I have a ring tone on my mobile phone that I really like. It barks. Five barks (bark-bark-bark-bark-bark) for each ring. It is a real dog’s voice, not a person fake-barking in that annoying way that certain people feel compelled to do when they see a dog. (Really, what is that about anyway?). Earlier this week, my phone started barking while I was getting my hair cut. My hairdresser laughed and asked if any of my dogs react to the barking phone. I told him that no, they always ignore it, which is strange, since it is definitely the recording of a real dog bark.
To which he replied “Maybe the dog isn’t saying anything”.
Maybe. But recent research suggests that dogs do have something to say and that other dogs are often quite interested in hearing what that is.
Background information: The auditory (vocal) signals that animals make often have important communication functions and possess context-specific information. This means that a sound may be conveying information about several things at once. For example, an alarm call may vary in subtle but detectable ways depending on the location of the threat and how dangerous it is. Vocalizations may also be important signals that allow animals to recognize and identify one another. Indeed, this ability has been demonstrated in a wide range of species of birds, mammals, and even amphibians.
So, what about dogs? Previous research has shown that like many other animals, the sounds that dogs make are varied and highly context-specific and that humans, especially those who are experienced with dogs, are quite capable of distinguishing between different types of dog barks (1,2). However, while it is easy to test a human’s response to dog barks (we can just ask them questions), it is more difficult to ask dogs what they are learning when they listen to the vocalizations of other dogs.
Difficult, but not impossible. A group of ethologists at the Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary recently designed two clever experiments in which they were able to ask dogs – What are other dogs saying to you when they bark?
The technique: The reseachers used an approach called “habituation-dishabituation” to measure dogs’ reactions to the recorded sounds of barking. The technique works like this. The dogs were first allowed to habituate to recordings of a particular dog who was barking in a particular situation. Habituation was measured by recording the number of seconds that the listening dog continued to show interest in a dog/situation combination over time. A decrease in attention was interpreted to indicate habituation. A dog would stop reacting to the sound as it lost significance much in the way we habituate to the sound of our air conditioner kicking on because it is heard repeatedly through the day. Then (here is the clever part), the researchers changed either the identity of the dog who was barking or the context of the bark. The introduction of something that is new or unexpected should cause dishabituation, but only if the listener notices the change. (For example, if your air conditioner suddenly started making a rattling noise, you would dishabituate to it and take notice, right?). In this case, if the listening dog responded by suddenly increasing his/her attention to the recording, this means that the dog noticed the change and so was capable of distinguishing between different dogs and/or different causes of barking. If on the other hand, the change did not cause a change in the listener dog’s behavior, such a result would indicate that the dog had habituated to the general sounds of a dog barking and was not gleaning any specific information from the recordings. The group of investigators published two studies with dogs using this technique.
Study 1: The researchers recorded the barks from five adult dogs in two different contexts; either in response to an unfamiliar person approaching a garden area or when left alone, tied to a tree in a park (3). They then brought 30 other dogs into the lab and played the recordings from a hidden recorder, first allowing habituation to a particular dog/situation and then, for the dishabituation test, changing either the dog or the cause. Results: The subject dogs consistently showed an increase in interest to the recordings in response to both a change in identity of the dog who was barking and also in response to a change in the cause of barking. These results suggest that dogs are capable of differentiating who is barking when they hear another dog and what the dog is barking about. What this study design could not tell us however, is what exact type of information (if any) the dogs were gleaning from the recorded dogs or if they were capable of identifying a known individual by his or her bark.
Study 2: This time around, the researchers asked the question – Do dogs recognize the barks of other dogs who they know and do they react to what their friends are barking about (4)? A group of 16 dogs, all living in multiple-dog homes, were tested. The dogs were tested in their own homes (so had an attachment to the context) and they listened to a hidden recording of either an unfamiliar dog or of one of their housemate dogs (who was not present at the time, because that would just be weird). The two situations were the same – barking when left alone or barking at an unfamiliar person approaching the yard’s fence. Each dog’s reactions were videotaped to allow careful analysis of any changes in behavior while listening to the recordings. Results: The dogs showed specific behaviors that depended upon who the barker was (friend or stranger) and upon what was causing the barking (isolation or territorial). Upon hearing a recording of their housemate, dogs would move toward the house where the dog was expected to be. Conversely, they moved toward the yard’s gate when they heard the sound of an unfamiliar dog barking at a stranger. The listener dogs also barked most frequently in response to the “stranger coming” recordings, regardless of whether the bark came from their housemate or a stranger. The researchers concluded that dogs appeared to be able to identify other dogs “by bark” and that they also obtained information about a bark’s cause, simply by listening, in the absence of other cues such as the barking dog’s body language or facial expressions.
Take Away for Dog Folks: The results of this study instruct us (once again) to take care with our assumptions when working with dogs. While it should be naturally obvious that dogs are proficient at recognizing and understanding one another via vocalizations and that a great deal of information is conveyed via barking (and I would bet a few of you were shaking your heads whilst reading and muttering, “well, no kiddin'”), we often do not behave as though we actually believe this to be true. Here is what I mean.
Dog owners, trainers and behaviorists frequently classify barking in dogs as a problem behavior. If we don’t like it, if it annoys us, if we deem it excessive or an attention-seeking behavior, then it immediately gets dumped into the “behavior problem” bin. Well, granted, excessive barking can be annoying, can pose a community nuisance, and as a recurrent behavior may need some modifying. (Believe me, I understand vocal dogs – I live with a Toller). However, perhaps as humans we have become so intolerant of dogs barking that we may occasionally stop seeing it for the important communication tool that it is in our efforts to stop it.
Up on the ol’ box: Moreover, we may often get it wrong. Barking that is classified as problematic because it is thought to be “attention-seeking” could in actuality be a legitimate bid for affection from a chronically neglected dog. Or barks that an owner is instructed to ignore so as to “extinguish the behavior” may in fact be conveying true distress. (See “Is it time for the extinction of extinction?” for more about this). Is it also not possible that a dog who shows alarm barking truly has something to be alarmed about? While I am not suggesting that we should allow all dogs, at all times, to bark to their little heart’s delight (though, that is certainly what Chippy my Toller is going for), I am advocating that just as we accept body postures, facial expressions, eye contact, elimination patterns, and touch (tactile signals) as important forms of communication in our dogs, so too we should accept (and decriminalize) barking.
As trainers and behaviorists, perhaps it is time to dial back the trend towards classifying any barking that an owner does not like as “attention seeking”, “demand”, or “nuisance” barking, and reclassify it as a normal communication pattern that warrants understanding of the cause and as needed, modification. As the very chatty species that we are, we should be sensitive to and wary of any training approach or behavior modification program whose goal is to produce a completely silent dog.
As for my barking phone, I will continue to enjoy it, even if the dog is speaking nonsense. And Chippy the Toller, of course, says “Bark on, man, bark on”.
- Pongracz P, Molna Cs, Miklosi A, Csanyi V. Human listeners are able to classify dog barks recorded in differenct situations. Journal of Comparative Psychology 2005; 119:228-240.
- Pongracz P, Molna Cs, Miklosi A, Csanyi V. Acoustic parameters of dog barks carry emotional information for humans. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2006; 100:228-240.
- Molnar C,OPongracz P, Farage T, Doka A, Miklosi A. Dogs discriminate between barks: The effect of context and identity of the caller. Behavioural Processes 2009; 82:198-201.
- Pongracz P, Szabo E, Kis A, Peter A, Miklosi A. More than noise? Field investigations of intraspecific acoustic communication in dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Bahavioual Science 2014: In Press.
Excerpted from “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training & Fiction“, by Linda Case.
25 thoughts on “You Barkin’ At Me?”
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Great article, thanks! We run an urban dog daycare and kennel facility and, for the most part, allow as much barking as they like. We do shield them from view of the outside world to reduce fence aggression, etc.
As an aside, we adopted a puppy from India that is not mixed with the standard domesticated dog bloodlines. Known as the Asian Native Dog, or Desi dog, they are not kept as pets and generally live alongside people rather than with them. Interestingly we noticed that he had a difficult time communicating with most of the other dogs. He does best with what we term the Socially Awkward Dogs – dogs that also are challenged in making canine buddies. (We have nominated him Vice President of the SAD club since they are all too awkward to have an actual leader). The veterinarian team in Delhi that performs the puppy rescue and sends them to North America believes that their verbal “language”, if not non-verbal as well, does indeed differ from other domesticated dogs. We have noticed that he takes a greater interest in other Asian dogs we occasionally encounter. These are mostly from Taiwan as there is a local rescue that brings them here. They look very similar and likely come from a line closer to his own lineage. Since he was only 12 weeks old when he came to us we wonder if these communications are not biologically programmed. Certainly it would be an interesting study.
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Hi Larry, Thanks for reading and for your interesting comments, both about your day care/kennel and your Desi dog. Love your point about barking at Day Care and monitoring/managing to control territorial or reactive barking. I think that so much of the great cognitive/behavior research that is being conducted today can provide information that is directly applicable to pet professionals like you who are providing dog services – it is really great to see the level of dog knowledge and understanding that so many people put into their day care centers, training centers, etc. Regarding your Desi dog (love the SAD acronym, by the way…..may have to steal that one…. 🙂 ), your observations are really interesting. I am sure that you have read Coppinger’s book, in which he describes exactly the type of peripherally living dogs as the “missing link” during dog domestication. An equally interesting study (though difficult to conduct) would be to look at dogs’ seeming tendency to recognize (and sometimes prefer) others of their breed or breed type. There are so many anecdotal reports of this – would be cool to figure out if 1. it actually happens, and 2. what they are reacting to. (My guess would be greeting behavior differences and play behavior differences, if I were to bet on it).So many cool questions; so little time!
Thanks for the kind words. I absolutely agree that there is so much great work being done that makes for a better experience for the dogs and people who work with them alike. We are constantly looking at modifying our handling and procedures.
I have not read the book but I just ordered it. I’m very excited to get a start! Concerning your proposal to examine breed recognition between dogs we have indeed seen that behavior to some extent. Largely the dogs seem to find others who enjoy the same types of play regardless of size, age or breed though I do recall that there were a group of Bostons who formed their own clique and kept it breed specific. Now that the idea is out there we’ll certainly take greater note.
This does bring up an interesting point with the Desi. He seems to recognize SAD dogs almost immediately. Those are the ones he picks to play bow to from their very first visit. Which is how he got to be the Vice President. It is almost as if he recognizes “normal” dog communication and anyone who doesn’t fall into that category is potentially part of the club. So do they communicate in the same way he does? Or is it more the misfits are just more accepting of each other? My guess is the latter but, as the saying goes, seeming is not always being. As you say, so many questions…..
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Hi Larry! So, I have this delightful image in my head of a group of marauding Boston Terriers at Doggy Day Care, wearing their gang colors and hangin’ together on the play equipment,,,,, 🙂 (And, that Desi and his group are the nerds of the camp, coming together to gain acceptance and solidarity)! Seriously, I think that day cares provide a huge source of information that could so easily be tapped with some well-designed research studies, don’t you? A good friend of mine owns a wonderful day care and she was approached a while back by a researcher at her local university who wanted to study the social interactions of her play groups. Unfortunately, the researcher never followed up, perhaps because funding for these types of studies may be difficult to acquire. Regardless, there is so much that can be learned from free-play (and free rest) in groups of dogs who become friends via dog day care, including of course, those dogs like your Desi who do not show what we think of as typical dog communication skills (i.e. how do they cope best, who do they choose to play with, etc.). Seeing what we have learned about the complexity of canine cognition in recent years, I agree that it is very possible that some dogs are more accepting of “social faux pas” among dogs than others – as your Desi seems to be!
That’s pretty much exactly what happens. It is very much a playground environment and we are the monitors. If ever you know of anyone wanting to do research in the Seattle area please send them my way.
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I always love your posts. You take what could be, and often are, complicated research results and break them down into easy-to-understand components. I wish more trainers did this. I always walk away knowing more than I did before and pondering it for hours afterwards. Great post,
Hi Mel, Thanks for your comment and kind words! I am so glad that you are enjoying “The Science Dog”. Your words captured the purpose and intent of the essays in The Science Dog perfectly and I am glad that (at least some) of the pieces are succeeding in these goals! (BTW – Watch for the first “Science Dog” book, which will be available in late fall)!
I also like Dr. Sophia Yin’s study where she characterised the various types of barks based on frequency, intensity, etc.
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Thanks for the reblog!
Thanks for posting this Linda! It would be very difficult to do this experiment with Basenjis… 😉
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The case they didn’t test, was the person’s response to those bark variations. While your own dogs soon sound familiar, after years of running shelter play groups you start to automatically respond to different vocalizations from the dogs, often knowing what’s happening behind your back.
Perhaps that’s why I rarely have barking issues with the dogs who briefly stay here, as I respond differently to specific barking messages.
Of course, as you noted, there are always a few who just like to talk…
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I’m with you when you question why it is some people feel compelled to say “woof” or “arf” or worse yet, make kissy noises when they see me with my Seeing Eye dog. It distracts Whitney from her work, and, well, it’s just annoying. Like you say, “Really, what is that about anyway?”
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Hi Beth – Barking at someone’s guide dog. Truly astounding. And yuck – Kissy noises? Even weirder (and just as rude). I imagine you could write books…..(oh wait, you did!) 🙂 Hope all is well – miss swimming together! Linda
“one of their housemate dogs (who was not present at the time, because that would just be weird).” – this exact paradigm was used to test whether wild African elephants know where their companions and whether they can recognize one another from the smell of their urine: Lucy A. Bates, Katito N. Sayialel, Norah W. Njiraini, Joyce H. Poole, Cynthia J. Moss and Richard W. Byrne (2008) African elephants have expectations about the locations of out-of-sight family members. Biology Letters 4, 34–36.
Has anyone ever looked at the responses of dogs to recordings of their own barks, or a bark equivalent of the elephant experiment ?
My experience is that dogs very quickly learn to ignore out of context barks, and the incessant yapping of dogs with nothing interesting to say.
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Hi Peter – I have not seen a study of this type (dogs hearing a recording of themselves….). I know that Marc Bekoff did an “n of 1” study with his dog a number of years back in which he planted some of the dog’s urine and compared how his dog reacted to the smell of his own urine versus the smell of a strange dog’s urine (I believe he ignored his own urine – not surprising, but interesting). If my memory serves me, the title of the paper was something catchy like “hidden tales of yellow snow” 🙂 Thanks for posting! Linda
DOH ! I should have remembered Marc Bekoff’s classic study; the full citation is; Marc Bekoff 2001. Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow. Behavioural Processes 55 (2001) 75–79.
Bekoff’s dog did occasionally countermark his own marks, and the probability that he did so increased with the time that had elapsed since he deposited it (but all the times were measured in minutes). There is no mention of Jethro the study dog doing a double take in terms of “How can my scent be here when I haven’t been here yet ?” but I think we can suppose that dogs go back over their own tracks commonly enough that finding one of their own marks is not all that uncommon.
The study does very firmly establish that Jethro could discriminate self from others only on the basis of smell (rather than e.g. from a recall of where he had marked), which is as expected. The details of what else dogs do with the smell of one another’s marks are still elusive – the kind of painstakingly detailed behavioural work that will be needed to help sort it out has gone out of fashion.
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Thanks for the really interesting post. As the others have noted, if we can tell the difference between a bark meaning and who’s doing it, it only naturally follows that our dogs can too. In my experience that’s one way to figure out if you have a good behaviourist/trainer helping you out: They look to find out WHY the dog is doing x,y,z, not just how to stop the “annoying” behaviour for the humans who bring it in. My behaviourist was great at teaching me to pay attention to the different vocalisations as well as body language when working on all my rescue dog’s issues (ranging from barking, howling loneliness, fear and more!). I like to think I’m an expert on my dogs’ language, and I reckon she’s pretty good at figuring out my vocalisations too!
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Yes . Dogs’ vocalisations DO mean a lot. And since we (or at least I) can tell which dog is barking, and usually tell where, why and what they are barking about. It should not be any surprise that dogs themselves can tell.
I can just see the Canine Research Lab studying human behaviour. “Did you know that humans’ vocalisation MEANS something to other humans? They don’t just blurt out monosyllabic sounds at us dogs to tell us what to do!”
On the other hand, humans DO sometimes just make noises for recreation — think singing and whistling. So I am convinced that some dogs do bark for recreation.
(And yes, I am pretty good at determining recreational barking for ‘reasonably’ barking. I can’t say about Tollers, but my German Shepherds DO love a Bark-Fest. They’ll sometimes run to the fence and invite the neighbour’s dog to come join them.)
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We have a living lab right at home, with 14 dogs. We can tell by the bark what’s going on – from another room. It’s amazing the range of communications that can come from a simple bark.
Love this! (Also love, love your blog, BTW). We are the same in our home – the bark instantly tells us not only who is barking, but what it is about. So, really, should be no surprise to us that dogs understand those barks as well (better, probably) than we do. Thanks for posting and for reading!
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What’s really sad is having guests over, having a bark followed by a silence, and knowing you had better yell ‘knock it off!” (insert name of dog who barked here, even though said dog is not in sight) before the dogs do something they shouldn’t be doing. Barks don’t lie – and we recognize the ones that indicate they are getting ready to do something stupid!