Behaviourist's corner

Do you speak woof?

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From barking and growling to howling and whining, your dog has a wide and complex repertoire of sounds, and by varying their pitch and pace, he can convey many different meanings. How many do you understand?

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.’ 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, explains: ‘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

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.’ Common sounds owners might hear include a medium-pitch stutter-bark (‘Ah-ruff!’) saying ‘Let’s play!’, while less welcome is a single yelp or short, high-pitched bark – ‘Ouch!’ – or series of yelps in response to terror.

Getting to grips with growling

Growls aren’t always hostile. When a dog is happy playing, the growl is higher-pitched than the low, deep, angry growl, and body posture also highlights the difference. Aggressive growls are accompanied by a stare or snarl, and the growling dog often remains stationary.

Other dog language

Overall, dogs bark more than wolves, but howl less. Howling is a long-range, pack-assembling cry; an adult pooch that lives with caring humans is not generally stimulated to produce it, unless shut up alone or kept from bitches on heat. Grunts, the equivalent of our contented sighs, can also be heard when dogs greet each other or people – so if your dog gives a little grunt when he sees you, take it as a sign that he’s pleased!

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