The mystery of how dogs and humans have managed an effective cross-species communication method has always focused on the vocalization and most recently the individual tones used in dog barking behaviors. The results of this dog barking study were unexpected and have forced us to go back to the starting point and rethink our ideas of what defines communication and the unique bond between man and dog.
Why Do Dogs Bark
Dogs bark for myriad reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons why dogs bark.
Territorial or Defensive Barking
This type of barking covers a broad range of different vocalizations, behaviors, and is often caused by a much more nuanced and complex set of motivations than we typically consider. Dogs have individual personality quirks that span nearly as broad a range as those exhibited in the human population. There are inexplicably fearful dogs and antisocial bullies who enjoy striking fear in humans and other dogs alike. There are independent or downright indifferent dogs that have no special affection or affinity for humans and resist any attempts by humans to force an unwanted a partnership. Any of these core personality traits provide an ample source of motivation for this type of barking behavior. The common thread tying these seemingly unrelated motivations together is the focus of the dogs barking activity. The dog might be motivated by fear of strangers and aiming to deter a perceived threat from entering into its safe space. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the dog may be an incorrigible bully who simply enjoys causing a ruckus and harasses unwitting passerby who dare to pass too close to its canine kingdom.
Territorial barking behavior is the most common cause of nuisance dog barking and unhappy neighbors. This type of dog barking behavior is also the most likely to escalate, spilling over from the canine realm into the human realm.
Separation Anxiety or Boredom
This category of nuisance dog barking, again, has two divergent motivations or causes that ultimately result in the same end behavior. For the common thread in these instances, we again look to the focus of the dog's efforts. In this context, the object of the dog's focus is not quite as obvious. Both boredom and separation anxiety create a restless, unsettled, and in the case of separation anxiety, a fearful tension that builds and strengthens. Eventually, it can no longer be controlled or endured by the dog. The family dog abruptly shape-shifts into a four-legged weapon of mass destruction bent on deconstructing the family home before you return from the grocery store. This destruction is often prefaced by extreme levels of agitation and anxiety.
Strokes, Seizures, Sudden Loss of Vision or Hearing and Other Health Issues
Any health ailment that causes the dog to experience a sudden and significant weakening the dog in some significant fashion will have a profound effect on anxiety and stress levels, The more sudden the onset and the more severe the cognitive or physical deficit the more intense the confusion and fear that will be experienced by the dog. This intense confusion and weakness can be terrifying and dogs will often vocalize loudly. Dogs do not understand the concept of vets or medicine. In the animal kingdom, a traumatic injury or mental confusion is something that can cause immense anguish.
Are There Different Types of Dog Barking?
In the previous section we examined the most common scenarios and frequent underlying reasons that dogs bark. In this section, we will delve deeper into the different types of dog barking in terms of intensity and context, both of which tell us a lot about the meaning.
Growling and Snarling
This goes without saying, but growling and or snarling indicate at best a warning to keep your distance and at worst an imminent attack. Most members of the public recognize that a growling or snarling dog can be a serious danger. It should, therefore, only be approached or handled by trained professionals.
Monotonous, Rhythmic, and Compulsive Barking
This type of dog barking behavior is often a reliable indicator of a neurologic or cognitive disorder. It is a frequent component of separation anxiety as well.
High-Pitched, Sharp, Rapid Yaps and Yelping
This particular barking style is often an indicator of a high, often excessive degree of excitement. It is most often exhibited by breeds with a high innate prey drive. These are breeds that live to chase, catch and kill prey regardless of their pampered urban house pet status. Think Schnauzer, German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, or Siberian Husky.
Howling, Singing, and Talking
We know that sirens and occasionally Aunt Martha's Falsetto solos will make many dogs howl regardless of their breed. However, singing and talking are generally considered breed-specific traits. Solid examples of dog breeds who exemplify these traits are abundant on social media. We have also provided the top breed examples for each category below.
- Howling Breeds: Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Samoyed, and German Shepherd
- Singing Breeds: Siberian Husky, Samoyed, Shiba Inu, and Beagle
- Talking Breeds: Siberian Husky, Samoyed, French Bulldog, English Bulldog, German Shepherd, and Pug
Tips on Interpreting Dog Barking
Dog barking appears to be more emergency alarm system than complex nuanced language. That is not to say that dogs lack such a nuanced and complex language. However, it may not be centered on their vocalizations as we have long believed it to be. Scientists in the UK have recently discovered that the language used by dogs to communicate between dog and human is not vocal at all but tactile. The pattern was first noted during a review of 37 videotaped interactions between dogs and their owners that had been created for use in an unrelated study. While reviewing all of the archived footage the scientists noted a strange pattern emerging that was present in each distinct and unrelated pairing of owner and dog. The scientists had noted that the dogs were using a sign language of sorts to effectively communicate with their owners and upon further study; it became clear that the gestures the dogs were using were by no means random. In fact, even more intriguing, the scientists also noted that the dogs would often string a chain of gestures and movements together into a complex "sentence". These complex chains were then repeated until the desired effect was achieved. The true complexity we have long sought in the various utterances of canines, may have been hiding in plain sight all along. Canine hierarchy in the wild is sorted out, maintained and sometimes even overthrown based on nothing more than subtle body language cues. The most important and most frequently used of these visual cues are discussed in more detail below.
A Tale of Two Tails
No discussion of canine visual communication is complete without a comprehensive review of what the subtle differences in a dog's tail wag mean. Many Americans still seem to be operating under the premise that if a dog is wagging its tail, it is friendly. This is not only incorrect, but it is also very dangerous.
The true message conveyed by a wagging tail changes dramatically based on the subtlest of details. Being able to discern the differences can often mean the difference between making a new canine friend or spending the remainder of the day in the emergency room of the nearest hospital getting treatment. What are the differences you should watch for?
A friendly, happy dog will hold their tail high (as appropriate to the breed) but in a relaxed, not rigid, manner and the tail will be gently wagging at any speed. The Dog should be interested in or actively engaging with at least one other element in the immediate environment.
Aggression or Dominance
The dog may hold its tail high or straight out in line with the horizontal plane of the body (appropriate to breed). The dog will frequently wag its tail in a similar manner as seen in the friendly posture, but in a much tighter arc or pattern. The key difference is in the rigidity of the tail, ears, and stance of the dog. There is a marked difference between the posture exhibited by the friendly, curious dog and that of the aggressive or dominant dog. Once the differences are observed and recognized they become much easier to spot quickly. Again the key difference is the overall tension present in the posture of the dog. However, this is most clear in the movement and rigidity of the tail.
There is hardly a dog owner alive that has not spent significant swathes of time speculating on the true meaning hidden within the barking, growling, whining or yapping of their personal canine companion. The truth is, we understand a lot more canine language than we think. Consider the sheer length of time that man and canine have worked, lived, and played alongside one another. This bond would not have persevered for nearly as long as it has, and would not be as strong as it is without some deep, fundamental understanding of what the other was thinking and feeling. The question now, however, is who domesticated who? If dogs have essentially taught us a nonverbal language in order to better communicate with them, the roles of master and pet may not be quite what we imagined them to be.