Good boy, bad hearing: Army looks to small business to protect working dogs’ ears

The Army is giving working dogs longer careers with new hearing protection.

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If you’ve ever spent time in a helicopter you know it can get very loud. Usually humans wear some sort of protection for their ears when flying in a chopper. But what about canine friends who take a trip in the whirly bird?

The US military uses dogs for everything from sniffing bombs to raiding enemy compounds, and they need to get in helicopters often for those jobs. But when it comes to protecting dog ears it was a secondary thought.

“Even a short helicopter flight can affect a dog’s hearing, resulting in impaired performance and inability to hear the handler’s commands, which can hinder the mission,” said Stephen Lee, senior scientist at Army Research Laboratory’s Army Research Office.

Now the laboratory is helping to protect the hearing of man’s best friend in a partnership with Zeteo Tech, a Maryland-based biodefense company.

The Army Medical Research and Development Command funded the program through a Small Business Innovation Research grant.

military dog, army, helicopterThe product is called Canine Auditory Protection System (CAPS).

“It’s a snood, which really means it’s a sleeve that’s pulled over the head of the dog,” Lee told Federal News Network. “They use some advanced materials, including some materials that come from the automotive industry, that are used to dampen sound coming from the road and your engine. They are higher tech than your traditional hearing protection.”

The materials also focus on the frequencies that are important to dogs since they have a higher range of hearing frequencies.

“The dogs are quite comfortable wearing these. It actually has a swaddling-like effect to it and helps them stay calm,” Lee said. “It’s designed to slip on and slip off with all the different collars that are used by a military working dog.”

The company is also working on creating the product for commercial use.

The next step is to add noise canceling in the CAPS system to add a proactive aspect to the hearing protection.

“Military working dogs are retired for a variety of reasons. A lot of it has to do with old age,” Lee said. “The long term perspective is if we can improve the hearing exposure experience of the dog then we can link them to the working life of the dog. Meaning a dog will not go deaf sooner, it will be able to perform at a much higher level longer in its life and that’s above and beyond the better quality of life we want to provide them.”

Some may be wondering, how dog handlers realized the dogs were experiencing discomfort and how the researchers tested to make sure CAPS actually worked? Handlers noticed the dogs were agitated or unable to respond as well to commands after riding in a helicopter.

Lee said dogs experience similar effects to humans when exposed to loud noises — imagine that muffled sound in one’s ears after a rock concert.

As for the research, scientists use a special brain scan to see how animals are hearing. The Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response looks at how the brain processes sounds.

“We are measuring a very basic EEG of the auditory nerve,” Lee said. “We can play a tone into the ear of the dog, whether it’s sedated or awake, and we measure that neuron activity. That way we can tell whether they are hearing and how the actual parts of the ear are hearing it and translating it to the brain of the animal.”

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