Fortunately, you don’t need a course in canine linguistics to extract the basic message from your pooch, says expert Dr Tamás Faragó of the Family Dog Project, a research group that studies the behavioural and cognitive aspects of the dog-human relationship. ‘Research shows that people are very good at reading the emotional content in a dog’s vocalisation,’ he says. ‘They can usually differentiate whether a sound is positive (friendly, playful) or negative (fearful, aggressive), as they can do with the human voice.’ Growls, for instance, aren’t always hostile: when a dog is happily playing, its growl is higher-pitched than a low, deep, angry growl, and body posture also highlights the difference. As well as listening to your dog, animal behaviourists insist you should pay attention to his body language, and consider the context.
A common mistake is to assume that a barking dog is threatening. Psychologist Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog, gives this insight into understanding dogs: ‘Originally, barks were probably alarm calls to announce to other members of the pack that someone was coming – like a fanfare. That’s why a dog may bark as loudly when its owner approaches the house as when it feels there is an intruder trying to gain entrance.’ The bark is, he says, like a ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ challenge from a sentry. ‘Once the new arrival has been identified, the barking stops and the animal may substitute whimpering and tail-wagging as a friendly greeting for a familiar person. On the other hand, the dog could stop barking but begin growling and threatening an attack if the visitor is perceived as hostile.’
Beyond the barking basics
In dog communication, barks have extended their meaning well beyond their original alarm-call function. With added sound nuances, they convey more subtle messages, such as attention-seeking, boredom, excitement and fear. Overall, a low pitch conveys a more dominant or threatening stance, whereas a high pitch indicates the opposite: insecurity and fear. Stanley points out that ‘A dog whose vocalisation varies is emotionally conflicted. Unable to interpret a situation properly, this dog needs a lot of direction to feel secure.’
If your dog is elderly and has started barking far more often, at odd times (such as the middle of the night), or if the sound of his bark has changed, seek veterinary attention so that serious conditions, such as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), may be ruled out or treated. CDS is a relatively common condition in senior dogs; it causes confusion and the barking may be a distress signal. Medication and environmental changes can help, such as keeping things the same in the house, providing plenty of comfy resting places, and avoiding loud and unpredictable noise and disturbance. You can read more about dementia in dogs here.
We should never assume any changes in an older dog, including vocalisation, are simply due to ‘old age’, so always check with your vet if you notice a significant change in your dog’s vocal behaviour.