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What the Barking Dog is Telling Us

You can learn a lot about what your dog is trying to tell you if you take the time to listen to it.

What the Barking Dog is Telling Us
(Photos by Mark Atwater)

Problem: Two Barking Dogs

I have a two-year-old female Labrador retriever that has developed a bad habit of barking incessantly when she goes to the holding blind and to the line before being sent to retrieve. She also barks continuously when left alone in her crate.

My Bouvier is three years old, and has suddenly started “vicious” barking at people and dogs when she is in my car. She also barks at people and/or dogs while walking on leash or off leash at a dog park.


In order to fix these two problems, or any barking problem, we must first determine why the dog is barking, what message it is trying to send, and what they are asking for. The Labrador is demanding her turn. She has learned if she keeps barking long enough, she will get attention and then get her turn. But the reason for barking when left alone in a crate is a selective situation specific to separation anxiety.

The Bouvier has a totally different sounding bark the owner has termed “vicious.” This dog’s barking is defensive/aggressive, and is probably rooted in fear. Barking will result in the intruding person or dog going away, so the barking is rewarded and therefore reinforced. The Lab is barking to bring people to it, and the Bouvier is barking to drive people away.

Of all the Canids—wolves, coyotes, and foxes in North America, and dingoes, wild dogs, and jackals in the rest of the world—only the domestic dog has developed a bark vocabulary. All Canids will whine, whimper, yip, or howl, but none, with maybe the jackal showing something close to a bark as the exception, come close to sending interspecific messages by barking. Somewhere along the evolutionary way, domestication of the dog also included development of a highly variable vocabulary it uses to communicate with other dogs, but more unusual, with its second social partner: us. Dogs also use whining, whimpering, moaning, and several variations on each to get a message to us, or to let us know when they really need something, but these non-bark vocalizations are shared in common with all Canids.

Consider the situation of you and your dog hunting, and as you round a corner of a patch of woods, your dog sees a combine sitting beside a field of unharvested corn. Startled by the unusual “thing,” your dog stops and says a single “woof.” The woof is to tell you, “There is something strange that I don’t trust.” The woof is also to challenge the “thing” to identify itself by moving or doing something, anything.

But your dog also has the ability to alter the woof bark by changing pitch and the number from one to three or more woofs, as well as change the tempo from equally spaced three woofs to a woof…pause…woof, woof. Or, if very excited, your dog can go to a high-pitched series of barks that only vaguely sound like a woof. It will all depend on things like the intensity of the situation and the level of excitation the dog feels at the time.

The woof, with all of its variations and combinations, is only one word in the dog’s very large vocabulary. Human analogy might be us saying the word “hey.” It has a large array of meanings from a simple acknowledgement of someone to a “be careful when you do that,” or even “stop doing that right now.” All dogs have a huge variation on each bark/word at their disposal, with most of the bark words directed at people. Dogs will have a bark to greet a person, which varies depending on where the person resides on the dog’s list of important people.


All dogs will have an anxiety bark, a fear bark, a defensive bark, which varies greatly depending on both the person or thing and the intensity; a happy bark of we are finally going to do something; a challenge bark; and of course, an aggressive, junkyard dog-style bark. There is a bark that says there is a squirrel on the ground, which is different from there is a squirrel up a tree. There is a hot scent trail on the ground bark, and a different cold scent on the ground bark. There are also many barks thats use has been learned, which all act to get the dog something it wants, and which had previously resulted in a payoff. Any bark that gets a payoff in the form of a reward of some kind for the dog will tend to be repeated in the same, or closely similar, situation. Often, this kind of bark is rhythmic and very annoying, and will very quickly get a response from a person. To complicate things, there are dogs that are very talkative and dogs that are quiet, just as there are people with the same traits. There are probably dogs smart enough to realize that it is often better to be quiet and have everyone think you are an idiot, then to bark inanely and remove all doubt.

I suspect that in dogs, as in people, the vocabulary grew as domestication grew. The earliest dogs probably barked little, if at all—much like their ancestors. But back then, humans didn’t have much of a vocabulary either. Body language predated verbal language, and is still used by both dogs and people. Every vocalization of a dog is matched with a body language—a posture to emphasize and reinforce the vocalization. People are the same, as watching any politician making a speech will verify. Body language and vocalizations were gradually paired and evolved in a parallel fashion. The postures and gestures became stereotypical in dogs as in people, where both uses of eyes, ears, waving of arms in people or tails in dogs. Gestures are used to verify, emphasize, amplify, tone down, or even negate the vocalizations or in some way alter the meaning of the vocalization in both dogs and people. Vocalizations are used to the same effect on body language, and depending on the use, can be called lying.

We talk to our dogs in words and gestures; dogs talk to us with barks and other vocalizations and gestures. We expect our dogs to do as we tell them to do, and we should expect, too, that what our dogs tell us about themselves should be respected and listened to.

Learn to read your dog’s body language, and learn what his vocalizations are telling you. He is trying to tell you what he needs and wants, and what bothers him, all in his language. It is your job to listen, and to satisfy his needs. That is the basis of a care-soliciting/care-dependency social relationship that bonds dogs and people.

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