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— March 20, 2012 —

What’s that bark saying?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

This week, I’d like to discuss a little about what a dog’s vocalizations mean.

We all know that dogs don’t actually talk. Researchers have said that over 90% of all human communications is non-verbal (body language, inflection, tone, etc). Keep in mind that dogs don’t even have spoken language, so the vast majority of their communication must be through body language also.

With that being said, it is possible to decipher a couple of things from our dog’s vocalizations. As I mentioned last week, the first thing you will need to do is to pay attention to individual dogs in a group. Watch how they interact and listen to their vocalizations. Just like with body language, vocalizations can be very short and easy to miss.

The first and most obvious thing you will notice is the pitch of different sounds. The concept of how pitch influences meaning is very simple. In all of nature, big things tend to create lower pitch sounds. Tap on a tin cup and kick a water barrel and you will get a clear example of how size influences pitch. The pitch of a dog’s bark should be evaluated relative to its own bark and not all dogs. In other words, a deep bark for a Chihuaua will not be as deep as a high pitch bark from a Rottweiler. An American Pit Bull Terrier can have a very high pitch bark for its size so you have to evaluate it based on the individual dog.

The rules relating to pitch are universal through the animal kingdom, including humans. A small, harmless animal like a mouse will have a high pitch whereas a lion, which can be quite dangerous, has low pitch sounds associated with it. What this ultimately means relating to dogs is this. When a dog wants to sound dangerous, it tries to sound bigger. A dog will alter the pitch of its vocalizations to fit whatever the situation may be.

To distill this all to one main point, a dog that is friendly and approachable will emit higher pitch sounds, whereas a dog that is either defensive (guarding) or fearful will emit a lower sound like a growl. This may seem obvious in situations where a dog is guarding a yard, but keep in mind that dogs on the street can emit sounds very subtly that are warnings to stay away.

The bark is a treasure trove of information regarding our dogs’ mental state. Deciphering how high pitched, rapid, prolonged and forceful the barking is tells us many things about what your dog is trying to “say.”

Say you’re in your house and your dog starts barking in a series of rapid barks. He hears something and the rapid series of barks says that he’s excited by it. The pitch of the barks can change as the dog identifies what is out there, if pitch of the barks lowers, that excitement can be related to a perceived threat (Stranger-Danger). If as the barking continues the dog demonstrates ascending pitch would be translated as happy excitement (Mom is coming home!). The more forceful a bark, the more intense the feeling behind it.

Growling is almost universally perceived as a threat. It generally means the dog is uncomfortable, but can be combined with other things that tell you how likely the dog is to become aggressive. Growls also have pitch variations that can tell us a little about what the dog wants to say. Growls MUST be observed in combination with body posture. A growl that comes from deep in the chest is a confident growl. When combined with a strong, stiff posture and direct eye contact it is a threat. The dog is saying back off. Failure to heed this growl will almost definitely result in an attack. A more throaty growl comes from a dog that is not looking for a fight, but may bite if cornered. One growl that is harder to describe is an undulating growl that changes pitch. I have seen it a few times in dogs that were recently rescued and find themselves in a completely strange environment. It is almost always combined with a cowering body posture and exposed teeth. This comes from a very frightened or terrified dog. This dog would prefer to run from a fight, but will absolutely lash out if cornered.

Like barks, growls need to be interpreted based on the individual dog. I happen to own Rottweilers. They are known as a breed to “purr” when they are happy. My Rotties purr when they are content and being petted at home. This is always combined with very relaxed body posture, usually with the dogs laying on their side or back. This playful growl is completely separate from all the warning growls mentioned above. However, if you don’t know the dog, I would advise caution with any dog that is growling.

Yowling, squeaking and squealing usually comes from a happy dog that wants to play. One of my favorite things is when I come home to my dog, Gunnar doing his “yowl-ah-rooo” yodel. He makes a very similar sound when it’s feeding time. Contrasting this a short yelp or series of short yelps usually mean discomfort of some sort. They may also emit a sorrowful wail that cannot be misinterpreted.

Probably the most disturbing dog sound, the scream, comes from a dog that is experiencing severe trauma. It can sound like a screaming baby. This sound can trigger aggression in other dogs. (It is a known fact that high pitched crying sounds from a baby can trigger prey-based aggression in dogs. If you have a very prey driven dog, some training may be in order before you bring a new baby into your home.) I was at a dog park once, when a dog severely injured its knee. The dog began to scream uncontrollably and was instantly attacked by a nearby dog. The attacking dog was not aggressive in general, but the scream triggered its prey instinct. This is why dogs are almost universally interested in squeaky toys. It “turns-on” the hunter in them.

I hope next time your dog talks to you, you’ll have a little better idea of what
he is trying to “say.” With a little practice, you can definitely learn to understand
him better.