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What’s your dog trying to tell you? Canine bark research offers some clues

A bark is more than just a bark (Photo by iStock)
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What’s in a bark?

When I ended up rescuing a small dog instead of a big one as planned, when my imaginary chocolate Labrador named Sophie became a Shih Tzu named Sammy, my first worry was about his bark.

I liked the sound of the lower-pitched big-dog barks, not the yap-yap yelping of some of the small breeds.

Even the famous “Beagle bay” — half howl and half bark — sounded more appealing than what I worried I and my neighbors could be in for.

I lucked out. Sammy is a moderate barker — though he can screech like a hyena if he’s injured.

What I didn’t know until recently was that each of Sammy’s many different types of barks carry distinct messages based on their pitch, frequency and the pauses between barks, or barking intervals.

Dogs and humans communicate in multiple ways, including through body language and other visual cues, and pets and their owners often develop an intimate language that only they understand. But the bark, a subject of growing interest among animal behavior researchers over the last decade, is key. Humans’ ability to understand the emotion, intention or motivation behind the bark can be essential to understanding what dogs are trying to tell us, researchers say.

“It’s important to realize that the translation part is in our court,” said Kathryn Lord, a visiting assistant professor of animal behavior at Hampshire College.

[After being shot by a bicyclist, ‘Major Mike’ receives a funeral worthy of the decorated war dog he was]

More than one-third of American households, or 36.5 percent, include at least one pet dog, with about 70 million dogs in the U.S., according the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2012 report on companion animals.

In her first study of barking, Lord noted that dogs, as anyone who lives with or near them probably knows, bark in a wide range of situations and sometimes inexplicably.

But she argues that the meaning of a bark cannot be neatly categorized. That’s because barking has to do with more than external triggers, like a strangers ringing the doorbell, Lord said.

“Depending on how they are feeling, they’ll vary the bark,” said Lord, who has submitted for publication new research on the function of barking.

Other researchers say barking can be interpreted objectively and labeled as such.  Dogs’ barks often contain distinct and clear messages when linked with context or situations, they assert. These would include whether the dog is playing, responding to a stranger approaching, getting ready to go for a walk, dinner time, or being left alone.

Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively about dogs, has produced a kind of barking glossary, which he described in a 2011 blog post  for Psychology Today.

“It’s important to be able to recognize particular barks,” Coren said in an interview. “You should use it as guidance for your behavior.”

From his point of view, barking is part of a universal “sound code.” For example, he said, rapid strings of two to four barks with pauses in between are the most common bark. It means something like “call the pack!” The dog is trying to point its owner’s attention to something specific.

Other types include a “long string of solitary barks with deliberate pauses between each one,” which is how a dog typically expresses loneliness, Coren said. “If no one is home, the frequency of the bark, is lower,” he said.

The loneliness bark, which could also happen if a dog is outside and wants to come in, or wants to be somewhere other than where he is, could also sound like: “Ruff, ruff, pause, ruff, ruff, ruff,” he said.

There is also what he calls the “stutter bark” which sounds like “harr-ruff” and is usually accompanied by a “let’s play!” posture, such as when a dog puts its front legs flat on the ground, stretches them forward, arches its back and raises up its rear.

(I call that “Sammy yoga,” as it looks like the “downward dog” pose to me; others call it a “bow.”)

Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist who conducted two widely cited studies on barking, also looked at how context influenced barking. In a 2004 study published in the British journal Animal Behavior, Yin analyzed 4,672 barks and used recordings from six different breeds in three situations. The breeds she and her co-author listened to over a period of three months included: Australian Shepherd, Dachshund, Springer Spaniel, Australian Cattle Dog and German Short-haired Pointer.

Dogs were recorded barking in a disturbance situation in which a stranger rang the doorbell; in an isolation situation in which the dog was locked outside or in a room isolated from its owner; and a play situation in which either two dogs or a human and a dog played together.

The barks ranged from “harsh, low-frequency unmodulated calls to higher-frequency, modulated calls,” according to the study. The harsher barks were common in the disturbance situation and the higher pitched barks common in both isolation and play situation. (Listen to the audio of different barks at the end of this story and see whether you can tell them apart.)

Researchers in Hungary have produced several studies on barking over the past ten years and found that the acoustics carry emotional information for humans. They reported that people, even those who did not live with dogs, were able to identify five possible emotional states from listening to recorded barks: aggressiveness, fear, despair, playfulness and happiness.

One thing I learned from Lord, of Hampshire College — who, like Coren, barked during our conversations to make various points — is that I am accidentally teaching Sammy to bark in situations where I don’t want him to bark. For example, when the neighbor’s four dogs trot down the stairs outside my apartment and Sammy starts barking, it’s barkapalooza and not fun for the other neighbors.

But by telling him to “be quiet” or yelling “stop, no barking,” I am giving him attention he wants. And while it’s negative attention, dogs crave and thrive on any attention from their humans.

Coren explained that when a person is telling a dog to stop barking, “It sounds to the dog like ‘ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff,’ so instead of being quiet, the dog thinks the leader of the pack is doing the same thing. So the dog thinks he is doing the right thing.”

He suggested that I say nothing to Sammy when he barks at something outside the apartment. Instead, I should walk over to the window or door and calmly look around, signaling to the dog that I have taken note of his alert call.

“You recognize it as a communication,” he said. “And turn to the dog and tell him ‘good guarding.’”

It worked.

Now take this quiz on barking. 

The late dog behaviorist Sophia Yin identified three types of barks use in three different contexts:  a disturbance situation in which a stranger rang the doorbell, an isolation situation in which the dog was locked outside isolated from its owner, and a play situation in which either two dogs or human and dog played together.

Download and play the following six barks and guess whether they occurred in the disturbance context, the isolation context, or the play context. Look for the answers after signing up for our newsletter.

Bark 1 | Bark 2 | Bark 3

Bark 4 | Bark 5 | Bark 6

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Answers courtesy of Brenda McCowan, professor of population, health and reproduction at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and co-author with Sophia Yin of barking study.
Bark 1 – disturbance Bark 2 – isolation Bark 3 – play Bark 4 – play Bark 5 – disturbance Bark 6 – play