Proof that dogs may be special, man-created animals

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

understanding dog barks

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs use barking to signal information to other dogs and humans, in ways that may be understood across different species
  • Compared to wolves, dogs have a much wider range of vocalizations, changes that developed during the domestication process
  • Dogs typically use longer, lower frequency barks in response to a stranger approaching and higher pitched barks when they’re isolated
  • Dogs may bark to alert you of a stranger, in response to play or to get your attention; look at the context to help determine what your dog’s barks mean

Most owners of multiple dogs can easily distinguish the bark of one dog from another. Further, your dog’s voice is capable of communicating in a variety of nuanced tones, including huffs, growls, whines, whimpers, barks, howls and more. Dogs use these vocal expressions to signal information to other dogs and humans, in ways that may be understood across different species.

In fact, according to Tamás Faragó, Ph.D. and his colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, dogs and humans may process nonverbal vocal expressions similarly, such that it facilitates interspecies communication:1

“[O]ur recent fMRI study showed that in dogs and humans, similar brain regions are involved in processing the emotional load of nonverbal vocal expressions, suggesting that the neurological processes of extracting emotional information from the acoustic structure of calls is shared among mammals.

Based on this we can assume that acoustic emotion recognition can work not only within species, but also in interspecific communication.”

Humans understand dog barks

Most dogs do not bark indiscriminately but rather vary their bark according to different contexts. For instance, in a study involving a Hungarian dog breed called Mudis,2 researchers recorded the dogs barking in six distinct situations, including:3

A stranger at the door

A “bad guy” triggering aggression

An owner picking up the dog’s leash for a walk

The dog left alone while tied to a tree

Playing tug-of-war with his owner

The owner holding a toy near the dog

The recordings were then played for 36 people, who were able to categorize the barks according to the dogs’ likely emotions at the time (playful, fearful or aggressive).

"Our theory is that the dog is a very special, man-created animal," study author Péter Pongrácz, Ph.D., of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, told the American Psychological Association. "It was shaped during many tens of thousands of years of domestication to live with people, so it's not surprising that this type of communication should exist."4

Dogs, too, are able to understand barks emitted in different contexts (a stranger at the fence versus a dog left alone) and can also tell the difference between different dogs barking.5

Look at the context to determine what your dog is saying

Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., author and researcher of canine cognition, explains that dogs bark for a variety of reasons, ranging from distress to trying to attract your attention. The key to understanding why a dog is barking lies in looking at the context, as although dogs make an incredible variety of sounds, comparatively little research has been done to uncover what individual barks mean.

Speaking to NPR, Horowitz explained, “It's very hard to distinguish different barks … But there definitely are different barks that humans can distinguish between when a dog is isolated and feels alone, a bark when they feel threatened, a play bark.

And it's important to realize that not every bark is the same, just like not every nip is a bite, you know? Dogs are little more multifaceted in these capacities than we might at first glance think.”6 Compared to wolves, dogs have a much wider range of vocalizations, changes that developed during the domestication process.

It’s thought that dogs developed more human-directed vocalizations as a direct result of living in close proximity to humans. In fact, it’s been found that feral and stray dogs use fewer auditory forms of communication, which suggests that “dogs’ social contact with humans represents the main regulatory factor of their expression.”7

Barking may vary by breed, such that dogs that are closely related to wolves, such as the Shar-Pei, Chow Chow or Basenji, actually bark much less frequently compared to breeds such as hunting dogs. In addition, while barks may differ depending on a dog’s size, personality and emotional state, they tend to show some similarities.

Generally speaking, dogs use longer, lower frequency barks in response to a stranger approaching and higher pitched barks when they’re isolated.8 Beyond barking, your dog may also use the following acoustic forms of communication:9

  • Whines, which may reveal stress or attention-seeking
  • Growls, used as a warning or threat and sometimes during play
  • Howls, which are used for group cohesion
  • Groans and yelps, which indicate distress or pain
  • Grunts, which are related to pleasure

Barking is an essential form of communication for dogs

Barking is an effective form of communication for dogs, both with humans and other dogs. Yet, this natural and beneficial vocalization is sometimes perceived as a nuisance, especially if it’s persistent or takes place at inopportune times.

Devocalization, or debarking, which involves cutting or removing an animal’s vocal cords, is a cruel procedure that should not be considered to stop a dog from barking, as it removes a natural method of communication and can cause permanent health problems. Some states have also made the procedure illegal. If your dog is barking excessively, first attempt to understand what your dog is trying to tell you. For instance:

  • Is your dog barking due to boredom? Increase his physical activity and provide outlets for mental stimulation.
  • Is your dog barking due to loud noises? Set up a cozy space for him in a quiet area and turn on soothing music or a television for background noise.
  • Is your dog barking due to stress caused by a change in your household? Consider talking with an animal behavior specialist about desensitization and counter conditioning exercises for a stressed-out pet. Basic obedience training may also help.

As you interact with your dog, you can also either encourage barking by rewarding the behavior (more playtime or treats, for instance, while your dog is barking) or encourage silence by rewarding it. Remember, you don’t want to punish your dog for barking; if you do, you’ll be missing out on this rewarding form of communication.

However, for times when you need your dog to be quiet, encourage this by offering praise and a treat reward when your dog stops barking on cue.