What Do Barks “Mean”

One of our alert readers sent a link to a study done by Kathryn Lord of U. Massachusetts on the “meaning” of barks in a variety of species. The link is to a newspaper article written about the study, complete with comments (mostly irate) about the findings of the work. But the study (which I of course don’t think is a waste of money, contrary to some of the negative comments) brings up some very interesting questions that researchers in animal behavior have been thinking about for decades. The over riding question is this: what, exactly, is the message of vocal communication? Take any species, and ask yourself: is the bark, the growl or the song of a particular animal an expression of the animal’s internal state (expressing fear, or affiliation, or emotions that could lead to aggression) or (and?) are some vocalizations more like the abstract aspects of human language, in that each call refers to something in the environment, external to the sender. Scientists call this “referential communication,” meaning that the call is not just an expression of fear or excitement, but a more abstract phenomenon that refers to an event or object external to the self (as in: “There’s a lion under our tree” or “I just found a specific kind of food.”)

What’s fun for us is that this debate now includes the bark of the domestic dog (and high time I would say!). It is shocking (truly) how little the bark of the domestic dog has been studied–there are, after all, over a thousand individual studies on the call note of the Red-winged Black bird.  But thanks to researchers like Sophia Yin and Kathryn Lord, among others, barking has become a vocalization worth study. Yeah for them!

To summarize with painful simplicity, Sophia Yin and Yin and McCowan did some very interesting work (see (J. of Comparative Psychology, 2002, Vol X, p 189-193 and Animal Behaviour, 2004, Vol 68, p 343-355 respectively) confirming our anecdotal observations that different contexts elicit different kinds of barks from dogs. Harsh, low pitched barks were given most often in “disturbance” situations (stranger at the door) and higher pitched, more tonal barks were given if the dogs were playing or were isolated away from their owners. Yin suggests that these differences are interesting and important, countering the arguments of some others whose published work suggests that dogs are so altered from the wild type that barks have no value for ethological study.  Yeah for Yin for making an excellent argument (as I told my Dissertation committe once, if it’s good enough for Darwin, who was fascinated by domestic dogs, surely it’s good enough for us!)

Lord et al, in her recent paper that got so much press (just Google her name and “dog barks,” argues that barking in domestic dogs is best described as a “mobbing call,” a vocalization seen in a large range of species, given in circumstances in which an individual is often ambivalent (wants to approach but afraid to) and has the same acoustic features of other mobbing calls. She and her co-authors argue that barks are purely expressions of emotional states, and have no “referential function.” That does NOT mean that a great deal of communication can’t be relayed, and that the receivers can’t learn a great deal about the environment by listening to the bark of a social partner, but it does mean that a bark is not saying “Large man approaching from the North” or “Timmy is stuck in the well” but something closer to “Ah Uh, What do I do now?” We can learn that the sound of their bark means there is an intruder, but the dog isn’t necessarily trying to communicate that.. or are they?

This is VERY complicated and wonderful topic. I could write for hours, but I’d better not, so I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to comment on what you think about this issue.  To prime your thoughts, I’ll add that I’ve never had the impression that barks were anywhere near as nuanced a communication as visual signals in dogs, AND that there is a growing body of research that has found referential communication in a variety of species, including Prairie Dogs and, ironically, a small, beautiful primate called a Vervet, who I am probably watching right now as you read this . . .

Meanwhile, not “back at the farm” but in Africa: As most of you know, I’m in Africa (having written and pre-posted this before I left). This is a photo I took on a previous trip of the famous Vervet Monkeys, known to all students of animal behavior because researchers Seyfarth and Cheney spent over 20 years studying their vocalizations, and showing that they truly do use “referential communication.” They have different alarm signals (and responses) for flying predators (who they run DOWN the tree and hide from), terrestrial predators (who they run UP the tree to escape) and snakes (who they run into the grasses and mob). It’s great research, using lots of playbacks that show that although the young can physically produce all the calls, they give them to the wrong triggers at first (at any flying bird for example) and the adults generally  ignore them until they learn to distinguish an eagle from a vulture. Cool stuff, and seeing the monkeys live, right next to our dinner table (as we might be right now!) is a thrill for me beyond description. Besides, how many male mammals have testicles that are robin’s egg blue? Well, Vervets do… but sorry, this photo is of a Vervet female and her new born infant. They are in a tree that was just a few feet from our table, beside a Masai Warrior who usually stays in the dining area to shoo them off our tables if need be!


  1. Shannah says

    My dog rarely barks, but she goes through the motions of barking whenever she wants something from me, as in she snaps her jaws so that they make an audible sound. It’s not a vocal sound, it’s a snapping of her jaws together. She comes and sits in front of me, “pops” her jaws, and stares at me, waiting for me to get her what she wants. She developed this form of communication herself, as a puppy, as a way to alert me that she needed outside. My dog can bark, and will if there is someone at the door or a squirrel outside, but she rarely barks at me or other humans. I haven’t encountered this behavior in any other dog that I’ve had, and I wonder how it fits in with the studies that you cited. Perhaps this is an example of a dog who “didn’t read the dog manual”? Or maybe it is a visual symbol rather than a vocal one? If I ignore her “popping” she will escalate into a real bark. She also does this to other humans and dogs (who, to be anthropomorphous, often seem a bit confused…).

    Thanks for spurring my thoughts a bit more. I’m going to check out those studies!

    (And I always enjoy reading your blog, though I rarely comment!)

  2. Alexandra says

    I agree that dogs seem to have a lot more to “say” visually. This is all very subjective but my dogs seem to me to bark for just a few reasons:

    1. Alarm. There are different pitches and rhythms for friend, enemy, generic thing of interest and “Aaaaahhh what the heck is that?!” (you know, that bwoowoowoowoof rapid fire one)

    2. Frustration. Both dogs will bark at eachother and occasionally me, after trying to solicit play and getting no response. My younger dog has a particularly ear-shattering bark which he no longer uses on me but will still use on my other dog when she has a toy that he wants. Usually I redirect him, but if I let things play out from curiosity, they usually end with the older dog looking disgusted and annoyed and leaving the bone to younger dog.

    3. Distress. My older dog never did this, but my younger dog is a momma’s boy and gets anxious when I leave him. As a puppy in crate training he gave this distressed sounding yelp a LOT. He’s fine now but he will yelp in agility class if I push his comfort zone too much when he is tethered and I’m walking a course far away. He does it at the vet as soon as I arrive to pick him up if I’ve had to leave him there; I imagine he hears me.

  3. Stephanie Jackson says

    I am writing not specifically on the barking topic, but because I need help in another area… maybe something to talk about in a future blog. We are caring for my in-laws aussie and she has an extreme case of urination in the house. She is pottie trained, but will urinate (I assume submissive urination) at random times. We repeat the same actions multiple times (like putting a leash on her) and what will not effect her 10 times will suddenly cause her to urinate. We do not make eye contact, ignoring her actions (when she pees), work on prasing her when she does good, etc. I have used many of the training tips I have heard from others, but am at a standstill with improvement.
    Any advice?

  4. says

    I agree with Trisha that body language and visual cues are much more important to dogs than vocalization. I often find myself being led by head turns, tail twitches, and that all important eye roll that says “I want to be over there, now” or my favorite “the treats are here.” There’s also no denying the visual huff of an adolescent pug whose just been told “no.” That said, I think vocal communication in dogs is primarily an expression of internal state. Although, it can often do double duty as the expression is “hey, there’s a thing! Over there! I don’t know what it is, but it’s there? What should I do to it? Is it for me? It’s there!”

  5. says

    Trish will likely not be able to access this in her short time spans, but my sister sent me this video link. Thought it might be appropriate. Maybe the travelers can tell us later just how closely these singers captured the sounds of a rain storm in Africa!

    This fun YouTube video features a 1980s pop classic. The rock band Toto scored their biggest hit with Africa in 1982. The song is instantly recognizable. But it has been reinvented.
    Perpetuum Jazzile is an a cappella jazz choir from Slovenia. It

  6. Liz F. says

    In attributing barks to internal states (instead of thinking of barks as descriptors of outside stimuli), I wonder about one scenario in particular:

    My young dog, Nala, often tries to initiate play from people and dogs with an amalgam of vocalizations; she combines low, growl-like barks with high-pitched demand barks. In one long, rolling breath she exclaims, “rrrrowl-rowl-yee-arpfff.” She starts deep and finishes high. If myself or my older dog responds with a look-away, Nala repeats either the beginning rowl or the ending arpff with a painfully loud crescendo.
    Seems like she’s going through a range to see what, if anything, will solicit a response. She does seem to be expressing frustration, but if applying Dr. Yin’s findings, she’s communicating both a

  7. Ellen Pepin says

    My dogs both have different barks for different situations. My collie has a high pitched, and somewhat annoying, bark if she is excited (sees a squirrel or rabbit). If there is someone near the house (UPS man), her bark is much lower and is often accompanied by a throaty growl. The barks of our shepherd mix are varied as well. I don’t know if they’re trying to convey anything beyond emotion or there’s someone at the door, but I’ve learned the different sounds for each situation.

  8. ABandMM says

    My dog “barks” when she wants to go out. She will sit and stare at the basket where the leashes are kept and bark. At first it is just one sharp sounding bark. She keeps barking until I get up and take her out and if I dally too long, the bark becomes more pronounced and sounds more like a growl.

    When I do take her out, she does indeed have business to do. So as annoying as the bark can get, especially if I ask for just a few more minutes to finish what I am in the middle of doing, it is much better than the alternative!

  9. Kat says

    I’m never even really thought about it I’ve always simply known that Ranger’s barks have meaning. Some barks mean there’s an intruder (although we’re often able to see the raccoon or other wild visitor that is setting him off). Some barks mean “please, don’t leave me here alone while you all go off.” Other barks mean please, play with me. And a very soft low bark addressed to me means he needs to go out. I find it fascinating that he barks softly at me who will listen and respond promptly or tell him how long he has to wait before I can take him out and while the “barked word” (for lack of a better term) that he says so quietly to me is the same when he says it to my husband the volume is much greater. My husband can and will ignore Ranger when he’s asking to go out. Apparently Ranger figures if he tells him more loudly he won’t be able to ignore him.

    I also find that I understand barks better when I’m not thinking about it. One night Ranger woke me up with barking in a way that I knew meant he needed me right now. (He sleeps outside by his choice). I dragged on some clothes, grabbed a leash and stumbled out to his space. I put him on the leash and we raced down the street to one of his bathroom places (he won’t go on his property) where he had explosive diarrhea. When he was done he licked my hands and we walked calmly home and he spent a peaceful remainder of the night. I suspect that part of the reason we have such a great relationship and bond is because I listen, or at least try to.

  10. Lacey H says

    With my dogs and my fosters, I’ve only been able to distinguish two types of barks: demand (come here!) or alert (something dangerous or different). That’s apart from the unfortunate dogs who seem to get “stuck” barking and don’t know how to stop.

  11. Anna says

    I have now had two Pembroke Welsh Corgis, the first one had maybe 100 different vocaliztions and/or facial looks to communicate with me all kinds of things from pure joy to nervious fear and everything inbetween. He was always “talking” to me and he always got his point accross, he was a joy to live with because of this. Unfortunately Henry passed away in January, my new boy Rudy is only 8 months old and not so skilled in “talking” yet but he is trying for all he is worth to learn to communicate with me or perhaps teach me to communite with him. I hope studies continue on this topic, I know I will continue to study Rudy’s communications.

  12. Mary Beth says

    Very interesting. There is a discussion on a coonhound chat list right now about all the different kinds of barks and noises hounds make and what they mean, i.e. chop, bawl, bay, bark, etc.
    I’ve seen some information from German translations, and it seems like the Germans prize some of the noises dogs make while hunting and have a rich vocabulary to describe all those noises.
    My Weim makes a noise just like Chewbaca. I think its his version of a hounds bay, but he doesn’t have the voice box to make a nice song, so it comes out like Chewbaca.
    I think my newest hound puppy “laughed” at me yesterday. Its the first time I’ve heard first hand that laughing sound that Patricia Simonet has researched.

  13. says

    I live with a slew of sled dogs. For the most part they are a quiet bunch (as I believe most happy sled dog yards are) – heck yesterday one of my neighbours dropped by and I didn’t even know she was in the yard till she knocked on the door. If it is a familar vehicle coming into the yard or a car that drives in during ‘normal’ hours they feel no need to comment, however drive into the middle of the night and they will all let me know long before you are in the yard!
    Anyway, the different noises that are yard makes are dramatic. Normally a few times a day they will ‘sing’, it’s a very content howl that often happens after we have been doing something with the dogs (ie. after feeding, after running dogs – I call it the ‘thank you’ howl). Sometimes (rarely) they will answer the neighbourhood coyotes. I’ve never been able to figure out what motivates them to answer. How close the coyotes are doesn’t seem to matter, it seems to be more when they feel the need to answer something the coyotes are saying.
    There is also the ‘loose dog’ bark, which indicates one of our own dogs is somewhere it shouldn’t be; there is the very excited ‘we are about to be fed or run’ barking; the wildlife has wandered close to or into the yard bark; plus a few more.
    They do have an ‘alarm bark’ but not much in their lives gives they cause to express that.

    I have gotten good enough at telling these barks apart that I can do it in my sleep – nightly howls don’t even wake me up, but any of the problem barks will have me out of bed and moving before I’m really even awake (for the ‘wildlife nearby’ bark I usually lie awake for a minute or so to see if my guardian dog can handle the situation – she usually does).

    They will also sing along with me if I start to howl. Sometimes depending on their mood, they will start if someone else (as in another person) tries to get them to howl, but they will always give me some feedback if I howl at them, even if sometimes it seems less enthusiastic then other times.
    I actually use that as tool during heavy training and racing. I find that even if we are all tired or in a less then terrific mood out there, if we get a good howl going on a snack break, it picks up all our attitudes!

    Anyway, I think dog vocalizations are a fasinating subject! Great topic Trisha!!!

    Karen Ramstead
    Iditarod Finishing and Best in Show winning Siberian Huskies

  14. Shaya says

    I met Kathryn Lord at Hampshire college and she showed me some of her work on the development of prey sequence in different breeds of dogs. I think she is quite talented and agree that her research is far from a waste from money.

    Lord’s bark research makes a lot of sense. I’ve never seen any of my dogs bark that seemed anything more complex than “somewhere’s here!” or “come let me in!” And I’ve also seen dogs bark in frustration, particularly when clicker training and they haven’t figured out what to do to get a click and treat. My dog has two distinct barks, the intruder one, which is a lot lower and then a squeaky, high bark when he wants to come in. If the “let me in” bark is a learned response from the alarm bark than how did it get to be so different? It seems that he clearly knows the difference.

  15. says

    I have a complicated question for you. I have 2 dogs with pancreatic insufficiency, and one of the two has had dramatic personality changes: from fearless and confident to scared of his own shadow. He’s become an anxiety barker/whiner. From the epi groups I’ve learned that both excessive fear and excessive aggression is not uncommon in dogs that have epi.
    I know with Kenai, the fear is intense and unresponsive to reconditioning–2 trainers have given up on working him through it. He will one day be afraid of something or someone he’s been around all his life, it will last a few weeks, then just go away.
    My observations is that he really can’t seem to help it, as if his brain is stuck in a permanent flight response. Other dogs seem stuck in a permanent fight response. There is not a shred of research about epi and behavior that I can find, so “why” is as good a question as “what can we do about it”.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

  16. Ignacio says

    There’s a very interesting read in Stanley Coren’s “How to speak Dog” about how adult barking was shaped into dogs by selective breeding, and also a classification of barks with their hypothetical meaning. Adult wolves apparently seldom bark, it’s only the puppies that bark like dogs do.

    Thanks for keeping the blog alive while you’re out there, these are really interesting topics.

  17. Steve B says

    I read a couple of the articles about this and my first thought is I think it depends on how narrow the definition for “bark” is. When I have the time I’d like to trya dn track down the actual study. At the very least, it opens the subject for debate, which can be a good thing.

  18. isobel calladine says

    i have one question for you. why is it a dog barks for absoluely no reason apart from the fact that he likes hearing the sound if his own voice. i have neibours next door with two alsation dogs, and every day they bark.

  19. Theresa says

    Hi I’m so annoyed at my dog he keeps barking every morning at 5 to be fed and don’t stop till I do feed him he’s a year old and it started with my husband letting him out at that time in the morning now I can’t get it out of him I’ve tried saying lay down till I’m blue in the face but he won’t stop till he’s fed so I have to get up to feed him to stop him how can I stop him from barking and feed him at a normal time thanks

  20. Trisha says

    Hey Teresa! Let’s see, your dog barks and you feed him. Your dog barks and you feed him. Hummm!? I’d let him out at 5 but absolutely ignore the barking (ouch! sorry, I know it’s hard, I’ve been through it myself!). Feed him then an hour later or so, or even longer. If you don’t, he’ll start waking you up earlier and earlier. Good luck. (Ear plugs? :-))

  21. Yevette says

    First, thanks for all the work put into the website. The barking and/or howling that I have observed always has a reason. The perpetual barking of a dog that is home alone may simply be frustation. I’m curious if the study made observation of the more complex displays of vocalization in dogs/animals. The upward turned nose of a howl projects sound further than a low warning bark presented in a stalking position. There is the higher pitch excited bark that seems to always face the object of interest vs the slightly lower tone as the dog turns to look for support. We can tell when a train is coming toward us vs away due to the physical properties of the sound wave. Surely, the acute ears of our dogs pick up even more subtle information than do we. I am convinced they both use and respond to these subtleties. We can ‘see’ that they use visual signals in a complex manner however their hearing is far better comparatively. They also seem to present different scent in combination with the the type of bark further discriminating any confusion to the message being presented. I can actually smell my dog when her anxiety is heightened. Such an interesting subject.

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