Barking is an important part of canine communication. Many people interpret dog barks as a threatening sound, meaning something like, “Back off, I bite!” This is not the case, as science and history reveals.
A History of Barking
The wild canines that eventually evolved into domestic dogs were initially attracted to humans because our primitive ancestors used to throw the leftover parts from their kills in dumps around the edges of settlements. Opportunistic wolves were happy to grab a free meal, so they began to hang around places where people lived.
Ultimately, these wild canines began to see the village as their territory, too, so they would sound the alarm whenever a stranger or wild beast approached, by barking or yapping. This would alert the residents in time to rally some form of defence, if needed.
As long as dogs were present, the human guards did not need to be as vigilant, thus allowing for more rest and a better lifestyle. Eventually, someone decided that if a dog’s barking can help protect the village, then a dog in the house can help protect the family. The dog’s bark could serve as a canine burglar alarm, or if the person approaching the house was friendly, a canine doorbell.
Wild canines do not bark much, but domestic dogs do, so people began to select dogs for their barking ability, breeding only the loudest and most vigorous barkers to produce future generations of noisier pups. But it is important to remember that the bark is not meant as an aggressive signal, but rather an alarm. Barks warn people to the approach of something the dog happens to see, hear or smell.
Breaking Down Sound
Most animals appear to use a universal code based on three aspects of the sounds they make: pitch, duration and frequency (or repetition rate).
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-pitched sounds mean the opposite; the animal is asking to be allowed to come closer or is suggesting it is safe to approach.
Generally speaking, the longer the sound, the more likely the dog is making a conscious decision about what is happening and what he will do next. The threatening growl of an alpha male with every intention of holding his ground and not backing down will be low-pitched, long and sustained. A growl in shorter bursts and only briefly held indicates an element of fear. The dog is worried about whether he can successfully deal with an attack.
Sounds repeated often and at a fast rate indicate a degree of excitement and urgency, whereas sounds that are spaced out – or not repeated at all – usually indicate a lower level of excitement. An occasional bark or two at the window is only an expression of mild interest. A dog barking in multiple bursts and repeating them many times a minute, on the other hand, feels the situation is important and perhaps even a potential crisis.
Controlling unwanted barking
Consider the common situation in which a dog barks in a pattern such as, “Woof woof…woof-woof woof…woof-woof.” This is the commonly heard “call the pack and check this out” pattern. If the noise is disturbing, the owner often tries to quiet the dog by shouting something like, “Be quiet,” “Stop that noise” or “Shut up!” This is exactly the wrong thing to do. The dog interprets the yelling as the same bark pattern he just used himself; in other words, he thinks his owner is sounding the alarm. If the owner, as leader of the pack, is joining in the warning, that owner should not be surprised when his dog begins to bark even more vigorously; the dog simply feels his owner’s reactions confirmed he was doing the right thing.
The appropriate way to stop barking is to respond to it as a signal with a specific meaning. The dog wants something investigated, so the owner should look out the window or check the door, then calmly tell the dog, “Good guarding,” pat his head and call him back. The dog will interpret this sequence and conclude, “I asked the pack leader to check things out and no problem was detected. Therefore, there is no need to continue barking.” So the noise stops.
Despite all this, I am still unable to figure out the specific signals Lassie used to tell her family that Jeff got hurt while on the tractor and needed to be rescued!
Variations on a theme
Since barking is an alarm sound, there is no threat of aggression unless it is mixed with low-pitched growls. Variations include the following common barking patterns:
RAPID STRINGS of two to four barks, with pauses between, are the classic “alarm” barking pattern. They mean something like, “Call the pack! There is something going on that should be looked into!”
A LONG STRING OF SOLITARY BARKS, with deliberate pauses between them, suggests a lonely dog asking for companionship.
A STUTTER BARK, which sounds like “Harr-ruff!” – is usually presented with front legs flat on the ground and rear end held high. This simply means, “Let’s play!”
Stanley Coren is professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is also an award winning behavioural researcher, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was named as one of the 2,000 outstanding scientists of the 20th century. His many books on dog behaviour and human-canine interactions have been international bestsellers. His awards include the prestigious Maxwell Medal of Excellence from The Dog Writers Association of America for his book Born to Bark. Coren has been featured on Oprah, Larry King, and can be heard broadcasting a radio column on CBC. His newest book is Do Dogs Dream.