s the answer. Like, mission achieved, the end, you did it, good job. I would just start playing that when they could use some help with sleeping. Let’s say that’s not a thing. They have not associated that.

They have, they don’t have the, like, the podcast intro classical conditioning that I have. And we want to help teach them that skill. What I like to do is to play that particular sound or music, and I usually use music, so I’m just going to say music from here on out. Play that particular music while they’re already in that really nice, mushy, relaxed state.

Like they’re already falling asleep and we’re going to start playing that music, so music is happening, sleep is happening, good stuff happens. And I’m going to keep pairing those things together for a considerable amount of time, actually. This is not like, you’re going to do this and next week it’s going to work, this is a slow burn kind of a recommendation.

Typically you’re going to pair those two things together, and then when they have that, what I described of, podcast intro means I go like, “Ahhhhh,” and feel myself relaxing – and you could probably see it in my body that my muscles are relaxing – that’s when it’s like, all right, now I can start playing this when there’s a little bit more excitement.

I’m not going to go for the full blown, like, they’re running their little fool heads off because some trigger is happening, that’s gonna be too much to ask for. But, like, maybe they’re a little bit restless, they’re having trouble sleeping, turn that on, and our goal would be we see the, “Ahhhh”, where their body relaxes and they’re able to sleep better.

That’s my goal for that. And my favorite example of this, there was a dog that I worked with at a shelter. His name was Castiel. Such a high anxiety kiddo. He just, he had so many trubs in life in general. And he was my office dog once a week, so I didn’t even try to do this. But whenever he would come to my office, which – he would come into my office and then he would pretty much pass out the entire time he was there, it was just a really great break from him from the shelter – he would come in my office, he would pass out, and it just so happened that the day that he came was usually a day that I was like out doing a whole bunch of things that I wasn’t in my office as frequently. I would turn on the exact same YouTube playlist every single time and he would go to sleep. And so this happened for months. And like I said, I wasn’t trying to do this, but this would happen for months. He got moved to a different part of the shelter, and I walk into that building one day, there’s classical music playing, which was what the YouTube playlist that I would play for him was.

There’s classical music playing, so many of the dogs were barking their little fool heads off. And there was Castiel asleep on his bed and it melted my heart. Like, aw, this is– I didn’t even know that we were working towards this, but we were working towards this! All those months of him falling asleep to classical music in my office led to this point where he was just passed out because classical music was being played while everybody else was barking their little fool heads off.

[00:12:26] Emily: That’s the cutest story of my whole life. And also I miss Castiel.

[00:12:29] Allie: Right? Oh, Cassie.

[00:12:32] Emily: He was a good boy.

[00:12:33] Allie: Yeah.

[00:12:34] Emily: Yeah. So I have, I accidentally did that with my dogs as well, because when I’m working on something where I really need to concentrate and, like, herd the cats in my own head, I play polyrhythmic folk music because for whatever reason, that’s what helps the gremlin toddler in my head sit down and let the adult in my head get work done.

So, for me, I was playing that polyrhythmic folk music. But the thing is, whenever I’m working, the dogs snug with me on the nest. And so, what I didn’t realize was happening was that when I turn on that folk music, it– the dogs, like, hooo… They get really sleepy-time and they get snuggie. And then conversely, when I’m getting up to do something, when I have a project that I’m going to work on or cleaning the house or whatever, Chuck and I have just a bunch of different playlists.

We both worked in music, so we listen to like, every conceivable genre and it’s just like a playlist of all the music except essentially polyrhythmic folk music, and so the dogs have learned that like that music means we’re getting up and doing fun things and the polyrhythmic folk music means it’s nappy time, we’re gonna go sleepies, and so I’ve started using the polyrhythmic folk music intentionally when I need the dogs to chill out because I accidentally did that to them, but it actually is really effective, too. Contrasted with, I had a client in Salt Lake City with thunderstorm anxiety.

And one of the things about thunderstorms is that it’s not just the sound, it’s not just the barometric pressure, it’s not just the smell of ozone, it’s also the vibrations. Like it, it sometimes can rattle the house. And so, we ended up using those big industrial fans that are like the floor fans, because they not only have that low frequency that masks the sound of the thunderstorms, but they also just constantly vibrate the house. And so, it also masks the vibrations from the thunderstorm. So, that was a totally different goal than the sleepy time goal that I was talking about with my dogs. Yes, we want the dog to feel relaxed and sleepy, but our primary goal there is to mask the sound and the vibration of the thunderstorms.

Alright, so after deciding what your goal is for doing this sound preference test, the next step is: how are you going to do a sound preference test?

And I think there are many paths up the mountain to an extent. I, there’s a little asterisk because I think there are also ways that you can do it that won’t get the results you think you’re getting. One thing that is really important about doing a sound preference test is only do one test per day.

Because as we’ve discussed on this podcast many times, exposure to stressors is still exposure to stressors. So, if you’re going to do a sound preference test and something ends up being stressful instead of relaxing, or it doesn’t work for masking whatever noise you’re trying to mask, then we already have an unequal baseline. We’re not operating from the same place when we started, so anything you test after that is going to be skewed by whatever stressors happened in the first test.

So, we do one test per day. We want to aim for around the same time of day, and/or the same context in which you tested it the first time. So each time we’re trying to eliminate as many variables as possible and really just see what the differences are between your dog’s response to that specific sound.

Or cat, or parrot, whoever you want to do a sound preference test with. I don’t want to be specie-ist here. But yes, so we’re going to aim for around the same time of day, same context. 

And then clearly define what it is that you’re looking for, because if you’re looking for a sound masking as being your goal, what you’re looking for may be different than if you’re looking for facilitating relaxation and rest, right?

Because for sound masking, the dog can still be happy, playing, getting pets, eating food, working on food puzzles or foraging, whatever. And what we’re looking for is that, when the noise happens, they’re not really vigilant, and focusing in on that noise, and responding to it however they have responded in the past: fearfully, reactively, whatever.

If the goal of your sound preference test is facilitating rest and relaxation, then we want to measure the dog’s arousal before the music or sound effect or whatever you’re using to, to do the test, during the sound, whatever you’re testing, and afterwards. So, are we seeing that over that process there is a reduction in arousal and at the end, is the dog actually in a relaxed state?

And, relaxed state can look different for different animals. So, I’m not going to clearly define what that looks like because I think it looks different across different individuals and across species. But in general we’re looking for an absence of tension in the muscles, I think that’s the common thread that we can agree is a universal component of what melty looks like across individuals and across species.

Allie, do you have any additional universal signals that might apply across individuals?

[00:18:25] Allie: I think absence of muscle tension is a good one because with absence of muscle tension comes usually everything else I would look for, like a steady, deep respiration rate and like a little kind of squinty eye, but like, blinky eyeballs, but not in the appeasement-y way, in the–

[00:18:47] Emily: Droopy eyes. Droopy eyes, not squinty eyes.

[00:18:50] Allie: Yes, thank you, droopy is what I was looking for. Yes, so I think anything that goes with melty works for me.

[00:18:58] Emily: Yeah, it’s why I love the label melty, because most people have a pretty good idea of what that looks like across species, for the most part, and so it can apply to lots of different overt behaviors, or a constellation of overt behaviors, as the case typically is.

[00:19:14] Allie: Yes.

[00:19:15] Emily: So. So yeah, that’s what we’re looking for when we’re doing a sound preference test.

We want to only do one sound per day and then aim for around the same time of day, same context. And. and clearly define what it is that you’re looking for to say this sound was or was not effective. And then I would say document everything because we all– Here’s the thing that humans do: we’re all like, “I’ll remember.” And you don’t remember. That’s not how human brains work. I– You just don’t. So yeah, document it all. Either by filming it or just writing down what you’re seeing. And I typically tell clients, we don’t want to do this for more than a week. We don’t want to have more than like seven sounds that we’re testing, because when we get beyond seven sounds, then it starts to get a little intense about people being like, “Okay, now I have to compare this sound to this sound.”

And then like, their sound preference test takes two months and it’s like, no, we don’t, that’s not necessary. Let’s just limit the number of sounds that we’re testing. Thanks to Eileen, we learned that for actual sound masking, there’s actually much fewer selections that we might want to use. So, so let’s just keep it simple and keep it to seven, seven tests or less. So, you can get your sound preference test done in a week.

[00:20:31] Allie: So once you’ve done the thing, you have figured out the perfect mixture of sounds and volumes and all of the factors to achieve the result that you’re looking for, we want to make sure we don’t ruin the thing. Because it can sometimes be very easy to ruin this particular thing, and then life is sad, and I don’t want your life to be sad.

So, the first part of this is if it’s an appetitive sound – and by appetitive I mean you like it, they like it – don’t overuse it, because habituation is a thing. They’re going to get used to that sound, and then, we don’t have as strong of feelings for it. We don’t like it as much. It’s not as appetitive.

And you can think about this like, I love brownies, but if I were to eat brownies with every meal, every day, for a month, I wouldn’t love brownies as much as I currently do. That’s a lot of brownies.

[00:21:31] Emily: I’m gonna, I’m gonna even go further and use an actual example of why this matters, because one of the shelters that I had been working with and doing a consultation with, we had talked about the importance of a midday nap time for dogs and they were awesome. They were really proactive and they did the thing.

They created the space in their schedule for the dogs to just have sleepy time. And one of the things that we had discussed for making it sleepy time was playing some classical music that had seemed to be pretty effective at getting all the dogs in this population to chill out and be nappy.

And a few months later, I was contacted by somebody from the shelter and they were like, “The music isn’t working anymore.” And I was like, “What do you mean the music isn’t working anymore? Say more words. Please elaborate.” And it turned out that the kennel staff were so impressed by how impactful that classical music was during nap time that they were like, “Why don’t we just have the music play all the time? And then the dogs will just always be this calm and quiet,” and they learned the hard way that’s not actually how it works. And that the reason the music was so effective is because it was contrasted from the rest of the day and because it predicted that, like, dark, quiet time to work on a licky project.

And when they just played the music all day with all of the regular chaos of the shelter, the dogs pretty quickly habituated to it and it stopped having any relevance to the dogs. And so we had to start over with a different type of sound for nap time because they learned the hard way that habituation is a thing.

And if you just play it all the time, then it loses its potency.

[00:23:19] Allie: And also, for – unless you’re in a sheltering environment or a daycare or something like that – that would mean you are listening to it all the time as well, and that just doesn’t sound fantastic. So that leads me to our next point of make sure it’s also a thing that you are okay listening to.

Because I’m assuming that for many of our listeners, you are going to be in the house while your pet is listening to whatever this music or sound is. And so, it needs to be something that you are also okay listening to. We can’t promote one individual’s mental health needs above another. We need to have, we need to find something that works for everybody’s mental, emotional, behavioral health.

And I use the example that for Oso, I just tried different music that I already listened to and figured out how that related to him and what the, what effects that had on him. And I was okay listening to it because it was already what I was listening to. 

So make sure you’re also okay listening to The Thing, or else it will ruin it for you and you will stop doing The Thing. Okay, next part of how to not ruin The Thing is your timing matters. So in last week’s episode, Eileen talked about reverse conditioning, where an awesome thing predicts a scary thing and then it becomes scary. And that’s not what we’re looking for. And that’s not what we want. So we often see this with kiddos who have some sort of separation related distress where their humans will start playing a particular noise before they leave the house, and that predicts that their human is going to leave, and so they get stressed when they start hearing that particular music.

Now, that’s not to say that’s not an okay strategy in some situations, like that is an okay strategy in some situations, but it depends and so we need to make sure that we’re not hitting that reverse conditioning, and making awesome things scary by mistake. We need to make scary things awesome instead of the other way around. So, just say no to reverse conditioning.

And then along those lines of let’s not make sound masking scary, don’t use potentially triggering sounds for your sound masking. You should know what is happening in whatever it is that you are playing, especially if you’re going to be leaving the house and that music or noise is just going to be playing on end for hours.

We need to know what’s actually in it. That’s one of the reasons why I use what I normally listen to for Oso, because I know what’s in it. I don’t have to listen to eight hours of some random classical music YouTube video to know what’s in it. I can just turn on a Spotify list and life is good. And that might seem like a kind of like a no duh situation, but I have seen where people will put on and it’s often on YouTube. I’m not picking, I love YouTube, I’m not picking on it, but like, that’s usually the platform where I’ve seen problems like this happening. Where somebody will put on like, calming song, calming sounds for dogs, and it’s an hour long video, but they’re gone for longer than an hour.

And then it goes just into the next video immediately, and then it’s like an hour of dogs barking. Because sometimes the YouTube algorithm just does not get it right. So, that’s usually more of an issue than, like, something that you are purposely putting on having a triggering sound, but not all the time.

Sometimes, you get a classical piece with a big old timpani in it, and like, there’s a lot of booming noises there, and that might be concerning for a kiddo that, that is uncomfortable with booming noises that you wouldn’t expect per se in a classical piece. So, know what, what is playing and know what is going to play after in case you don’t get back in the amount of time you thought you were going to be gone for.

[00:27:23] Emily: Oh, I actually have a really good example of this because, we, I learned from Micaela Young, like one of the things that she does for her clients who have firework sound sensitivities is she has them start playing like war movies about three days before we anticipate the firework starting at a lower volume and then like increasing the volume each day. So, by the time the fireworks actually hit, the sound masking is loud enough. And it’s pretty effective because like Eileen said last week, the low frequency sounds mask high frequency sounds, but not vice versa. And a lot of those like war movies have the big, deep booming explosions.

But if you’re going to try that, you need to know what the actual movie is and what happens in that movie. And you also need to know what specific sounds your dog is afraid of. Because I told a friend that, fortunately, not a client, but I told a friend like in passing in conversation, I was like, I love Micaela’s suggestion for sound masking, it’s brilliant, and she tried it. And if she had been a client, I would have given her the tools to not end up in this situation. But one of the things that her dog was so afraid of was the high pitch noises that have that kind of arcing, like “bewwwww!”– that sound. And the war movie that she chose had like rockets firing that made that exact sound.

And she was like, so that backfired. And I was like, yeah, I probably should not have mentioned that to you in an off the cuff kind of conversation, because I could have helped you to avoid that situation. So, there are a lot of, like, little, tips and tricks like that, that can be effective, but the devil’s in the details, and you really need to work with a professional to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that doesn’t make things worse instead of better.

[00:29:22] Allie: So, true with so many things in life.

[00:29:24] Emily: So many.

[00:29:25] Allie: So, many things. All right, so today we talked about how to do a sound preference test and what should come as a surprise to no one is the first step is to figure out what goal you are trying to achieve with sound. And the two most common that we usually see are sound masking for scary sounds or inducing some sleepy time. After that, you’re going to do The Thing and make sure that, like Emily said, the devil’s in the details, so make sure you don’t accidentally ruin the thing because that is sad for everybody involved. All right. Next week, we’ll be talking with Mara Velez about how BEAR can help shelters.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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