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Impulse Sounds and the Startle Response: Why Some Canines Concern the Clicker Sound


In 2018, I wrote a put up titled “My Canine Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Ought to I Do?” I instructed the unhappy story of how I scared a canine with the clicker, then scared her much more by following the usual recommendation to treatment the scenario. Within the put up, I did one thing I hardly ever do, which was to offer straight-up recommendation. I suggested folks whose canines had been afraid of the clicker to modify to a verbal marker in the event that they actually wanted a marker, and to depart the press sounds alone for a bit whereas they decided the extent of the canine’s fears.

I stand by that recommendation. And now I’m going to present you why switching to a quieter mechanical click on just isn’t sufficient of a change to remediate some canines’ worry.

It’s been nice to see extra analysis on coaching with and with out the clicker and the comparability research rolling in. Many individuals can be shocked at what number of research of markers, bridges, and secondary reinforcers have been made through the years. I’ve been protecting a spreadsheet of them for fairly some time now. As an illustration, it’s typically mentioned that the press sound has particular properties in that it’s processed by the amygdala. Nevertheless it seems that the amygdala is concerned in reward expectation and the processing of all predictors and secondary reinforcers—not simply the press sound. There’s analysis on this relationship again to no less than the Eighties.

Individuals have lengthy speculated that the clicker has particular effectiveness as a result of the sound is exclusive. Its quick period and salience appear to assist with precision. However are you aware what I’ve by no means seen? An evaluation of that sound in comparison with different sounds. How lengthy is it, actually? What sort of sound is it?

I’m going to point out you. Then I’m going to place forth some concepts concerning the ramifications.

How Can We Talk about Sounds?

We don’t have sufficient phrases in English to explain sounds. As an auditory-oriented individual, I run up towards this drawback rather a lot. Right here is one factor that helps a little bit. Waveform diagrams enable us to translate the facets of a sound wave into a visible presentation. So I’m going to offer you some examples of what varied sounds “appear to be.” We’ll look at their amplitudes (volumes), rhythms, and onset occasions graphically over time.

As a substitute of speaking rather a lot about it, I’m going to point out you plenty of examples. You’ll get the hold of it quickly sufficient.

Examples to Get Began

The x-axis (horizontal) is time in seconds. The y-axis is amplitude (quantity). I’m not together with particulars for the y-axis. These would correctly be in decibels. However as a result of these sounds had been recorded in numerous conditions, I didn’t management for the gap between the sound supply and the mic. Giving readings in decibels can be deceptive. I would like you to have a look at the shapes. (If you’re curious, the y-axis is on a linear scale to assist the person know their recording stage. A number of of the press sounds “saturated” the size, that means that their quantity exceeded the bounds of the size on the distance from the microphone I used. Unhealthy audio engineering conduct on my half!)

I’m not going to get into pitch, as a result of if there are various completely different frequencies enjoying on the similar time, we don’t hear pitch in any respect. A lot of the sounds I’m going to point out you’re of this selection. For the piano and violin, the frequency is simply too excessive for us to see particular person oscillations on the given scale on the web page. However a lot of the sounds are too advanced to point out oscillations in any respect.

Right here is the C above center C (C5) on a piano, performed at loud, medium, and gentle ranges. Notice how the sound begins off very all of a sudden (the piano is definitely within the percussion household of devices). Even the very gentle one has a particular starting. Then the amplitude decreases (decays) shortly over time on every one.

Right here is identical C performed on the violin. String instrument sounds performed with a bow don’t essentially decay. This specific sound begins abruptly, however stringed devices may fade in.

Here’s what speaking appears to be like like. (That is the picture of me saying, “Here’s what speaking appears to be like like.”)

Here’s a chainsaw getting used to chop down a tree. The final form is the tree falling.

OK, now we get to the good things, the purpose of this text. I wish to present you what the sounds of the clicker and different mechanical markers appear to be.

Impulse Noises

The next noises are all what acousticians name impulse noises. An impulse noise goes from zero to a excessive quantity in such a short while that it’s perceived as instantaneous. Impulse noises are doubtless extra frequent in human society than in nature. Sudden thunderclaps are impulse noises. Pure explosions may be. However people create all kinds of impulse noises. Exploding gasses, mechanical impacts, and explosions are impulse noises. Digital noises that aren’t intentionally pale in, however simply “activate” may be impulse noises. Noise is properly studied and controlled by OSHA and the CDC as a result of it may be dangerous in a number of sorts of how. As an illustration, very loud impulse noises could cause ear injury due to the suddenness, whereas a gradual noise that peaks on the similar quantity wouldn’t.

You might suspect what I’m working as much as. Though these sounds are quieter, clickers and different mechanical markers have the opposite traits of impulse noises: sudden, with a really quick onset. They’re of the mechanical affect kind. The suddenness is one facet of their precision. If you’d like a brief marker, you need it to start out (and cease) quick. Listed below are some examples.

Right here is the pop of bubble wrap. Try the time scale: the loud half is over in lower than 1/10 of a second. The loud half is about 0.07 seconds, or 70 milliseconds. I’m going to make use of milliseconds from right here on out. Simply do not forget that 1,000 milliseconds comprise a second.


Right here’s the press of a canine’s plastic buckle collar. Hmmmm, think about that proper subsequent to your ear.


Here’s a field clicker. The 2 clicks are about 110 milliseconds aside.


Here’s a “bug” clicker. This one was a little bit tougher to do shortly so the 2 clicks had been about 160 milliseconds aside.


Here’s a child meals lid. Notice: I discovered that they’re very unwieldy. Making an attempt to click on with a spherical disc that retains slipping out of your fingers just isn’t sensible! The amplitude can also be very completely different, with the second click on a lot quieter. These clicks are about 100 milliseconds aside.


Here’s a retractable ballpoint pen. I had by no means observed that the second sound is louder than the primary one, however it’s. These clicks are about 170 milliseconds aside. You’ll see in a minute why I’m mentioning the time between the clicks.


Much less Abrupt Sounds

All these clicking sounds began very abruptly. Listed below are some verbal sounds and a mouth click on for comparability.

Right here’s the verbal marker “Yip.” It’s about 110 milliseconds lengthy. However look how steadily it begins in comparison with the clicks above.


Right here’s a verbal “Sure.” It additionally begins steadily and is about 150 milliseconds lengthy.


Here’s a mouth click on. It’s about 75 milliseconds lengthy.

Onset Comparisons

One of many traits of impulse noises is the quick onset of the noise and the short rise to the utmost amplitude. So for the next pictures, I zoomed in 10x, that’s, we now see the element in a tenth of a second (100 milliseconds) within the area we had been seeing an entire second. That is so we are able to see the time it takes for the onset of the sound.

Right here is the “Yip” zoomed in. It could be solely 110 milliseconds lengthy, however nearly all of that’s the comparatively mild onset of the Y sound.


Right here is the mouth click on zoomed in. Though the mouth click on appears to be like much more sudden than the verbals within the pictures above, test it out when zoomed in. It nonetheless doesn’t have the virtually instantaneous onset of the mechanical sounds.


So we are able to examine the above with a mechanical sound, right here is the plastic buckle zoomed in. The amplitude rises to its most inside simply a few milliseconds.

Impulse Sounds and the Acoustic Startle Response

I’ve proven graphically how a lot sooner mechanical clicks begin than our verbal noises. Right here’s why I’m specializing in that quick onset.

Mammals have a reflex referred to as the startle response. It may be triggered by a sudden noise, an sudden contact, or perhaps a purely visible stimulus (consider a silent leap scare on a pc or film display). However it’s so generally triggered by noise that that selection has its personal time period: the acoustic startle response.

Within the startle response, the physique responds with a speedy extension, then flexion of a number of muscular tissues. (In people, these typically heart on the top, neck, and shoulders, but additionally prolong right down to the legs. You most likely can summon the kinesthetic reminiscence of your shoulders tensing when you may have been startled. In case you had been sitting down, the short muscle motion of your legs made you leap out of your seat a little bit as properly.) The factors for an acoustic stimulus to set off a startle response have been studied in a number of species, though not in canines that I can discover. The factors to acoustically evoke the startle response in rats are 1) that the sound reaches full depth inside 12–15 milliseconds (0.012—0.015 seconds) of its onset, and a pair of) that the sound is about 80-90 decibels (Ladd et al, 2000). Many texts observe that fast onset is important to the startle response. If a sound is equally loud at its peak however takes extra time to rise to that quantity, it gained’t set off a startle.

With the onset standards in thoughts, take one other take a look at the zoomed-in picture of the buckle collar. The time from onset to most of that sound is properly beneath 12 milliseconds: it’s lower than 5. However, the onset of the mouth click on is extra gradual and doesn’t attain as excessive an amplitude (quantity). Once more, the amplitudes aren’t precisely on the similar scale, as a result of I didn’t keep a precise distance from the microphone over the time I recorded them. However they’re roughly consultant of the comparative volumes. The mouth click on is certainly a lot quieter than the buckle collar.

Lastly, look once more on the zoomed in verbal “Yip.” It takes absolutely 100 milliseconds to succeed in the height amplitude.

The Takeaway

  • Whereas clickers might not fairly attain the standards to evoke the startle response, they arrive shut. A delicate animal could possibly be startled by a clicker, particularly if the press occurs near its ears. Animals can habituate to startling stimuli, however there’s a probability {that a} delicate animal will as an alternative grow to be sensitized. And a canine who’s sound phobic might reply with worry to a click on at any quantity.
  • If an animal turns into sensitized to the clicker sound, altering to a different mechanical sound (jar lid, ballpoint pen) or dampening the unique clicker might not work. I’ve tried this with unlucky outcomes, and I do know a few of you may have, too. I hypothesize that it’s as a result of these quieter mechanical sounds nonetheless have the sudden onset of an impulse sound.
  • From a bioacoustical standpoint, switching to a verbal marker will typically clear up each of the issues. It’s quieter, and the onset is way slower than that of a mechanical gadget.
  • The whole time of a fast verbal marker is similar to the time between the 2 clicks of a clicker, so that you is probably not shedding a lot in precision.

Mechanical clicks, even quiet ones, have the traits of impulse sounds, which might set off the mammalian acoustic startle response. In case you’ve scared an animal with a clicker, it’s most likely smart to maneuver away from mechanically generated sounds till you already know extra about their specific sensitivities.

These are my very own deductions, primarily based on the acoustic properties of mechanical clicks, the character of the mammalian startle response, and what I’ve noticed in canines. I’m not saying that clickers are harmful for all canines, and even most canines. I’m saying that some fearful or delicate canines is not going to habituate to those startling noises, that they might get sensitized as an alternative, and that the sensitization can generalize to different related sounds, even at decrease volumes. There could possibly be errors in my assumptions, and I’m open to any dialogue on the subject.

References and Additional Studying

Götz, T., & Janik, V. M. (2011). Repeated elicitation of the acoustic startle reflex results in sensitisation in subsequent avoidance behaviour and induces worry conditioning. BMC neuroscience12(1), 30.

Ladd, C. O., Plotsky, P. M., & Davis, M. (2000). Startle response. George Fink. Encyclopedia of Stress.(ed), 3.

Rooney, N. J., Clark, C. C., & Casey, R. A. (2016). Minimizing worry and nervousness in working canines: a overview. Journal of Veterinary Habits16, 53-64.

Yeomans, J. S., Li, L., Scott, B. W., & Frankland, P. W. (2002). Tactile, acoustic and vestibular techniques sum to elicit the startle reflex. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Critiques26(1), 1-11.

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