The Meaning Of Barking: Communication Between Dogs
It is widely acknowledged that barking is a method of communication. It’s also widely acknowledged that excessive barking – “excessive” being a relative term – is a source of friction for human-dog relationships. Sometimes referred to as “nuisance barking,” it’s one of the leading “behavioral problems” associated with dogs. However, because we’re unable to understand what barking means, it’s especially challenging to address it.
Dog barks might serve as a source of information about a dog’s “inner state,” but we don’t know for sure if other dogs are able to decode the information in a bark in the way we might decode language ourselves. While some studies have been conducted on communication among feral dogs, this study ostensibly represents the “first field experiment on the role of dog barks in intraspecific communication, but also the first report of non-feral dogs’ reactions to dog barks in their natural habitat.”
Noting the exploratory nature of their work, the authors didn’t start out by formulating a specific hypothesis. They mention that the lack of previous experiments makes it hard to predict outcomes for their work. They studied 16 adult companion dogs of various breeds and an almost even male/female split, living in a variety of households. Using a series of playback tests of dogs barking, they found that the dogs hearing the barks would “vary their behaviour depending on the identity of the caller and the context of the vocalization in their natural habitat.” They outlined three possibilities to describe their results:
- That dogs can differentiate barks but “don’t associate them with certain individuals or contexts (null hypothesis).”
- That dogs are not only able to differentiate barks of known and unknown individuals but also “associate the known barks with the right individuals.” The researchers found that dogs oriented towards the house most often “when barks of their canine home companion were played back.” In this study, dogs did not react with the same level of interest to the barks of the unknown individuals.
- That dogs associate barks “with the appropriate context.” In other words, the researchers imagined that dogs would show strong reactions to “stranger” barks because strangers can signal a more threatening situation. Their results partly confirmed this, as the dogs approached the gate mostly when they heard the “stranger” barks, and also reacted with a heightened level of barking.
What all of this seems to indicate is evidence that dog barking is tied to individuals. Also, that responsive barking is very likely context-specific based on whether the initial bark is familiar or unfamiliar. For advocates, this information might be useful in addressing barking related behaviors that cause friction in human-dog relationships. These findings can be applied both in shelter/kennel situations as well as in multi-dog homes.