As with so much about dogs’ behaviour, the more you understand about what barking is and how it translates in the dog world, the less miscommunication will happen between yourself and your (or any other person’s) dog. So what is barking and what does it mean?
Dogs communicate both through body language and through sounds, one of which is what we know as barking. Unlike human talk, where we can use a variety of words in different languages that mean the same thing, dogs appear to have a universal code of communication. So a bark in one country is the same as in any other country. The trick is to understand the different types of bark and what they mean. Stanley Coren, Ph.d., FRSC, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, has defined three dimensions to a dog’s bark: the pitch, the duration and the frequency or repetition.
- Pitch: low-pitched sounds (such as a dog’s growl) usually indicate threats, anger and the possibility of aggression. These are interpreted as meaning: “Stay away from me.” High pitch sounds mean the opposite, asking to be allowed to come closer or saying that it is safe to approach.
- Duration: Generally speaking, the longer the sound, the more likely that the dog is making a conscious decision about the nature of the signal and his next behaviors. Thus the threatening growl of a dominant dog that has every intention of holding his ground and not backing down will be both low pitched and also long and sustained. If the growl is in shorter bursts, and only held briefly, it indicates there is an element of fear present and the dog is worried about whether it can successfully deal with an attack.
- Frequency: Sounds that are repeated often, at a fast rate, indicate a degree of excitement and urgency. Sounds that are spaced out, or not repeated, usually indicate a lower level of excitement. A dog giving an occasional bark or two at the window is only showing mild interest in something. A dog barking in multiple bursts and repeating them many times a minute is signaling that he feels the situation is important and perhaps even a potential crisis.
Coren further points out that barking is an alarm sound. There is no threat of aggression signaled by the dog unless it is lower-pitched and mixed with growls. Let’s consider the interpretation of the most common barks.
- Rapid strings of two to four barks with pauses between is the most common form of barking and is the classic alarm bark meaning something like: “Call the pack. There is something going on that should be looked into.”
- Barking in a fairly continuous string but lower pitch and slower than the usual alarm bark suggests that the dog is sensing an imminent problem. Thus this sound means: “The intruder (or danger) is very close. I don’t think that he is friendly. Get ready to defend yourself.”
- One or two sharp short barks of high or midrange pitch is the most typical greeting sound, and it usually replaces the alarm barks when the visitor is recognized as friendly. Many people are greeted in this way when they walk in the door. It really means, “Hello there!” It’s usually followed with the dog’s typical greeting ritual.
- A long string of solitary barks with deliberate pauses between each one is a sign of a lonely dog asking for companionship.
- A stutter bark, which sounds something like “Harr-ruff” is usually given with front legs flat on the ground and rear held high and simply means, “Let’s play!”
So next time your dog starts to bark, see if you can interpret what he is saying. Better communication means less misunderstanding!