Does your dog understand you better than you understand him? Or do you have a good grasp of what your dog is trying to say? Dog owners spend a great deal of time and effort training their dogs to understand humans, but they don’t always put the same energy into learning the language of their canine companions. Dogs communicate in many ways, including body language, scent, and of course barks, whines, and growls, but barks are likely the first thing you think of when you consider dog communication. And according to Dr. Stanley Coren’s book, "How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication," there is far more complexity involved than you might realize.
Barks made in different situations sound different and likely have different meanings. They are not a one-size-fits-all vocal signal, and they definitely serve a greater purpose than simply saying “hey” or “look out.” They are also emotionally complex. Dogs don’t just bark when they are excited, although it can seem that way when they are trying to get your attention. They bark when they are frightened, lonely, surprised, irritated, and more. That means there are different barks for different moods, as well.
A dog can vary the pitch of his bark, the number of barks in a row, and the space between barks in order to change the bark’s meaning. In terms of pitch, the lower the bark, the more serious the dog. For example, a dog enjoying playtime will tend to have a higher-pitched bark than one that is warning off intruders or disciplining a rude companion. Consider the barks your dog makes when a stranger is coming up the front walk compared to those he makes when you walk in the door. The first is alerting the house to a possible intruder, whereas the second is saying welcome home” and is likely higher in tone. A lonely dog will also make higher-pitched barks to request companionship, sometimes rising in tone to sound almost like a plaintive yelp.
In addition, the more barks in a row, the more aroused the dog is. A single bark may be given when a dog is surprised or annoyed, as if to say, “huh?” or “knock it off.” On the other hand, a long string of barks likely indicates the dog is far more worked up, such as the prolonged sound of alarm barking.
The space between barks is also worth consideration. The quicker the succession of barks, the more aggressive the dog is probably feeling. For example, when a dog is on the attack, his vocalizations will have the shortest pause between barks of any other barking sound. By comparison, the lonely “don’t leave me alone” bark has far longer pauses between sounds.
According to Hungarian research, humans, even those who don’t own dogs, are better at classifying dog barks than you might think. Prerecorded dog barks were played to human listeners, then the listeners were asked to categorize the barks. They were given a list of possible situations that could have elicited the barking and asked to choose the most appropriate one. In addition, they rated the emotion the barking dog was feeling. The results showed that people can match the bark to the situation with accuracy far higher than chance and can identify the dog’s emotion using the pitch of the bark and the pause between barks.
If you would like to assess your own bark interpretation skills, check out the bark test available here. No matter how well you fare on the test, you can always improve your understanding of dog language by paying more attention to what your dog is telling you when he barks.