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The dog’s bark, much more than a simple ‘woof’

Dogs developed this form of vocal expression as a way of adapting to the human environment; to interpret it, one has to take into account their body language and the context

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Dogs can convey different messages through their bark.smrm1977 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Unlike other canids such as wolves or foxes, dogs bark. It is an adaptive evolution derived from their coexistence with humans, which took place throughout their domestication process, spanning from 30,000 to 50,000 years. Dogs communicate through barking and body language. “Trying to interpret this sound alone is like deciphering human interaction only with emojis, in which intonation, expressiveness or emotion are missing,” explains Spanish veterinary ethologist Marcos Villén. Dogs can convey different messages through their bark; they can do it to “attract attention, warn of danger, express fear, say hello, to say that they want to play, and in situations of loneliness, separation anxiety, confusion or discomfort,” he lists.

The dog’s bark and its behavior are determined by several factors. “They are influenced by genetics, the environment in which they live, the learning they have, their hormonal status and their health,” says Villén, who adds that in certain situations, compulsive barking indicates a behavioral problem. “There is a growing loss of well-being among dogs, due to the difficulty of adapting to urban environments and the human ways of life, which is expressed through continuous barking, howling or crying, caused by excessive loneliness and separation anxiety. This requires a consultation with a specialist,” he warns.

A howling dog is sending a message to its pack. “It is a vestige of the behavior of their ancestors, which lived in groups. They used it to communicate when they were hunting or to reassemble. This behavior still exists among wolves,” explains Villén. “Howling developed as a form of long-distance communication, so when some dogs hear a musical instrument or a fire siren, they howl. It is a residue of a social communicative act that is spread from canid to canid in nature and serves to gather the family,” continues the expert.

A dog’s bark is not determined by its size. But are there breeds that bark more than others? “What influences it are the situations to which the animal is exposed, as in the case of large dogs that spend a lot of time alone in the garden of the house and bark at every passerby that comes near,” the specialist points out. The opposite occurs with small breeds: “When they are not allowed to interact with other dogs for fear of them being attacked, people tend to pick them up, which causes them to bark, but it is not due to their size, but rather the context.”

Is its bark really worse than its bite? “This saying refers to aggressive barking directed at unknown people out of fear. Such a situation involves a risk of biting due to the dog’s lack of control and negative emotions. Therefore, it is not advisable to approach the dog, contrary to the implications of the proverb,” advises the veterinarian.

Dogs barking
There is a growing loss of well-being among dogs, due to the difficulty of adapting to urban environments and the human ways of life, which is expressed through continuous barking, howling or crying. SrdjanPav (Getty Images)

All dogs use barking as a means of communication, but there are exceptions. “Basenji dogs have a different vocal tract and they don’t bark, they make a different sound,” explains Stefania Pineda, a veterinarian specializing in behavioral medicine and animal welfare. The dog’s vocal expression also depends on its owner’s attitude. “The human usually interrupts the barking so that it doesn’t bother, creating a state of ambivalence in the dog, which doesn’t understand why a natural behavior is being censored. This leads to a state of anxiety,” explains Pineda, who is a professor at the Department of Animal Production of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Complutense University of Madrid, as well as being in charge of the behavioral consultation at this institution.

Breed does determine a certain tendency when it comes to barking. “Some small dogs tend to be more reactive and nervous, such as the Pinscher, the Yorkshire or the Westie. Beagles usually have separation anxiety, so they bark when they are left alone,” continues the specialist.

There are basic techniques to adjust the barking of a dog that lives among people. “Giving the dog a reward it particularly likes, maybe some of its favorite food, when it barks in a controlled, succinct manner, helps it better manage its barking to avoid causing discomfort in its human environment,” recommends the expert.

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