Barking is a form of communication for dogs. Communication is described as a transmission of information between one animal and another or between groups of animals with the intent to affect behavior. Typically, communication takes place-using signals that may include verbal, tactile, odors (pheromones), facial expressions and body movements. The communication exchange will usually have three components. These components consist of 1.) the animal sending the message, 2.) the animal receiving the message and 3.) the communication signal. The purpose of the message is to change the attitude, mood or behavior of the recipient. The receivers’ response indicates whether the senders’ message, the function of the behavior has served its purpose.
Communication can take place between the same species (intraspecific) or with another species (interspecific). In the case of dogs, Canis lupus familiaris communication is common in both situations.
According to Lindsay (2000), “…expressive social behavior…exercises an important modulatory effect over emotion and mood.” Communication is a behavior, says Horowitz (2001), having a “goal and function” and communication in higher organisms serves to “regulate social interaction” among members of the group and its purpose to facilitate “cooperative behavior,” according to Lindsay (2000), which is vital to a groups survival.
The importance of understanding how dogs communicate
Understanding how to communicate with dogs can partly be achieved by understanding how dogs developed under domestication, as well as how they adapted to their ever-changing environment. Another reason is partly founded in one’s acceptance or non-acceptance that “animals are endowed with a private experience or self-awareness comparable to our own” which presents a “moral crisis” according to Lindsay (2000) that “would revolutionize how we view and treat animals under our care.” Temple Grandin (1995), suggests dogs are “…akin to the thinking style of artists or musicians” considering things in “…terms of their immediate sensory significance, relevance to the animal’s current motivation state and associated memories” added into the context or situation (Lindsay, 2000).
Lindsay (2000) sums this up saying “meaningful communication would appear to require an internally represented and empathetic experience of the other.”
The subtle social communication occurring between humans and dogs seems to imply that
there exists a shared cognitive or empathetic substrate mediating, assessing, and evaluating
mutual intentions and meaning, as well as deliberating on different possible courses of action
based on parallel appraisals and emotions experienced by the affected communicators.
Understanding how our dogs communicate is essential in helping owners resolve behavior problems related to barking. Communication lacking clear understanding can influence behavior, so establishing clear communication with our dogs should be considered an essential part of ownership.
When does vocalization behavior begin?
Canine vocalization patterns begin during the neonatal stage of development and gradually develop until adulthood. Young puppies’ first sounds consist of whines and yelps, called distress vocalizations, and function to reunite the pup with its mother. These behaviors are replaced gradually with sounds associated with relief of stress or discomfort, contact comfort with siblings, mother and warmth, and by 4 weeks of age a more “adult-like phase of vocal communication begins” (Beaver, 1999).
Barking usually begins during the first 2-4 weeks, occurring in most cases during play-solicitation and is not associated with aggression until after 8 weeks, which usually occurs in response to a growl associated with weaning from the mother. The intent of the aggressive bark gradually increases and changes according to context and is most often associated with food defense or directed toward strange dogs.
The tone usually indicates the purpose with higher tones indicating excitability, play and greeting behavior and lower tones indicating threat or distancing behavior. The function of barking includes greeting, play, alarm, hunting, tracking, herding, vocal alerting, defense, threat, care seeking, distress, contact seeking, and group vocalization and the specific function can be determined based on the contextual situation combined with the dog’s observed body language (Beaver, 1999).
Why do modern dogs bark?
In Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) he says, “[c]an it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of years?” He suggests, “…individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind.”
According to archeological evidence, dogs have been living in close proximity to humans dating back as much as 14,000 years and some speculate even longer. The relationship between early man and dog was probably a commensal type and as dogs became more domesticated, the relationship changed to a more symbiotic type. The most compelling reason for early dogs’ ease of domestication was their willingness to live in close proximity to humans. This advantage not only provided mutual protection for early man but early prototype dogs as well. The early dogs unlike their wolf predecessors barked more, had lower thresholds for fear, and infantile facial features that stimulated human care giving instincts, factors contributing to our future interspecific-bonding process.
Probably one of the earliest advantages dogs provided was alarm barking, providing early dogs selective advantages over their wolf counterparts. Alarm barking not only functioned to serve notice to other predator intruders of their location but also in turn provided warnings for early man. These early alarm barks did not distinguish friend from foe, but most likely functioned as an alarm announcing the presence of a strange animal or person.
Understanding pitch, duration and the context of barking and quite possibly breed contributions will be helpful in identifying the motivation behind the dogs barking. This understanding will contribute to treating a barking problem indicating the dog is simply over-reactive to his environment
Territorial barking originated as a function for communicating long distance with other members of their group or functioning to establish their presence and location to other neighboring competitors. Contrary to this environment, modern dogs do not need this form of communication but this behavior seems to have persisted.
Howling is often the precursor to the beginning of a neighborhood bark fest, and according to Dodman (1999), “the stimulus for howling is certain tones and frequencies of sound” acting as a releasing stimuli for this underlying drive. Fire alarms seem to be a common releasing stimulus for dogs to perform this behavior.
Dodman (1999) cites an interesting observation using “inhalation anesthetic” saying, “…each species goes through a stage of supposedly unconscious involuntary excitement” consisting of “species-typical disinhibition of reflexive behavior.” The most common behavior he observed was paddling their limbs along and that “all species vocalize.” The point, “if dogs vocalize when disinhibited, when excitatory systems discharge unchecked, barking must be a reflexive behavior triggered by excitement” even in a fully conscious state.
Just as we can become overly excited over certain events, dogs it seems are capable of the same inability to control their own actions, i.e. dogs who get overly excited at chasing squirrels, playing games or meeting other dogs and people.
Since we all know dogs bark rather easily in many contexts and with significant triggering stimuli, preventing unwanted barking in the future makes sense and can easily be accomplished by well-informed owners who understand how dogs learn. Dogs learn from barking they can get what they want or when ignored dogs learn that barking is unsuccessful and cease using it as a means of reinforcement.
A good example I saw of owner reinforcement for barking was an Animal Planet show featuring the Bouvier des Flandres and even though classified by the AKC in the herding group, they are considered a working dog first serving as a police, defense, or army dog in Belgium where they originated.
Bouvier’s are considered excellent watchdogs probably needing little encouragement to bark at intruders or even guests. This subject came up during the Animal Planet program with the owner demonstrating by encouraging the dog to bark at an approaching person on the street. The dog responded with a fierce response. In this case, the owner clearly prompted the dogs barking response-facilitating learning to bark in that context. I might question this practice unless the situation is fully thought out and taking into consideration owner absence.
We often forget while raising puppies that what we might consider cute during this period of development may become what we consider a behavior problem later when the dog is no longer the innocent and cute puppy. So if we are going to teach our dogs to respond to certain stimuli, we should be equally prepared to teach the dog appropriate responses to inhibit the response. A reminder might be “Be careful what you reinforce.”
Fear related territorial barking versus confident dog
Often we find that dogs use barking to fear related issues and in some instances because they are confident. In both situations, context and body language can offer the owner clues to the meaning for the dogs barking response.
The fearful dog is often evidenced by the owners’ initial inability to quiet the dog and once the dog does quiet, they retreat to safe locations waiting for the next opportunity to bark at what this dog perceives as a threatening target. Often these dogs bark at service people i.e. the mail carrier, delivery people and often-household guests. Their behavior is continually reinforced every instance a delivery person or guest leaves the house. These dogs learn they can intimidate and remove unwanted people simply by the reinforcing qualities this brings the dog.
The fearful dog will need counter-conditioning and desensitization to help them over their fears and anxieties in those contexts where the dog is uncomfortable about accepting strangers, this may even include other dogs.
Contrary to this, the confident dog will alert owners to the presence of intruders but will quiet when they accept the owners’ decision to introduce guests and strangers. In cases where territory is not the issue, an assertive confident dog can be truly dangerous. These dogs are known to stand their ground perhaps even walk toward you as if daring you to come any closer. Their body postures may not be easy to read due to conflicting emotional states. It would be unwise for one to continue approaching a dog who is advancing while continuing to emit warning barks, thus causing this type of dog to further escalate his warnings to stay away. These dogs also learn their threatening behavior keeps people and strange dogs away and if this behavior causes an owner problems counter-conditioning and desensitization can be effective in changing their perspective and response.
Distress vocalization related most often to separation anxiety and frustration
One of the saddest forms of excessive vocalization is with cases of separation anxiety. These dogs often have other signs indicating an anxious state when faced with being left alone, but the most common is barking.
According to Lindsay (2000), MacLean (1985) “…has proposed that the neural substrates mediating separation distress, maternal care, and play belong to the same paleomammalian portion of the limbic system” and these “socially directed vocalization patterns may have originally evolved to maintain close contact” between the mammalian mother and offspring. In addition, Panksepp (1982) “views distress vocalization as stemming from a primal mammalian emotional system…specifically originating in those areas of the brain that mediate panic and explosive behavior” and further says, “…the major adaptive function…is to sustain social cohesion among organisms whose survival depends on reciprocity of care-soliciting and care-giving behaviors” (Lindsay, 2000).
When dogs are confronted with differing stimuli associated with owner presence and absence these areas of the brain and interconnecting circuits are activated resulting in signs of distress and panic in the dog (Lindsay, 2000).
This type of behavior problem can be complicated and if one suspects their dogs excessive barking is related to issues associated with separation distress I recommend either consulting with a certified veterinary behaviorist or qualified behavior consultant.
According to Lindsay (2000), this same emotional system has evolved to include vocalization behavior functioning to “facilitate social harmony” among conspecifics and is first experienced with littermates and as they mature they continue to use barking as part of their social play repertoire.
One should be familiar with play behavior between dogs, it is important to recognize any escalation between playing individuals. Often play behavior can result in serious fights. According to Lindsay (2001), [p]lay is relatively incompatible with aggression and fear” however “under the influence of escalating frustration or threat” often exhibited by barking “play may slip over into overt aggression.”
Genetics and rearing practices
Lest we forget that dogs have been selectively breed for specific purposes that include barking as part of their repertoire.
Often dogs will exhibit over-reactive personalities often attributed to genetics but one should also consider the environment where the dog was raised. Often dogs raised by over-reactive parents and sterile environments lacking novelty grow up to be hyperactive, over-reactive dogs. The result often includes common behavior problems i.e. attention-seeking behaviors related to jumping, mouthing and barking.
Finally, according to Dodman (1999), “it is always helpful for owners to understand the roots of a problem if they are going to invest time trying to correct it” rather than simply offering “mindless retraining exercises.” However, offering an explanation may not always be possible especially in cases of rescue dogs whose behavioral history may not provide sufficient information to draw definitive conclusions. In these cases, the behavior consultant and perhaps even the certified veterinary behaviorist may simply treat the reinforcing consequences of the behavior taking into consideration any precipitating stimuli that may be causing the barking. Often barking cases require assistance from qualified behavior consultants that may be helpful in finding out precipitating causes that may be contributing to the overall problem and often owners are unaware.
Is punishment appropriate for barking?
Barking is a normal communicative method for dogs and punishment has no place in treating barking problems, in fact, dogs often will bark for attention especially when bored or living in socially deficient environments. A trainer with sufficient knowledge in scientifically grounded positive training principles and canine behavior should be capable of offering a multitude of training options along with management strategies depending on the context of the barking for the average owner and without a more serious problem.
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behavioral problems in dogs. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.
Horwitz, Debra F. (2001). Canine Communication.
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Responsible Dog & Cat
Training and Behavior Solutions
The Art and Science of Responsible Training
Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC, ACCBC, Professional Dog Trainer