Have you seen the stage play, Sylvia, in which a man brings a stray dog home from the park and adopts it? The dog is always played by a woman, who often barks at appropriate (and inappropriate) moments. Except, as a person playing a dog, she doesn’t say BARRR RARRR or WOOF. She says HEY! HEY! HEYHEYHEY!!!
I saw the play with a girlfriend, another dog lover, and we both thought that “Hey!” was a brilliant translation of dog barks. Not to mention being hysterically funny. Every time we saw each other for months we’d bark HEY! HEY! HEY! at each other. And crack up like school girls.
But what are dogs “saying” when they bark? We don’t know, but there are two primary hypotheses about what is going on when they do. 1) Barks are examples of “referential communication,” in that each bark refers to something specific, like an approaching visitor, or a desire to play. In this case the dog is providing information to the recipient(s). In the case of the visitor, it could be “Stranger coming, need back up from the pack!” and/or “Stay away from here unless you have authorization!” We know that at least some animals communicate in this way, including the well-studied Vervet monkey, who has different alarm vocalizations dependent upon the danger.
Here is a fantastic video of some of their calls, which vary dependent of the type of predator. Researchers Seyfarth and Cheney wrote a fascinating book, How Monkeys See the World, about their extensive research that suggests that the vervet’s calls are truly context dependent, and not purely expressions of different emotional states.
This parallels the hypothesis of Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, who argues that the barks of domestic dogs are related more to context than to the dog’s emotional state.
2) The second hypothesis about dog barks is that they do not specifically refer to a person, place or thing, but are expressions of the internal state of the dog. That is the argument of Kathryn Lord, PhD, who made a compelling case for that interpretation at the SPARCS conference last month in Rhode Island. (You can watch all the talks for a membership to SPARCS, although they were live streamed free around the world while they occurred.) Dr. Lord cited the well-known “Morton’s rules,” in which high, “thin” sounds (narrow band) correlate with fear or affiliation, and low, “thick” (broad band) sounds relate to threats. Morton noted that barks, common in many species including deer and monkeys, are sounds that combine the features of both fear and threats. They are used by a variety of animals when in danger, but when they are also unwilling, or unable to run away. They are most common when predators approach a nest or an animal’s young, and thus the adult is in danger but can’t run away without losing its young. You can read an abstract of this argument here, or find the entire article online if you have access to the journal.
What is important to note is that both hypotheses allow for the receiver to be able to distinguish the context in which the bark is given. We all can tell a play bark from a threatening bark to a stranger, because for one thing, it is higher pitched. (Which, of course, follows Morton’s rules.) Thus, knowing that your dog is barking at a stranger approaching the house, instead of barking another dog away from a bone, does not tell us what the noise actually means to a dog. It means that we have learned to associate a particular bark with a particular context, but that could be because the dog is specifically signaling “stranger coming” or is expressing ambivalent emotions that correlate with “Uh oh, trouble coming, I’m worried, pack, come back me up!” along with “You! Stay away from here.” Or, of course (and you knew this was coming), they could mean: HEY! HEY! HEYHEYHEYHEY!!!
Here’s Maggie saying something like that when I knocked on the door as if a visitor had arrived. (I evaluate her face as looking both nervous and expressing a mild threat, which fits Morton’s rules and how she behaves until she gets a sniff of anyone new and then is thrilled to see them. We’re working hard on counter conditioning her to visitors, which involves lots of treats being thrown in the driveway. Tootsie and Willie love it, they get to search for the goodies along with Maggie.)
What do you think? Remember that being able to interpret your dog’s barks (and Farago’s research suggests we are all pretty good at this) does not tell us what the message that is being sent by your dog is. Both hypotheses allow for nuanced interpretations. By the way, I wrote about this issue in 2009, but I revisit it now because it is so interesting and we still have a long way to go to sort it all out. Watch Dr. Lord’s SPARCS presentation when you can, it is very interesting indeed.
By the way, this blog obviously is not about how to deal with a barking problem, but here are two books that do a great job of it: The Bark Stops Here by Terry Ryan and Help! I’m Barking and I Can’t be Quiet by Daniel Estep and Suzanne Hetts.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The bounty of summer is keeping us busy. Picked and pitted enough tart cherries at friend’s for six cherry pies this winter. (Thank you Sandi and Dave!) Picking raspberries at a friends tonight. Lots of green veggies to get into the freezer, weeds to pull and Japanese beetles to pick off my flowers, one at a time (argh!). Working the dogs on sheep almost every day, Maggie sometimes twice. Here’s a photo of the benefits of all that hard work, just a few of the flowers from the garden.