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If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably heard, and possibly been annoyed by, your dog barking, at one time or another. But what do your dog’s barks mean? They can mean a variety of different things depending on pitch, duration, frequency, and context.
Why do dogs bark?
Dogs can’t talk, but they communicate with us in many ways, including body language and various sounds. A dog may bark for many reasons: to warn us, to tell us they are excited, to invite play, to communicate fear, to protect their territory, and the list goes on.
Dr. Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, notes that dogs, like most other animals, use a “sound code,” meaning they modify their barks based on what they are trying to communicate. This sound code, according to Dr. Coren, uses three dimensions: pitch, duration, and frequency.
Pitch: Among animals, low-pitched sounds typically indicate threats or the possibility of aggression—think of a dog’s growl. Conversely, higher sounds (like a dog’s whimper) mean “I am no threat, it’s safe to approach me.”
Duration: Dr. Coren says that the longer the sound, “the more likely that the dog is making a conscious decision about the nature of the signal and his next behaviors.” Thus, a sustained growl is likely a conscious decision to communicate that the dog is standing their ground.
Frequency: If a dog repeats their bark frequently and at a fast rate, it indicates a high degree of excitement or urgency. (For example, a dog who fears the mail carrier will likely stand at the window barking repeatedly when the mail carrier arrives.) Conversely, barks that are more spaced out, or not repeated at all, indicate lower levels of excitement.
Common situations when dogs bark and how to interpret them
There are almost countless situations in which dogs may bark. It’s important to remember that barking is not inherently “wrong” and that no dog should be expected to never bark. However, there is such a thing as excessive barking in many different situations.
Here’s what your dog may be trying to tell you when they bark in these common situations. (In the next section, we’ll cover what to do when your dog barks.)
Dog barking in crate: As long as you are sure your dog is comfortable in their crate (they’ve been fed and have gone to the bathroom recently, and have access to water and a comfortable place to lie down within their crate), your dog is likely barking for attention. If this is a brand new behavior, check to make sure they aren’t hurt or exhibiting signs of illness. If they seem fine, they are likely just barking to get your attention.
Dog barking at me, their owner: The meaning of a dog barking at their owner is entirely dependent on the situation, so you will have to do some detective work to figure this one out. If you just arrived home, your dog is probably barking to greet you and because they are excited. If your dog has their butt in the air and their front end low to the ground, exhibiting “play bow,” they are trying to get you to play with them.
The above examples are relatively easy to figure out, but some situations might be tougher. As we covered earlier, take into consideration the pitch, duration, and frequency of your dog’s bark, as well as the situation you are in. Is it nighttime and your dog was spooked by a sound from outside? Are you on a walk, and your dog could have seen a squirrel that you didn’t see? And of course, there is always the possibility that they are simply barking to get your attention.
High-pitched barking: A dog who is barking in a high-pitched tone might be enjoying themselves, maybe during playtime or another fun activity. In another situation, a higher-pitched bark might communicate loneliness. High-pitched barking is generally not a “warning” type of barking, as those tend to be lower. (If you have a small dog, their bark may naturally just be high, so take that into consideration.)
Dog barking at night: Like the other scenarios, there are several reasons why your dog may bark at night. They might be barking at wild animals nearby that only come out at night, or they might hear people coming home from work and slamming their car doors. If you sleep in a different room than your dog, they may bark because they are lonely.
Barking at night is not necessarily tied to the nighttime itself. It may just be that your dog is barking because they are bored or trying to get your attention, and nighttime is when you are home to notice it, or you’re trying to relax so it annoys you more.
Dog barking at “nothing”: Dogs can smell and hear things that are imperceptible to us. People often think their dog is barking at “nothing” or perhaps even suspect the dog is barking at a ghost. In reality, your dog is probably barking at something that you simply cannot pick up on. This might be a smell that’s too subtle for humans to detect, or a frequency in the ultrasonic range. It might be that a wild animal is nearby and your dog can smell it!
However, that’s not always the case. Your dog may also be barking out of boredom or to get your attention. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes, but try to observe if your dog tends to bark more on days when they get less exercise or less play time—if they do, boredom barking is a strong possibility.
Lastly, if your dog is older and the barking at “nothing” is a new behavior, consider taking them to a vet to get checked out. It’s possible that they may be exhibiting signs of canine dementia.
What should I do when my dog barks?
The action you should take when your dog barks depends on the context. Dogs use barking to communicate with us and with other dogs, and they should not be expected to never bark.
Trainer Karen Pryor says to assess the whole situation, explaining that barking is sometimes a symptom of a larger problem, like boredom, stress, or fear. For example, if your dog has gotten less exercise than usual and seems to be barking more, they are likely bored and need more exercise. In a case like that, treating barking alone is futile, as the problem itself (boredom/lack of exercise) needs to be treated.
If your dog is barking excessively in any situation, start by learning what not to do: don’t engage with them at all. This includes yelling or snapping at them to be quiet. It may seem like responding in an angry voice would work, but it only comes across as you “participating” in their barking. When you engage with your dog’s barking in any way, you are rewarding them and encouraging them to repeat the behavior.
Instead, ignore your dog’s barking for as long as it takes them to stop. Don’t give them any attention at all, including looking at them. Look away, turn your back, completely ignore them. When the dog finally quiets down—even if it’s only for a second—praise and reward them with a treat. (This is what you should do even if your dog is barking from within the confines of their crate.)
Once your dog catches on (which may take a few times), increase the length of time they have to be quiet before they get the treat.
In addition, do what you can to manage your dog’s environment, especially if they are barking in response to certain stimuli. For example, if they bark at passersby that they can see through the window, close the blinds. If they bark when they hear someone talking outside, try putting on white noise, such as audio of rain sounds. Or, if you know the mail carrier usually comes around 3:00 and that sets your dog off, take them for a walk starting at 2:45. Get creative with the factors that are in your control!
You can also teach your dog an “incompatible behavior” instead of simply being quiet. This means teaching your dog to engage in a behavior that inhibits them (somewhat) from barking, like “go to your spot” (lying down on a mat, dog bed or blanket). You can also teach them to get a toy, which they can then carry, and gives them something to occupy their mouth. The Humane Society also has instructions for a few additional methods to help your dog stop barking excessively.
Barking can be annoying, but learning what your dog is trying to communicate, and developing some tools for minimizing excessive barking, will help you keep your cool and strengthen your relationship with your dog.
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
M.Ed. Humane Education
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner