The Language Of Dog Barks: How Dogs Learned To Talk To Us

The dog has been blessed with a precious gift – the ability to bark and tell us exactly how they feel.

Barking may not seem like such a miracle when your dog wakes you up to let you know the garbage truck is stealing your trash bin, or when they won’t stop threatening what just might be a ghost in the corner of your bedroom.

But barking really is a gift. There’s a few things you don’t know about barking that will change your perspective next time you hear a woof.

Wolves Don’t Bark, But Dogs Do

Wild ancestors of the modern dog, such as wolves, rarely bark. They yip, howl and whine, but don’t typically emit that sharp, loud WOOF that we hear from our four-legged family members on a daily basis.

For wolves, barking makes up just 2.3% of their vocalizations. They might bark to alert or warn off an intruder, while dogs bark in a wide variety of situations: when they’re bored, lonely, scared, happy, or on alert.

Barking Is For Babies

One possible reason that dogs evolved to bark is because it’s a puppy-like behavior.

Dogs were originally bred for juvenile traits. A baby wolf has floppy ears, a short snout, big eyes and a round head, and they bark much more often than adult wolves. Sound like anyone you know?

In our quest to breed the cutest, friendliest, most babyish dog-to-be, we may have inadvertently created the modern woofer.

A Woof Away Keeps Intruders Away

As annoying as it is when your dog barks at everyone who dares walk past your home, this was likely a highly desired trait in ancient human history.

It’s likely that some humans bred together the barkiest pre-dogs to alert their families and ward off bears, thieves and other intruders.

A Bark For All Occasions

The most fascinating reason dogs bark? Because they live and breathe for us.

Dogs, as you’ve noticed, don’t only bark when they’re on alert. They also bark when they want food, attention, a walk or a play session.

Humans are not excellent at decoding the subtle body language of a dog. Failing to get our attention in their usual, wolf-like ways, dogs may have learned to use verbal communication to “talk” to us.

A 2005 study suggests that humans are able to distinguish a dog’s emotion and context just from the pitch, tone and rate of their bark. What’s more, the humans’ success at judging recordings of barking were similar whether they were experienced dog owners, owners of the same dog breed used in the study, or had never owned a dog at all. 

A separate study found that blind people have similar abilities.

It seems that you don’t have to own or see a dog to understand one. Their vocal expressions are so similar to ours that it’s easy for us to tell what they’re trying to say. It’s almost as though they’re evolving to learn to speak to us.

Dogs Decode Barks Too

In a 2008 study, researchers explored whether dogs could discriminate emotions and context from other dogs’ barks. They played back different recordings as they tracked each subject’s heart rate. When the dogs listened to a dog alert-barking, their heart rates skyrocketed.

That’s probably why when one of my dogs barks, they set off the other – even when they can’t seem to hear or see the same hidden danger. Dogs who live in the same household will back each other up. THey really do bark first and ask questions later.

Did Cow Really Laugh That Day?

One of my favorite blog posts is Can Dogs Laugh? in which I share that time Cow, in her former, free-roaming life, followed me into a dollar store. She wagged with her whole body and barked a few loud, joyous barks – as though she were laughing. I thought it was hilarious to see her walking into a dollar store with such carefree confidence and joy. Local dogs were often seen near doorways in that town, but were too afraid to enter stores. She seemed pleased with herself, joyous.

But after I wrote that post, I’ve wondered if I may have anthropomorphized her too much. Was she really laughing with her whole body? Were her barks actually scared, or even demanding for my attention?

I heard joy in her voice, and while I do not have a recording from that day or a solid memory, I trust that I know what I heard – a joyous, attention-seeking woof. She was born to “talk” to me, and the best I can do is listen.

A Woof Is A Beautiful Thing

It’s too easy to take the magic of barking for granted. How rare is it for humans to listen to our dogs?

Instead, we feel embarrassed when our dogs bark in front of strangers. We want our dogs to be well-behaved, and only bark when we want them to. We rightfully panic when our dogs bark, bothering our neighbors and angering our landlords.

That’s why so many turn to stifling devices – bark collars, tin cans full of pennies, spray bottles – to get our dogs to stop barking.

When we do this, we can get our dogs to stop, but we also cut off their most meaningful, most potent avenue of communication. Just because they can’t say, “I’m unsure!” or “I’m scared!” “I’m lonely!” or “I don’t like that guy!” doesn’t mean they stop feeling that way. When they can’t bark, they may find other means to express themselves. Dogs with separation anxiety may begin to destroy furniture or lick their paws raw. Dogs who are fearful may bite without warning.

Listening to your dog is the first step to controlling unwanted barking. Understand your dog’s underlying reason for barking; take time to listen to what they’re trying to say.

If your dog is scared, work on making them feel secure. If they’re lonely, teach them to entertain themselves in a healthy way. Only then will you have a quieter home without breaking down that bond that dogs have spent hundreds of years forming with us. 

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