All About Umma

So Many Sounds

I used to think we lived in a fairly quiet neighborhood. Our home sits on the western edge of a Portland suburb, with homes built in the mid-eighties of moderate size with decent yards. We live a few blocks from major roads and while we have sidewalks they aren’t that heavily used. It’s the kind of place where if you sit on the deck on a summer afternoon there is an excellent chance you may not hear a single neighbor.

At least, you won’t if you’re a human.

Umma is a sound sensitive dog and so she greatly disagrees with my assessment. Every sound, no matter how minimal, has to be processed and categorized to see if it’s a threat or innocuous. On those same summer afternoons I mentioned above Umma will sit still in the backyard, listening and processing, her only movements being a turn of an ear or a slight cock of the head as she hears something new.

While I knew Umma was sensitive to sound, I don’t think I truly understood it until one late summer weeknight this year when I brought her out for one last pee break before bed. Her puppies were inside and it was after eleven. The night was warm and still and if someone had asked I would have said it was dead quiet.

We stepped off the deck and instead of getting right down to business, Umma wandered over to the picnic table, climbed up onto the top, and sat down. She turned and looked right at me, so I went over and sat down next to her. She closed her eyes, her nose turned up just a bit to smell the light breeze, and I watched her ears move one way and then the other. I tried to relax (this is hard for me!) and hear what she heard, closing my eyes.

When you do this, when you allow your mind to let go of the clutter, you learn things – things like our neighborhood late on a weeknight is anything but quiet.

The first falling leaves make noise, first as they bounce from branch to branch and again when they hit the ground.

There is the constant sound of traffic in the background, from only two-lane streets five or more blocks away. (I swear this is a newer thing as our suburbs have been built up tighter and tighter, but it took Umma for me to notice.)

A neighbor’s heat pump makes a light metallic rustling sound just before it powers to life – that house is half a block away.

Another neighbor, a block away, has music softly playing. It’s loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough to recognize.

The sound of a train whistle comes, then the heavy sound of train on tracks. The tracks are a mile away.

A neighbor on the next block has a small fire going (visible through backyards) and we can hear voices and the sound of glasses clinking.

An occasional car goes by and each of them can be heard, even the electric ones. They all have a unique sound.

There is also the sounds of insects, of wind whispering through branches and grass, of our next door neighbor’s dog rustling around in his yard to go about his business, and other sounds I can’t place.

There is a rustle in the tree and both of our eyes snap open. It’s dark so my human eyes don’t see anything, but Umma is fixated on a spot in one of our pines. She stares for awhile, then jumps down, pees, and heads back to the house.

All of this on a night I would have called quiet, but it’s a cacophony of sounds to Umma. During the daytime sometimes there are so many sounds she has a hard time keeping up. This is why taking her into the city of Portland has to be hard on her and she much prefers to be out in nature, either hiking in the woods or running along the beach. I feel like those natural sounds in those places make more sense to her; they don’t take quite as much brain power to process like the unnatural sounds of the human world.

Some of this is unique to Umma herself and some of it is hard-wired in her DNA as a result of being a hunting line Hokkaido. As a dog hunting in the snowy woods of Hokkaido, being able to hear sounds from a long distance and pinpoint their location is a key asset. It’s why, knowing her pups would be half hunting lineage (hers) and half show lineage (Ashitaka’s), we made a conscious effort to focus on sounds when the puppies were young, to expose them to as many things as we could.

So far, so good. Fuchi hears all the same things as Umma does (her ears are amazing to watch, moving like satellite dishes independent of each other as they focus on different things), but they aren’t as meaningful to her and don’t demand so much attention. We have taken her some places with sounds where Umma would have to process each and every thing, but Fuchi just moves along like it’s no big deal. From what we’ve gathered from the owners of Fuchi’s siblings their experience is the same; the pups notice sounds but don’t fixate on them.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading about sensitivities in dogs, about how to recognize them and how to communicate to your dog that you understand, in order to help Umma be calmer. It has helped, and bit by bit Umma seems to be relaxing. She’ll never be a city dog, but as long as we can recognize the kind of environments that will be too much for her and minimize those – and work with her when we encounter one – she is appreciative.

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