Why do dogs bark? (And what are they saying when they do?)

Barking might just be a reflex for agitated dogs. It might be a side-effect of domestication — i.e., when you select for less-aggressive animals you get ones that tend to bark. Or, it really might have meaning, both for other dogs and for humans. At Scientific American, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods describe some of the research on dog communication, including studies that show both humans and dogs can tell the difference between barks associated with, say, food, and barks associated with the presence of a threatening stranger.


    1. Naw, man.   Dogs are all love.  You just haven’t spent enough time around them. (or maybe you have — not judging)  If you’re a delivery guy, you’re just encroaching on their space, and they aren’t hating; they’re protecting.

  1. I have a Shiba Inu who shrieks like a tortured child when someone is at the door (or when you touch his feet), meows when he wants food, and does a singsong growl when his little sister starts annoying him. He’s never barked, but his vocalizations are certainly easy to recognize. 

  2. In my experience, dogs bark at me because a fence or a leash keeps them from reaching me. not all dogs attack me, but enough that I’ve learned to keep my distance because any dog might.

    1. Not me.  I’m big, ugly, hairy and doofy and dogs just run up to me and love me instantly.  I don’t know what it is.  I love them and they love me back, invariably.

      1. I am small and not hairy, and dogs love me. Which is funny since I’m much more of a cat person. I like dogs, I just prefer cats. But dogs love me anyway. Especially the big scary looking ones. Maybe they don’t see me as a threat, I dunno, but they always come up to me and basically beg me to pet them.

    2. I love dogs, but unfortunately as a species they have a bit of a bully streak. Dogs tend to be pretty good at spotting people who are nervous about dogs, and often harass them. I don’t know if it’s purely “Aha, you’re frightened of me! I must be more dominant than you! I better re-inforce it!” or what, but it’s pretty common.

      Being charged and threatened sure isn’t friendly, and really isn’t going to make nervous people like dogs any better, and thus it goes around and around :/

      1. I actually find that in most cases I’ve encountered of dogs harassing people, there are two major factors at work. Either the dog is poorly trained, or the person is afraid of dogs, or both.

        Sadly, there are a lot of badly trained dogs. Many people are just unwilling or unable to take the time necessary to care for a dog properly. Much like a child, a dog that isn’t taught the appropriate way to behave is probably going to cause problems for people. (Of course, that’s not to say that you have be draconian – quite the opposite, in fact. Both dogs and people respond far better to positive forms of behavioral conditioning than to negative or punitive ones.)

        But I honestly do believe that a person’s behavior around dogs also influences the dogs. Remember, they’re descended from wolves. They have instincts for both pack dominance heirarchies, and for hunting of prey. If you behave in ways similar to either 1) a less-dominant member of the dog’s “pack” or 2) a prey animal, the dog is going to be compelled to respond appropriately.

        Ideally, a dog’s owner should train it to understand that ALL people are to be treated as higher-tier members of the dog’s “pack”. However, when this is not the case, it falls to the individual to assert their own dominance over the dog. This is often a lot easier than it may sound. Dogs respond to deep and loud vocalizations, to tall and imposing postures, to eye-contact, and to body language.

        If a dog is misbehaving and the owner is either absent or ineffectual, the individual can use any or all of these factors to exert some degree of their own dominance over the dog. Stand your ground, lock eye contact, raise yourself up to a greater height, and deliver commands in a loud, sharp, deep voice. The vast majority of the time, this is more than enough – it takes an exceptionally poorly trained dog to not respond to this clear sort of body language.

        Unfortunately, this is hard to do for people who are afraid of dogs. They instead do all the things you should NOT do. They cringe which tells the dog “You’re scary and imposing!”, they break eye contact which says “I submit!”, and they cry out in fear, often with a high pitch, which just drives it all home. Everything about that behavior is telling the dog “You’re the Alpha! You’re tough! You’re the boss, and I don’t want to challenge you, I give up!”. Naturally this goads the dog on, and they get flush with their “victory” over you, and try to boss you around. And naturally that makes the scared person even MORE scared.

        1. However, when this is not the case, it falls to the individual to assert their own dominance over the dog.

          Honestly, I’m going to shoot your damn dog long before I retrain myself to canine behavioral standards.

          1. Clearly your convenience is more valuable than the lives of domesticated animals. That’s very sad.

            If a dog is attacking you, and you are in legitimate fear of your life? That’s one thing. If a dog is barking at you or misbehaving in non-threatening ways, that’s entirely different.

            Tell me, if it was legal would you also shoot people before you retrained yourself to their behavioral standards? Or are your morals just self-centered and hypocritical enough that you can excuse the frivolous destruction of one form of life while condemning the destruction of your own?

          2. – Dogs bite 4.7 million people in the US annually.
            – 600,000 need medical attention.
            – More than 300,000 of them end up in the ER.
            – 33,000 need some kind of reconstructive surgery.
            – 9,500 need a hospital stay.

            I have no sympathy for untrained dogs or their owners.


          3.  In reply to your comment below: Yes, dogs can have all the great attributes that makes us love them the way we do. However, even a Golden who say, has a medical problem you’re not yet aware of might snap at a child (or worse). Even if you trust your dog 100%, !00% of the time why would you even risk the minutest possibility that the child could be harmed? Is a cute photo op worth the trauma and maybe even a trip to Emergency should things go not quite as planned?

          4. Ignore the noise and don’t make eye contact–that will just make him more aggressive. He’s just defending his territory. I’ve found that if you stay calm, eventually he loses interest.

          5.  Leash laws and spaying and neutering would help control loose dogs who pose a threat to humans and other animals.

          6. I never assume a dog is perfectly friendly or trustworthy. A dog is a dog. The dogs in my life have all had lots of training, participated in agility, and as therapy dogs in hospitals and schools. That said, I would never put a baby on the floor with even my Golden Retriever who was the poster dog for all things wonderful and beautiful dog-wise. I hate seeing photos and videos of babies and small children right in the dog’s face. In the county I live in dogs running off leash can be shot on sight in unincorporated areas.

          7. As someone who used to be both a baby and a small child spending large periods of time right in a dog’s face, I can attest that some dogs are just never going to hurt anyone. Breeding does help, as mine were Golden Retrievers, but there’s also the animal’s natural disposition to consider, as well as training.

            As I child, my dogs were my guardians. They were unbelievably gentle and protective of myself and my siblings. We caused them far more stress and pain than they ever could have caused us. We’d pull their tails, their ears, we’d ride around on their backs, we’d jiggle their jowls and laugh at the funny faces that resulted, and our dogs, patient, well trained, gentle creatures that they were, would sit and tolerate it all without even the briefest suggestion of discomfort or loss of patience. Now, we were never left unsupervised while we were still infants and such, but at the same time we never once actually required that supervision.

            The only time the dogs were anything approaching aggresive was when they were actively protecting us from perceived threats. The eldest and biggest, Ajax, had a habit of surveying the terrain when we played outside, staking out our territory. If we children wandered, he’d herd us back where we belonged. If a person that he didn’t trust or like walked down the road, he’d place himself between us and them, sitting down at attention, carefully watching them and us alike, making sure we didn’t go near them. If the stranger got too close or did something strange, he’d boom out with a deep, rolling bark – almost the only times I’d ever heard him bark in my life. Typically one bark was enough to warn off the stranger, and never was it actually justified – they were always innocent neighbors coming to visit my parents, or just mere passerby who strayed too close.

            Dogs can be among the noblest, most self-sacrificing creatures alive. It just takes the proper attention to their needs and natures, the problem time and care to train them and bond with them.

        2. Someone’s been watching too much Ceasar Milan. Dogs aren’t spending their waking moments figuring out ways to dominate humans physically or emotionally. Staring an aggressive dog in the eye is the worst thing you could do. Knowing how to circumvent problems isn’t the same as “submission”.
          Dog training, the study of dog behavior, and psychology have made huge strides in the past 20+ years. There are other ways to understand and communicate with our dogs that don’t treat the relationship as one of constant conflict and domination. We’re so lucky to have this knowledge available and trainers dedicated to leading people and their dogs into the 21st century.

          1. I have no idea who or what Ceasar Milan is, nor do I claim dogs are actively going to any great length to try to dominate humans or anything else.

            Staring down a dog is a perfectly normal and viable tactic for many negative behavior situations, and I can’t be certain what you would consider “aggresive” behavior. If you’re talking about being in legitimate fear of direct attack, yes I would recommend not challenging the animal with direct eye contact unless you think you can disuade it from advancing or unless you are physically capable of fending it off, but such behavior is not the norm, nor is it the only behavior that could be classed as “aggresive”. A strange dog approaching you in the street and barking and running around could easily be called “aggresive” without there being even the remotest change of it actively attacking anyone.

            I am not a dog psychologist or behavioral researcher, but I assume neither are you. I’ve personally lived with and trained dogs since I was a child. I speak from direct personal experience, and from an at least passable ability to judge and read dog behavior, emotions, and responses to my own actions. From my own experiences, the overwhelming majority of dog behavioral problems come from inadequate training. And while this lack of training is regretable, until such time as it is done away with, I think it is worthwhile for people to understand the instinctual drives of domesticated dogs, even if only in generalizations derived from my firsthand experience, and not from scrupulous dog psychology studies which I do not have access to.

        3.  Often, what the behavior some people call “aggressive” is the dog’s expression of fear. In that case intimidating the dog will only cause it to react in self protection.
          I agree with you dogs and their people both need training but many people are too “busy”, unenlightened, lazy, and/or unwilling to humble themselves to a trainer who has insight and experience that would help dog and owner have a happy and productive life together. It’s good to keep up with contemporary dog culture, canine behavior studies and the new ways of teaching and learning that result from them.

          1. Best advice for anyone dealing with a strange dog? Stay away from it and find the owner.

            That said, dogs are a commonplace pet – it’s worth learning how to properly deal with them.

  3. Is some academic getting tenure with this silliness?  No kidding.  My akita [1st cousin twice removed to Velocirapt42’s shiba inu] has a whole range of vocalizations, and I can usually tell what she’s barking or wooing about.  The cocker spaniel on the other hand … inbreeding makes ’em cute but stupid.

    1. Just came from a hunt trial recently in which a couple of cocker spaniels flushed and retrieved plenty of pheasants just fine.

  4. I live out in the country near a pack of coyotes. Every so often, something will set them off.
     About a week ago, the coyotes started yipping in a way that I heard as “I’m very unhappy!” It was loud enough to wake me. Within a minute or so, a couple of dogs started howling. This went on for awhile and I drifted back to sleep. Next day, I’m driving to work and within a mile of my house, there’s a dead coyote on the side of the road – an obvious case of road kill.  Could be the yipping was coincidental but I think the coyotes were grieving over the loss of a pack mate and the dogs were howling in response. Can’t say the coyotes were really expressing unhappiness but it certainly sounded like it.

  5. Dogs bark in order to answer the question I so often put to them: “Who’s a good boy? Is it you?”

    I’ve tried to explain to dogs about rhetorical questions, but they don’t really get it.

    1. That is perfect.  That’s my standard poodle in human form. He even gets the perfect up-pitch on the final what’s.

  6. I love the “let’s play!!” bark. I also love when dogs just like you and come over and sit on your foot and push against you like “we’re buds”

  7. I had a black lab shepherd growing up that was very smart. She had different barks that always meant a certain thing, though her barks sounded more like “ruuuuus.” For each bark would always mean something, such as, “My ball is under the couch and I can’t get it!” sounded very different from “My chewy is under the couch and I can’t get it!” Figure out what she wanted and you would know what she was trying to tell you every time. She would quickly pickup English words and even spelling them out did not fool her for long if we were talking about something she would like (walk, anything food related, play time, etc, hunting flies in the house) or hate (the vet, hot air balloons floating by, etc). If I asked her, “Where is your ball?” she would hunt it down room by room until she would return with it; we never trained her to do this. Now with that said, she often would return with a rock when we threw a ball, but she seemed to like them better for some reason. What I am getting at is from what I have seen with other dogs is that they are like people, they can be smart, stupid or a range between, and depending on a dog 1 bark can be a whole sentence if not more.

  8. Sometimes my dog barks, but mostly he just whines. I’m afraid it might be my fault–I like to ask him lots and lots of questions. Lately, he has started returning the favor. Whenever he wants something (which is nearly always) he makes this sort of growl that rises in tone at the end. It sounds sort of like, “Gerrrrrooooo?”

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