Nov. 28 (UPI) -- From Ephesian war dogs to Conan, the dog honored this week for her role in the capture of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dogs have been members of the battlefield since ancient times.
But the effects of combat on dogs' longterm health -- including their hearing -- weren't closely examined until recently. And this week, the Army announced it has developed the Canine Auditory Protection System, or CAPS, to better protect the dogs while they're at work.
Dogs' ears are sensitive. It's one reason they're used in law enforcement and military roles -- they pick up soft sounds human ears can't, and they can hear high-pitched sounds inaudible to most people. But loud, booming noises bother them more in the moment.
Loud noises and the risk they pose to dog ears are not a problem unique to the battlefield, but one military working dogs and police dogs are more likely to face -- not just due to the sounds of bombs or gunfire, but also air travel and the poor acoustics of kennels.
"Canines were going to loud environments but the dogs' hearing would be damaged. Some of the dogs were landing and they weren't obeying orders. They were acting erratic," Dr. Stephen Lee, senior scientist at Army Research Office, told UPI.
Lee, along with Dr. Peter Schiefele, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, animal audiologist and professor at the University of Cincinatti, and Sykesville, Maryland-based Zeteo Tech, has developed headgear to protect the ears of military working dogs.
The CAPS is a snood-like hood fits over dogs' ears to prevent short-term hearing loss.
Often the dogs' hearing would be restored -- Lee compared the experience to a human coming out of a rock concert with ringing ears -- though, as in the case with people who attend a lot of concerts, often dogs would experience longterm damage that would show up later in life.
According to Lee, there were some forms of hearing protection for military dogs, but they were often modified versions of protection for humans, like headphones, and would be bulky and difficult to wear. They also weren't necessarily created to mitigate the fact that dogs can hear, and be bothered by, higher-pitched sounds than people can.
"The big thing on the design of these is that especially for working dogs, we know the frequencies they are exposed to and these are to attenuate or to dull down those frequencies," Dr. Pete Scheifele, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, professor at the University of Cincinnati and leading animal audiology expert, told UPI.
Military working dogs are used for tactical operations, patrol, detection and specialized search -- and notably played a vital role in the recent raid and death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The CAPS headgear was developed by Maryland-based Zeteo Labs as part of a Small Business Innovation Research Grant.
Scheifele and Lee said there is interest in developing a version of the snood for civilian use -- one that would come in a wider variety of colors and be easy to wash -- for hunting dogs and for the Fourth of July.
Lee said Army researchers are also looking into adding a communication device to the snoods, so dogs can receive instructions while working.
Scheifele oversees three animal audiology labs -- called Fetchlab -- in the U.S., and said canine hearing loss is much more common than people realize, with more than 80 dog breeds in the U.S. having some propensity to congenital deafness. In addition to helping develop hearing protection for dogs, he's worked with kennels, zoos and aquariums on improving acoustics to create more comfortable environments for animals and prevent hearing loss.
Scheifele has also created hearing aids for dogs, and said getting them used to hearing aids is possible, but far more challenging than getting them comfortable with the CAPS headgear.
Lee said research dogs seemed not just to tolerate the headgear, but to find it calming.
"Unstudied in this is the behavioral aspect in this. It seems to provide some comforting, like a swaddling effect. They just relax. It seems to be comforting to them," Lee said.