Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
The Function of Dog Barking
Not all barks are created equal, there are different types of dog vocalizations. We often hear people complain, "My dog barks, how can I stop them?" First, you must understand what is causing the behavior in the first place.
Every dog owner can likely attest that dogs bark for specific reasons and the barking tone changes in different contexts. Indeed, there are different types of dog barking and Feddersen-Petersen identified several using a sonograph and then analyzed them for meanings, functions, and emotions
We are not dogs and we cannot read their minds. However, by looking at the context of a behavior and the accompanying body language, we can make an educated guess as to what they are trying to communicate.
Barking as a Result of Domestication
A dog's barking repertoire has grown due to domestication. If we take a look at the domesticated dog's ancestor, the wolf (Canis lupus), we are surprised to learn that only 2.3% of wolf communication comprises of barks. According to Schassburger, wolf barks only occur in instances of warning, defense, or dissent.
Dogs were selectively bred for their appealing traits. Barking worked as an alarm to alert of intruders or dangerous animals. When hunting, dogs vocalize to alert the hunter to the presence of animals. The term "barking up the wrong tree" likely derives from the coonhound's practice of barking at treed raccoons. When the practice of farming spread, herding dogs used their barks to get stubborn cows and sheep moving.
With the farm fox experiment, it was discovered that neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits, is often seen as a byproduct of domestication. As dogs were domesticated, they started to resemble wolf puppies even during adulthood. The following genetic shift in appearance occurred:
- Reduced camouflage in coat colors
- Shortened muzzles
- Enlarged eyes
- Floppy ears
Along with these juvenile traits came behavioral changes, which included barking, whining, and signs of submission (all juvenile and puppy-like behaviors). Some ethologists label dog barking as being "non-functional." The barking behavior, according to their theory, is a genetic variation due to domestication, separate from the influence of living alongside humans. Other researchers disagree and argue that dog barking is strongly guided by social interactions.
Every dog owner can attest that their dog's tone changes in different contexts. Feddersen-Petersen identified several different vocalizations using a sonograph, and subsequently analyzed the meaning, function, and emotion behind these recordings. Let's explore the different types of barking.
Barking Type Quick Reference
|Sound||Type of Bark||Purpose|
High-pitched bark often repeated in a series.
Serves as an invitation to initiate play; often coupled with friendly body language.
Repetitive and increases in intensity. May be mixed with growls.
Alerts owner to intruder or perceived threat (friend or stranger). Stems from fear and insecurity.
One or two sharp, sequential barks.
Usually warranted. Alerts owner to potentially unusual, dangerous, or concerning circumstances. Should be acknowledge by owner.
High-pitched and repetitive, with brief pauses.
Indicates exuberance, and is commonly used when greeting owners or pleasurable activities. Body language is expressive. Can indicate lack of impulse control.
High-pitched and repetitive, lips pulled back.
Fear of the unfamiliar. May be coupled with aggressive posturing and/or avoidance.
1) Play Barking
The play bark is a high-pitched bark often repeated in a series. It lacks intensity and is often accompanied by a play bow, where the dog's front legs are lowered and the rump is in the air. The tail will often wag in anticipation. This behavior is used to initiate a play session.
Play barking is used among dogs and also around humans. Feddersen-Petersen observed that some play barking involved playful growls and noisy vocalizations. Some dogs may bark because of anticipated play, and some exhibit this behavior when watching other dogs play.
Even among this category of barking there are different variations of vocalizations. Some dogs may just bark because of the excitement of play and some others bark when the assume the cheerleader or "fun police" role when watching other dogs play.
2) Territorial Barking
Territorial barking is often seen when an intruder enters a dog's territory. The barking is repetitive and will increase in intensity as the intruder approaches. This vocalization may be mixed with growls. The tail may also be wagging nervously (not all tail wags are friendly).
While this territorial vocalization is bold and aggressive, this behavior often stems from fear. The dog feels intimidated and perceives the intruder as a threat to their security and comfort. Many dogs feel reassured when their owner intervenes and addresses the situation, whether the intruder is a friend or a stranger.
This form of vocalization is often unintentionally reinforced because, from the dog's perspective, the barking is what sends the intruder away. Dogs who bark at the mailman tend to repeat this behavior because the mailman eventually leaves.
3) Alarm Barking
An alarm bark consists of a bark or two that is sharp and meant to inform the owners about the presence of an intruder or something that might be out of the norm. The bark may be abrupt and startling.
Dog owners should acknowledge the bark and address the root cause of the alert. Acknowledging the alarm gives the dog reassurance.
Some dog owners like to say "thank you," and will slip the dog a treat. Alternatively, some dog owners may rightfully be concerned that offering treats will encourage barking. In reality, you will be rewarding the dog for stopping from barking, as most dogs will stop barking the moment you say "thank you" and come to anticipate the treat.
Ignoring this form of barking, may lead to insistent barking, as the dog is trying to inform the owner about the situation, but it's going to deaf ears. Left unattended, this form of barking may morph into territorial barking as the dog feel a need to take responsibility of checking out the source of a potential intrusion and possibly sending the intruder away.
4) Excitement Barking
Excitement barking is an expression of a dog's joie de vivre. It occurs when a dog is anticipating or experiencing a pleasurable or happy event. This vocalization is high-pitched and repetitive, with brief pauses. It is typically associated with pacing, jumping, spinning, and wagging. Excitement barking involves some sort of arousal, and to some extent, demonstrates a lack of impulse control. Some dogs may grab a toy and walk around with it in their mouth while whining. My Rottweiler likes to do this when I come home.
I will never forget the excitement barking emitted by a Labrador who was eagerly anticipating her turn to be released for search and rescue training. The same dog would also vocalize when she was greeting her owners. The owner of this Labrador was a training colleague of mine. Even though the barking may have seemed excessive, the owner did not want to suppress it because it denoted the dog's excitement and eagerness to work.
5) Fearful Barking
The barking of a fearful dog may be confused with aggression, but to the trained eye, there are several distinctive features:
- Flattened ears
- Commissure of the lips pulled back
- Whites of the eyes showing
- Pacing in a nervous manner
This form of barking is a distance-increasing signal, meaning that the dog is hoping the trigger moves away. This behavior is often seen in small, under-socialized dogs (the infamous "ankle-biters" that bark and appear to lunge the moment you turn away). Dogs of any size can display this behavior.
The barking of a fearful dog is high-pitched and repetitive. The affected dog may run back and forth, and if on a leash, may walk in a zig-zag fashion. Fear barking may be triggered by sights, sounds, and even smells. Some dogs may even leave a dribble of pee.
Context is a good indicator of whether a dog is fearfully barking. A dog who reacts to an unfamiliar object, such as an upside-down chair, may be exhibiting approach-avoidance. To tackle fearful barking, you will need to identify the trigger and implement a desensitization and counterconditioning program.
Barking Type Quick Reference
|Sound||Type of Bark||Purpose|
Monotone, repetitive bark, often lasting for hours.
Venting due to an under-stimulating lifestyle or environment.
Incessant barking often directed at a desired object or activity.
Due to circumstances beyond the dog's control. Often exhibited with other destructive behaviors. Can be triggered in instances of restriction.
Incessant, non-aggressive behavior directed at a human.
A protest for interaction, engagement, basic care, or stimulation. Often due to neglect.
Whining, yelping, and mournful howling.
A serious behavior problem that is often coupled with destructive behaviors in the house. Professional intervention is typically required.
Mimicked barking triggered by social interaction with other canines.
Environmentally triggered, this vocalization is attributed to outside influence and can be corrected with auditory distractions.
Age-related, non-sensical barking with no apparent trigger.
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Indicates confusion and requires intervention. Dog may be lost, trapped, frightened, or scared due to cognitive decline.
6) Boredom Barking
Yes, dog barking can also take place when a dog is bored. A bored, under-exercised, and under-stimulated dog will start acting out to stay occupied. Dogs are social animals, and they thrive when in contact with their humans. They also need sufficient levels of exercise and mental stimulation. Lack of stimulation is often a cause for behavior problems such as barking, digging, and chewing.
The barking of a bored dog can often be heard by the neighbors. It's a monotone, repetitive bark, that can last for hours. The barking doesn't occur as a response to a particular trigger.
Dogs prone to this form of barking may also engage in destructive behaviors. These undesirable behaviors allow the dog to "vent" off unmet needs. These are self-rewarding behaviors because they trigger a release of hormones that help provide psychological decompression.
Of course, the solution to this type of vocalization is to provide sufficient exercise and mental stimulation. If you work long hours and your dog barks out of boredom, it may help to provide more mental enrichment. Try incorporating interactive toys, doggy daycare, or a dog walker into your weekly routine. Unresolved boredom may lead to frustration barking.
7) Frustration Barking
Ever wondered about how dogs are trained to bark? Well, there are several methods. My first training mentor introduced me to an effective method that seemed to work easily with dogs who loved to play fetch. He would bounce a ball around and get the dog to quiver with anticipation. Then, right when the dog was expecting him to toss the ball, he would suddenly hide it behind his back. This often led to a series of repetitive barks.
These barks were triggered by frustration. The dog was protesting because their favorite toy disappeared instead of being tossed. Frustration vocalization occurs when the dog is prevented from performing a behavior or when something expected does not occur.
Frustration barking often takes place in dogs whose activity is restricted, for example, the dog who is tied up and saw a squirrel. It may come from the dog who wants to go greet other dogs but is restricted by a leash (barrier frustration). Dogs who are enclosed in the kennel or crate and want social interaction may also act out.
While some forms of frustration barking are short-lived, some forms may become a problem. It helps to remove the dog from the frustrating circumstance. Frustration barking may lead to chewing and digging. Dog owners often feel like these behaviors are done out of spite, when actuality, it's just an outward exhibition of stress.
In well-behaved dogs who would never dream of chewing things up, frustration may cause them to feel bored and depressed. Just because a dog is not destroying things, doesn't mean they are happy!
8) Attention-Seeking Barking
Some dogs vocalize simply because you may have inadvertently reinforced the barking behavior with attention. Many dogs crave attention. If your dog is home alone most of the day and you work long hours, your arrival at home is the highlight of their day. They hope that you will play with them, take them for a walk, feed them, and fulfill their basic needs. Imagine how your dog feels when you come home, feed them, and then sit on the couch only to watch your favorite TV shows?
Your dog may walk towards you with a ball, sit next to you for affection, or they may paw at you. Since these behaviors don't work, your dog may revert to vocalizing in your face. As soon as you give your dog attention, bingo! Your dog has found the way to distract you from staring at the TV. Any form of attention may act as reinforcement for attention-seeking; even negative attention is a reward.
Giving your dog the stink eye, yelling at them, or pushing them away, may serve the opposite desired effect. Every time you give in to the barks—play with them, take them for a walk, or give them a toy—you reinforce the behavior.
The only way to suppress this type of barking is to no longer make this form of vocalization work. If your dog is engaging in attention-seeking behavior, it's a sign that they need more exercise and mental stimulation. So, make it a habit to walk your dog and play some games with them when you come home.
9) Separation Anxiety Barking
Many dogs who are left alone and whine and bark for hours at a time are labeled as nuisance barkers, when in reality, they suffer from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety involves distressing behaviors that are triggered when the owner leaves home. The dog enters a state of panic and seeks to be reunited with the owner. This leads to whining, yelping, and mournful howling, as well as several destructive behaviors:
- Digging at the windows and doors
- Urination and defecation
- Sweaty paws
Some dog owners describe the barking and whining as similar to the distress sounds a puppy makes when separated from their mother. Indeed, separation anxiety is a dysfunctional attachment that dogs develop toward their owners.
Many dog owners are not aware that these behaviors take place when they are outside of the home, which is why it is important to record what your dog does in your absence and to have a professional take a look at the footage.
Separation anxiety is a serious issue which causes dog owners to relinquish their pets. Fortunately, these dogs can be helped by a professional behaviorist. Affected dogs may require medication from a vet and an associated behavior modification program.
10) Social Facilitation Barking
Social facilitation, also known as the "audience effect," refers to the tendency for one dog’s behavior to amplify or change based on another’s. Dogs are social animals, and they are naturally predisposed to learning from one another. Many dog owners are aware of these tendencies. Sometimes, dogs can be strategically paired with exemplary dogs from which they may learn good behaviors, but in the same way, dogs may also quickly learn bad habits from other dogs.
My female Rottweiler never jumped up as a puppy, but one day she witnessed my father-in-law's collie mix walk next to me in a bouncy manner mingled with these small jumps. Next thing I know, on my next walk, she started walking in a similar fashion
Your dog may simply bark because they hear other dogs barking. Many times, your dog might not even know why other dogs are barking, but will join in as a result of social facilitation. This behavior can be controlled by using white noise so that the sound of other dogs vocalizing is less salient.
11) Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Barking
As more and more dogs reach old age due to the quality of veterinary care available, they become predisposed to cognitive decline. Also known as Canine Alzheimer's Disease or Dog Dementia, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction causes behavior changes in affected dogs.
The senior dog may bark in a repetitive, monotonous manner, for no particular reason. Sometimes these dogs are barking because they are confused or need to be taken out.
In a dog with Alzheimer's, there may be cognitive changes that cause the dog to get lost in familiar surroundings, especially at night. The dog may get stuck in corners or near obstacles. Afflicted dogs may not recognize their owners, and may fail to respond to familiar commands. This can be frightening or distressing for your dog, and there are medications that a veterinarian can prescribe for the condition.
What Is Your Dog Barking About?
Dogs bark for many reasons, and the list of vocalization types is unexhaustive. Some dogs bark when they are hunting, for example, a pack of hounds can be heard baying when on a "hot trail."
Compulsive disorders may also involve insistent vocalizations. Other barking takes place when mothers communicate with their litter. And of course, then you have dogs trained to bark on command (speak).
What is your dog barking about? Feel free to share in the comments section.
How to Train a Dog to "Speak"
- Yin, S (2002). "A New Perspective on Barking in Dogs (Canis familiaris)". Journal of Comparative Psychology. 2. 116: 189–193.
- Schassburger, R.M. (1987). "Wolf vocalization: An integrated model of structure, motivation, and ontogeny". In H. Frank. Man and Wolf. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Dr. W. Junk.
- Feddersen-Petersen, Dorit Urd (2008). Ausdrucksverhalten beim Hund (in German). Stuttgart: Franckh-Kosmos Verlags-GmbH & Co. KG
- Barking: The Sound of a Language by Turid Rugaas
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2017 Adrienne Farricelli
kally on January 15, 2020:
hi i think tis is a good website
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 25, 2019:
You are doing great in evaluating your dog's barking and trying to decipher it.Perhaps going out with your dog can help reveal the missing piece of the puzzle so that you can determine what she's barking at.
Senithea on January 31, 2019:
I found this very informative, I actual noticed a strange occurance, for the past let’s say two weeks or so, every every time when my lab goes she barks twice I noticed, and it can be at any hour mourning, noon, or night. She had did be fire out of nine years, I wonder if theres danger in the area, the different type of bark chart help, me to identify that the bark was an alarming bark , two sharp barks bark each and every time, I must stay prayed up, there’s a lot of badly thing out side.!!!
Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on December 08, 2017:
Thank you for this information. I live in a suburban neighborhood and walk my dogs every day to hear examples of a several of these barks in my dogs and those of neighbors. I've come to better understand my own, but this helps me better understand mine and those around us.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on December 07, 2017:
Interesting, as always! Our boy is quiet during the day when he's with me, except for an occasional alarm bark with delivery people. And he good on the walks twice a day.
But when hubby gets back, he's the noisiest little monster, especially at the dinner table. He ignores me and sits right next to hubby. I think it's because hubs is prone to giving him a bite or two from the table. I think this is more of an owner training issue. ;)
Anyway, thanks for always sharing your great dog insight with us! Happy Holidays!