Gertrude Stein may find that “…a rose is a rose is a rose” but in the canine world a bark is not always just a bark! We can learn a lot from how dogs are vocalizing. Paired with the visual cues a dog provides, there are some very clear messages Fido is trying to provide to a human. We just need to recognize these signals and sounds.
In the picture below, Oscar, my foster dog, exhibiting some Fearful Barking. I wish I had some audio of this picture of Oscar because he is clearly frightened of the camera lens. Notice he is avoiding eye contact. If you heard his bark I would most liken it to a fear bark. He was barking in a high pitched, wooing noise. The position of his ears were back on his head. After this picture was taken, he jumped off his perch (he likes to sit on the patio firepit table) and paced back and forth on the deck for as long as I had my camera with the long lens attached. As soon as I switched to a prime lens (a short one that doesn’t move) he quieted down and was fine. He even let me take his picture.
In Barking the Sound of a Language by Turid Rugaas, she identifies several types of barking including Excitement Bark, Warning Bark, Fear Bark, Guard Bark, Frustration Bark and Learned Bark. The book is available through Dogwise Publishing and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to get some more detailed information on dog vocalization and behavior.
Excitement barking also has a high frequency sound and can sound a little hysterical or constant. The dog will be very aroused and have a higher stress level. This is the ADD dog who can’t sit down at all or be still. He might be jumping up and down, tail up and wagging excessively and his ears could be back or perched forward. During an excited bark, the dog probably won’t acknowledge a command.
You might see a dog from behind a fence and hear on short, sharp “Woof.” This is a Warning Bark and simply means that the enemy is coming. If you hear this bark, it is wise not to attempt to pet the dog! You might evoke the flight part of fight or flight but some dogs find it necessary to guard the homestead and defend his space.
Guard Barking is usually accompanied with growling noises and people immediately react to it as a form of aggression. The dog will make lunging movements and has a very high stress level. He is definitely in the defensive mode so he may “fly” or he may try to scare something or someone away by showing teeth, growling, lunging forward, air snapping and barking. If that something or someone still doesn’t take the hint, you may see this dog bite but as a last chance effort.
Frustration Barking is often what you hear in a shelter. It is endless static barking with the same tone and sequence over and over. Behaviors that accompany could include digging, chewing, licking, chasing shadows or tail. Frustration barking is often caused by long-term stress like a dog in a shelter, or chained or hungry. This is maybe the most heartbreaking sound I can hear.
The last type of barking Rugaas discusses is Learned Barking. It often starts out as one of the different types already described but it is something that the owner has consciously (or subconsciously) reinforced with the dog. An example might be a dog barking at you to pet him. He won’t stop barking so you give him what he wants – you pet him. Now he is learning that if I stand in front of Mom and bark at her, I will get something that I want or a reward. Learned barking could also be at the command, “Speak!” A reward is coming if I bark on command. Sometimes, this is not a great idea as the dog will try to claim their rewards by barking even if you haven’t given the command!
Next time your dogs barks, stop and think about the triggers, his body language and the vocalization. A bark is not a bark is not a bark!
What can you see from Oscar’s body language here and what do you think he’s communicating?