Barking Dogs: Noise or Communication?

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

R.I.P. 1966-2014

With over 52 million pet dogs in the U.S.alone and a multi-billion dollar pet food and supply industry, it’s clear dogs are part of family life in America. To those who actually own and live near dogs, another fact is also clear—some dogs just talk too much. It’s “Bark! Bark! Let me in” or “Bark! Bark! Feed me” or “Bark, Bark! A leaf just fell.” Dogs can be such champions of conversation that many communities have passed ordinances forcing them to shut their yaps.

Anyone who’s experienced these annoying oratories in the dead of night is probably wondering, “What’s the deal?” Do some dogs just like to hear the sound of their voices, or are they actually communicating specific messages? In fact, many researchers have concluded in passing that barking isn’t a specific form of communication; rather, it’s just a loud, obnoxious way for dogs to say, “Hey. Look at me!” The more specific information comes from reading body expression and olfactory messages (which is why dogs spend so much time sniffing each other—they’re gathering the latest gossip).

Well, a groundbreaking study presented at the Animal Behaviour Society’s annual conference in Bloomington, Indiana says that this earlier view was off-base—probably. (Note that I’m calling the study ground-breaking because, one, I did it—as part of my Master’s degree; and two, I actually published a portion of it in a real-life scientific journal that deals with animal behavior—the Journal of Comparative Psychology—rather than in some obscure place such as “The Journal of Toe Fungus in Cats, Pigs, and Horses.”)

In this study, the researcher (me), found ten barking dogs and recorded them, with help from the owners, in three different situations. In situation 1, the disturbance situation, the dog was recorded while barking at the sound of the doorbell. In situation 2, the isolation situation, I recorded the dog when it was locked outside, isolated from its owner. And in situation 3, the play situation, I recorded barks as the dog was playing with its owner or another dog.

In this devious plot to collect barks, the owners and I set up each situation many different times on many different days over a three-month period. This allowed me to collect over 4600 barks. Once I’d collected enough barks, I collaborated with my co-conspirator, Dr. Brenda McCowan, research professor at UC Davis who specializes in acoustic communication in animals ranging from dolphins to chickens and cattle. She’s the one with the computer program that carefully and objectively takes 120 measurements of pitch and loudness along the duration of each bark.

In short, we found that the “Hey!- Someone’s-at-the-door” barks (a.k.a. disturbance barks) were relatively low-pitched, harsh barks with little variation in pitch or loudness. Dogs blurted these barks at full volume and sometimes so fast that the barks were fused into what I coined “superbarks.” (What the heck, might as well have some fun.)

The “Hey!-I’m-locked-out-here-by-myself” barks (a.k.a. isolation barks) were higher pitched, more tonal and more frequency-modulated than the disturbance barks. They often occurred as single barks rather than in clusters. Although, some dogs definitely developed a more insistent, repetitive quality like “Someone forgot me out here. Hey. Hey. HEY!”

The play barks were similar to the isolation barks except that they usually occurred in clusters rather than singly.

So what can we conclude from this exemplary work of science? Well, unfortunately, we can’t tell whether dogs intentionally alter their barks to deliver a message to other dogs or people. Basically the only way to do this is to teach the dog English so that he can tell us, “I am now intentionally changing my bark to deliver this message.” In any case the variation in the barks most likely reflects an internal emotional state associated with the situation.

What we can tell is that because there are specific bark subtypes, barks have the potential to communicate specific information to both dogs and people. Not specific information like, “Timmy’s stuck in the well! The one to the left of the big oak tree. You gotta get him loose!”  More like, “I’m locked out and I want in,” or “Intruder alert!  Intruder alert!”

To determine the function of the barks, we’d have to perform yet a second devious experiment whereby we trick dogs by playing recorded barks from known contexts and see how they respond. Their responses would tell us the function of the barks. We haven’t started this yet, but in the meantime as dog owners, you can listen to your own dogs and note the types of barks that occur in specific situations. If you can distinguish the “woof” that means the toy’s stuck under the bed versus the “ruff” when a cat’s trespassing versus the “arf” which means a friend is approaching, you’re on your way to understanding what your dog’s trying to say.

To learn more about my research on barking, visit my research page here.

You can also test your bark interpretation skills with this interactive quiz.

Epilogue: Recently Adam Miklosi’s lab has tested the ability of humans to recognize barking in dogs. Click on the links to see what they found:

Pongrácz, P., Miklósi, Á., Molnár, Cs., Csányi, V. 2005. Human listeners are able to classify dog barks recorded in different situations. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119: 136-144.

Pongrácz, P., Molnár, Cs., Miklósi, Á. 2006. Acoustic parameters of dog barks carry emotional information for humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100: 228-240.

Molnár, Cs., Pongrácz, P., Dóka, A., Miklósi, Á. 2006. Can humans discriminate between dogs on the base of the acoustic parameters of barks? Behavioural Processes, 73: 76-83.

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17 responses to “Barking Dogs: Noise or Communication?

  1. I think my dogs definitely use their barks to communicate with us. Spike definitely has his “there is someone in my domain” bark(which by the way is approximately a 1 mile radius around him)and Dru has her very demanding, ear splitting, high pitched “Hellooooo, pay attention to me!” bark. Despite how our neighbors might feel, we adore them all the same!

  2. That’s all fantastic, but it doesn’t make a difference whether the dog is communicating or not. The whole neighborhood doesn’t want to listen to your dog bark all day or all night.

    Until dogs get constitutional rights like humans, I’m going to keep complaining about the excessive barking that plagues my neighborhood and many others.

  3. Hi Dr Yin,

    I loved this article, thanks for it.

    I had an idea while reading: I think all dog owners want to better understand their dogs, and many people have iPhones. What if a researcher (you?) built an iPhone app that lets anyone participate in this research?

    For example, it could allow dog owners to record and submit a bark, select a category that matches the behavior and add comments.

    It could also allow people to play barks and submit the reactions of their dogs (by category and comments).

    It could also be built in a way that is generic (not specific to just dogs) so it would have more broad application to all acoustic research that involves gathering of samples.

    One great example of an app slightly similar to this is the AT&T “Mark the Spot” app. It has a different purpose (reporting network problems), but the user interface could be very similar.

    I hope this idea is helpful,

  4. This is something I have to deal with daily as a trainer in a retail chain. I am constantly trying to explain why dogs bark and that static collars don’t work. I also lay out for them scenarios that would make the dog bark more frequently and what that collar could elicit from the dog.
    Could you do a follow up article on reducing barking in outside dogs and why exercise OUTSIDE of the house/yard is important. Also that some dogs aren’t good outside dogs.
    It is so frustrating for me to explain this to some because you know they are going to purchase the static collar and not read how to use it and then go home and slap it on their dog. Very sad and frustrating.

  5. So a dog’s bark is kind of like a human’s tone of voice, without the words? Now that I’ve read this, I’m going to pay more attention to my dog’s barks. Sometimes I just don’t know what she’s barking at! Thanks for posting this!

  6. I have 13 dogs on my rural property, three poodles and 10 belgian shepherds. Each dog has their individual barks and some are barkers and some are not. I can tell from each bark what the reason for the bark is. There are alert barks – “mum something is wrong come fix it” to the play barks – “we are just youngsters having some fun” Then their is the howler – she doesn’t bark much just for no apparent reason likes to start the howl up for everyone else. I think of these noises as my dogs tallking to me not as noise.

    Regards Louise Kerr

  7. We are struggling to interpret our pets barks. It is like clockwork every night between 7-9 pm. We will be watching television and for no apparent reason (occasionally the proverbial knock or doorbell on TV) she will start barking, run to the back door, run around the back yard, and then is all is well for about 15 minutes, then it starts over again. We have surmised that perhaps she is just protecting a yard that is dark. She is fine during the day. Any thoughts?

  8. Loved this article (and your research) on barking dogs and interpretation of different barks-I’ve always thought all three of mine have distinctive barks for different messages (two of them being more vocal than the third!): the ‘hey, there’s someone walking past and possibly going to invade! Come quickly everyone’ bark and the ‘you’ve left me outside’ bark (one sounds like a seal!) being particularly distinguishable.

    One of my dog barks at everything and everyone going past the house and I’ve found it very effective to go and look out, at her request then say ‘thank you. It’s fine’ while holding my hand out flat (this started with placing my hand gently on her muzzle flat to quiet her then evolved) than to shout “that’s enough. SHUT UP!” as is tempting sometimes! She’s doing me a favour by looking after my house-the least I can do is respond to her warnings is the way I see it. Her barking has got much less frequent now and even a peer out the window without moving is enough to reassure her I’ve taken her warning seriously (maybe I’m placing human thoughts on her with my interpretation of what’s happening but she seems content to stop barking after I do this).
    Apologies for the long post. Great site overall by the way- I like knowing the ‘whys’ as well as the ‘hows’ and your articles explain these reasons for doing/not doing things perfectly and I’ve learnt so much.

  9. Hi Sophia,

    I have a dog collie x huntaway, lovely dog very excited about life in general but especially walking. one very annoying thing she does is she barks when walking, exercising, running along the beach, and then she tries to heard me along.
    How can i stop this? it hasn’t bothered me until recently and i’v had a few people come up to me at the beach asking me to leave as my dog is making too much noise, i know she’s just excited, but others are afraid.

  10. My rescued Australian Shepherd, Blue Lu Barker, is described by me as “a loudmouth.” She alert barks (deep bark), barks to let other dogs know “Lu here!” (higher in pitch, close together), barks when she’s excited about the impending walk or car ride (higher pitched with “grooooo” sounds mixed in), frequently emits breathy huffs . If she is actually “upset” at the sight of another dog (who had the nerve to lunge toward her or give her the stink-eye, or magically appear out of nowhere) the fur on her haunches rises up like she’s wearing a hat on her butt. Then the barking is serious & emphatic.
    If I’m calling her away from barking at a passing dog from the porch she will often get close to me and let out one loud “Woof!” as if it had already formed in her, like gas, and she just had to let it out.

  11. Hi… I understand why my dog – (5 months old) is barking however she barks often and repeatedly. I have tried rewarding her for positive behaviors and she is making progress. The only thing that seemingly is getting worse is her barking about everything. In the past she has not barked in her crate but has begun to do so throughout the evening. I ignore her but also am having difficulty because it goes on for hours at times (even after being let outside to “do her business”). I also live in an apt and my landlord lives above me and is not happy about the ongoing barking. Do you have other suggestions for training? I purchased your puppy book and am following those suggestions. Like I said she is making progress in all other areas except barking – which seems to be getting worse.

  12. hi Maureen:

    Since the barking is in your absence or away from you, I’d consider the MannersMinder for training her to lie down calmly and quietly in her crate. That way you can spend lots of time rewarding calm behaviors away from you. follow the down-stay protocol.

    For the learn to earn exercises, the one to really focus on is the sit or lie down to get you to approach and to pet her.


  13. I also like many others have commented on pretty well know my dogs barks.From let me in , to someones at the door , and there is another animal in my yard ,be it a bird ,dog and especially the cat across the street. I think you will help a lot of people better understand there pets with this article .Thanks.

  14. I believe it’s not just to make a noise but a communication. Notice how they bark when they cry or when they’re in pain. You would even feel it. So yea, it might be irritating but just try to listen to them and you’ll understand.

  15. I have two dogs who have to come in when they start barking/playing or barking to talk to a dog down the street. I feel really bad for dogs left outside alone for hour after hour for the owner’s convenience. They shouldn’t have a dog if they aren’t willing to train it to co-exist inside with them, or be calm while they are away for the day. It’s just wrong. Some of the barking from those poor dogs left on their own like that sounds painful. It sure makes my big dog want to help them — she reacts completely differently to those barks than to barks of dogs who are happy behind the fence.

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