The sounds we hear

Some of the best places to take a walk are near dog parks. We know of a couple of places where people can allow their dogs to run off leash that are great places to walk. In addition, we often meet people walking their dogs on leash as we walk on public trails around the area. In general, dogs have never bought into social distancing. The come up to us with their tails wagging, often straining at their leashes as their owners try to keep a respectful distance. The dogs we encounter on our walks are well behaved. I find it very easy to tell when a dog is angry or frightened and so have little fear of the friendly dogs we encounter on our walks. And, so far, we have found the owners to be close at hand when a dog comes up to offer a greeting.

It is interesting how the dogs have different personalities. We see a lot more small dogs around here than other places we have lived. There are a lot of people who are out for a walk with a dog that isn’t as big as some of the cats we’ve known. I think that the little dogs don’t really know that they are little. They tend to approach other dogs, even those who are much larger than themselves, with confidence. They approach us expecting a pat or pet, even though we’d have to bend way down to do so.

The dogs in back yards are a bit different. Often they will bark at us as we walk by. There is a young lab a couple of blocks from our home who greets us with a deep bark if he is out when we walk by his home. Despite the sound of his bark, he isn’ very scary. We can see his tail wagging and can tell he just wants to play. Another dog in our neighborhood lives at a house on the corner and knows that if he sees us go around the corner, he can run around the house and give us a second greeting from the back yard. Sometimes we are surprised at the sound of a dog's bark. The biggest dogs don’t always have the loudest bark. We’ve found ourselves giggling on a couple of occasions when a tiny dog has a big bark or a big dog has a tiny bark.

We humans have evolved to connect sounds and emotions. In earlier hunter-gatherer communities, some sounds were cause for alarm. An attack by a wild animal required a quick defense. The roar of a flash flood warned of impending disaster. There are sounds that startle us and others to which we become accustomed. When we first moved into the house we are renting, I would awake with a start in the night when the ice maker in the refrigerator dumped a load of cubes into the bin. It is really quite loud and in a quiet house sounds like someone has dropped something. Now, after living here for several months, I don’t notice the sound. It reminds me of our home in Boise, Idaho, where we had train tracks right behind our backyard fence. The tracks were only used by Amtrak passenger trains and there was only one train each direction per day. The east-bound train came in the late evening. The west-bound train arrived in the early morning. We never seemed to notice the trains at all unless they were late. Then a late train would wake me from a deep sleep, even though I could easily sleep through an on-time train.

As I write, I can hear the whistle of a train that is passing through town a little more than a mile from our house. I’m sure that I wouldn’t even notice it if I weren’t thinking about the sounds we hear. We adjust to the sounds in our environment and learn which ones are cause for alarm and which can be ignored.

I know that my hearing isn’t as good as it was when I was younger. I still am able to have good conversations, but there are occasions when I ask others to repeat when I don’t fully understand. This is common for me in a crowded place, such as a retail store. Face masks have made it more difficult for me to hear and understand what is being said. I don’t think I’m much of a lip reader, but I do find myself asking for a repeat on occasion.

I wonder if we become less likely to be alarmed or frightened as we age. The combination of a decrease in the acuity of our hearing combines with the experience of safety and security to make us less likely to respond to various sounds in our environment. It seems possible, though I’m not aware of any specific examples.

When we worked in a church that had a preschool, I used to take a look at the names of the children on the artwork posted in the halls. Sometimes, when I was alone in the building, I would say all of the names out loud. It was common for there to be names that I had never before encountered. It was even more common for a familiar name to have an unusual spelling. Saying the name out loud would often give me a clue to the intended pronunciation. Being a reader, I often mis-pronounce words. I come up with my own pronunciation in my mind without consulting a guide to pronunciation. I base sounds on the appearance of the letters. Psycholinguists tell us that we make judgments about others based on the sound of their names. Personal names like Bob or Molly are perceived as soft and gentle. Names like Kirk or Kate are seen as more prickly and harsh. Those perceptions are not based on experience. There are plenty of Kirks and Kates who are soft and gentle and plenty of Bobs and Mollys who are more easily excited.

I guess names are like the sounds of dogs barking. You have to look for other clues and get to know individuals to know what they really mean.