A Concise Dictionary of Dog Barks
A brief glossary to help interpret dog barks
Posted Jun 18, 2019
A woman came up to me with a handsome, black and white, speckled cocker spaniel in tow.
"Freckles barks all of the time," she said, indicating the dog beside her. "I know he's trying to communicate with me. You know a lot about dog behavior, so I was wondering if you knew of some kind of dictionary that could interpret typical dog barks for an average dog owner like me who just wants to get some idea of what their dog is trying to say."
Actually, there are a number of books that include information on dog barks as communication, but most of them have quite extended discussions of barking, rather than providing a quick lookup definition, like a dictionary might.
So in response to her need and the requests of a number of other people, I thought that I would prepare a sort of concise dictionary (or maybe a better label would be a glossary) of dog barks, which might allow pet owners to better understand the sounds made by our canine companions.
Before we get to the dictionary itself, it is important to understand that most animals use a universal code based on three aspects of the sounds they make: namely pitch, duration, and frequency (or repetition rate).
Pitch — The pitch of the sound may be the most important of the three sound dimensions. Low-pitched sounds, such as a dog’s growl, usually indicate threats, anger, and the possibility of aggression. These are interpreted as meaning, “Stay away from me.” High-pitched sounds mean the opposite; the animal is asking to be allowed to come closer or is suggesting it is safe to approach.
Duration — Generally speaking, the longer the sound, the more likely the dog is making a conscious decision about what is happening and what he will do next. It does not play as much a role in barks as it does in growls. The threatening growl of an alpha male with every intention of holding his ground and not backing down will be low-pitched, long, and sustained. A growl in shorter bursts and only briefly held indicates an element of fear. The dog is worried about whether he can successfully deal with an attack.
Frequency – Sounds repeated often and at a fast rate indicate a degree of excitement and urgency, whereas sounds that are spaced out—or not repeated at all—usually indicate a lower level of excitement. An occasional bark or two at the window is only an expression of mild interest. A dog barking in multiple bursts and repeating them many times a minute, on the other hand, feels the situation is important and perhaps even a potential crisis.
Variations in these sound dimensions can alter the meaning of any particular bark.
Given that basic information, I am giving you here a set of interpretations of the barks that you are most likely to encounter. It is not complete since those variations in the three sound dimensions add shadings of meaning.
For each bark listed, I've provided a common, everyday human language equivalent, which you can think of as an interpretive phrase. These are offered to give you a quick idea of the meaning intended by the dog. However, there are bound to be related phrases that could work as well. In addition, I've given you a section that I have labeled "Conditions and/or Emotions," which should help to give you a sense of the feelings and events that trigger those particular barks.
Please remember that the meanings of any given bark can be modified by the nature of the sound dimensions expressed. For example, lower-pitched barks should be interpreted as more dominant or threatening, while higher-pitched barks should be interpreted as meaning more insecurity or fear. Such emotional shading is added to each specific bark and can give you a clearer idea of what your dog is trying to say.
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Coren, S. (2001). How to speak dog: Mastering the art of dog-human communication. New York: Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster