Most owners can easily tell a bark that means their dog is sounding a warning, or yelping in pain. But what about the other barks, the ones that could mean anything from, “I’m bored, hungry, or tired,” to “Take me for a walk.” Do you know what your dog’s barks mean? Like humans, dogs have a different tone of voice, or bark, for conveying what they're thinking or feeling. Unlike humans, all dogs communicate with the same language. Like us, dogs communicate (bark) when they are experiencing different moods. They bark when they’re frightened, lonely, surprised, irritated, or happy, confused, or excited. If you pay attention to your dog you can quickly learn their language as well as they learn ours - at least enough to communicate general information!
Dr. Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc, FRSC, an animal expert, says the language of dogs is universal and is the same from breed to breed. For instance, if you learn to understand your pug’s barks, you’ll understand your neighbor’s German Shepherd’s barks as well. The bark itself will sound different of course, but Coren says the communication is the same and is always based on three elements of the bark: the pitch of the bark, the frequency or repetitiveness of the bark, and the duration of the bark.
One thing we all know, our dogs barks do mean something even if we can’t quite understand exactly what. They’re not just making noise. They are communicating, or trying to, just as we do with them. Their language is far easier to understand once you learn to listen. Unlike humans, who have a complex and varied communication pattern, experts like Dr. Coren believe all dogs speak pretty much the same language and that any barking is an alarm sound of some sort. An alarm isn’t necessarily a danger alarm. It can be anything from, “Quick, rally the pack, danger is approaching!” to a more low key alert like, “Oh! You’re home! Yay! Good to see you. Let’s go to the dog park!”
So let’s look more closely at what pitch, duration, and frequency mean.
Duration of the bark. Duration is how long something lasts. If your dog senses an intruder in the house chances are his barking is going to be of a longer duration than if he sees a squirrel run across your porch - unless the squirrel decides to taunt your dog and keeps running back and forth. If your dog is making a long, low pitched bark accompanied by a threatening growl, chances are he’s ready to do battle with whatever the threat is. However, if he’s not quite sure if he wants to take on the intruder, or is fearful, and his growls will come in shorter bursts, or only briefly. If the barking is of a shorter duration, your dog is probably seriously reconsidering his ability to deal with the threat in front of him. The longer the barking, the more likely your dog considers the threat serious.
Frequency of the bark. One of the most famous dogs of all time was Lassie - a collie on a television show by the same name. Every week Lassie would save or help Timmy, her 10-year old human owner, and her animal friends. The show’s theme and its characters changed over time, but the classic moments in each show involved Lassie barking and barking and Timmy or someone else saying, “What is it Lassie? What are you trying to say?” And Lassie would just keep barking until her human friends figured out what she was trying to tell them.
Lassie’s family paid attention to repeated barking and so should we. Repeated barking indicates a degree of excitement and urgency from your dog. The faster or more frequent the barking, the more urgent the issue. If your dog barks occasionally, there’s probably nothing urgent happening. Multiple barking bursts over a long period of time is more likely to be something urgent.
Pitch of the bark. Finally, notice the pitch of your dog’s bark. Is it high, low, whiny? Larger dogs playing with smaller dogs may make a high, whimpering bark. This is a signal they’re trying to communicate they’re friendly, safe, weaker, and submissive to the smaller animal. Higher pitched barks generally mean playtime. The lower the pitch (like a human’s lower voice pitch) the more intimidating and serious they’re trying to be. Notice the difference in pitch in an excited dog barking because you just told them you’re all going to the dog park, and one who senses a threat in a person or animal.
It sounds complex, but it’s not. Once you start paying attention to your dog’s body language, barking patterns, pitch, and frequency, you’ll figure out what they’re trying to tell you. Even people without dogs intuitively know what an animal is trying to communicate. If you’d like to put your skills to the test, try seeing how you do with this test on NOVA. Just click on “Launch Interactive” to see how many barks you recognize and understand. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/meaning-dog-barks.html
Dr. Stanley Coren’s books: The Intelligence of Dogs, How to Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Dog, The Pawprints of History, Why Does My Dog Act That Way, How Dogs Think and The Modern Dog.