While scientists have long known that barking is more than a random noise, recent research by Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and its dedicated Family Dog Project have given rise to headlines suggesting it is possible to speak 'dog'. We spoke to Helen to find out if this is possible and for guidance on how to interpret your dog's bark.
The great dog barking debate
The Hungarian study suggests that dogs vary the pitch, tone and frequency of their barks according to their emotional states. The results show that humans recognise high-pitched sounds as more emotionally intense and longer growls as a sign of physical aggression, but as yet there's no standard set of dog-barking rules.
This is partly because the conditioning of individual animals has a large part to play. 'Your dog will repeat any behaviour that successfully gets the desired outcome,' explains Helen. 'They can quickly learn to bark in order to get their owner to find them a toy or make their dinner. In this way, dogs may seem to be communicating their desires, but perhaps not in the way we mean when we think of “talking”.'
Your dog dictionary
Since reactions can vary so greatly, Helen recommends keeping a 'bark diary' taking into account every aspect of the situation and your dog's physical responses, not just the noises they make. Here are some key sounds to look out for:
Growl - Your dog may let out these deep noises in the face of a perceived threat, but also during a fun game of tug, explains Helen. 'These two growls sound different and will be accompanied by completely different body language, making it possible for us to differentiate between them with practice.'
Bark - 'These sounds are used to warn off threats or alert family members to something in the environment, but are also used during greetings, play, and to get attention,' says Helen. A dog that thinks it's on 'sentry duty' will often let off a string of alarm barks at the postman or passers-by, watching them walk away and believing that their barking is the reason. Likewise, your dog will yap if he thinks it will get him attention from you: 'In this case, the pattern of barks is interspersed with silences, where the dog may listen, or even look at you to see if you are going to respond.'
Howl - 'Although less commonly heard in pets, this is considered a social call to family group members,' says Helen. 'Howling can also be a symptom for dogs with isolation distress.' As countless YouTube videos will attest, some dogs will also let out these long, arching calls in response to certain theme tunes or musical instruments. Helen says the purpose of this is unclear: 'Perhaps it just feels good to “sing along”,' she says.
Whimper - 'This may happen when a dog is frightened or in pain, but can sound similar to when a dog is whining in excitement about getting out of the car at his favourite walking spot – hence the importance of considering the context and body language' says Helen. 'Both whimpering and whining are the result of high arousal, tense muscles and increased respiratory rate.'
Grunt - 'Not all dogs grunt, but if you have a grunter at home, you will know about it!' says Helen. 'The sheer bliss of an ear rub or the pleasure of greeting you at the front door will give rise to soft throaty grunts or moans.'
How to deal with excessive dog barking
'Whether or not barking is considered excessive depends a lot on the causes and whether the owner thinks it's more than usual,' says Helen. The trick to excessive barking is to find a solution that works for you and your pet. Here are Helen's top three tips for dealing with problematic barking:
1. Look at the context
'It's important to understand when barking increases and what the causes are,' explains Helen. Reasons range from learnt attention seeking, where barking has previously resulted in a desired outcome, like a walk or a toy, to “yelling”, where dogs anxiously try to communicate when all other methods haven't worked. Pain, fear, stress and confusion from old age or hearing loss, for example, can also manifest themselves through barking. If you have an adult dog who has suddenly become more vocal, it could be a sign that something is up. Tracking down the cause can be tricky, so remember to call in an expert pet behaviourist or trainer if you're struggling.
2. Experiment with your reactions
Every time your dog barks, you can accidentally reinforce their behaviour. 'Tweaking daily routines and changing how you interact with your dog can sometimes help stop repeats,' Helen explains. She recalls an adolescent Weimaraner named Rosie who would watch cars arrive from the front window, working herself into a frenzy by the time guests walked up the path, rang the doorbell and entered the house. As part of her treatment plan, Helen moved the dog's bed to the back of the house so that she was no longer as close to overstimulation and worked with the owner on her own reactions.
3. Use positive reinforcement
'We would not dream of punishing a cat for meowing or a horse for whinnying, so why would we shout at a dog for barking?' says Helen. 'Treatment should always address the motivation without using punishments, which can make the problem worse.' Helen suggests using a positive alternative response that will distract from the barking. For example, with Rosie the Weimaraner, Helen and Rosie's owner taught the dog to retrieve and hold a toy whenever the doorbell went. When a big fuss was made of her and what she had in her mouth, Rosie learned that this was a far better way of saying 'hello'.