Can you hear me now?
Our neighbors are saints. Living near someone who has five dogs, all of whom love the sounds of their own voices, is no walk in the park, and I am very appreciative of the forbearance of those on our block who have put up with us for years without calling the police or organizing a petition to run us out of the neighborhood.
Barking is the bane of many a dog owner’s existence, and, in the event it is one of yours, I will share with you some facts about barking I gleaned from an article by Julie Hecht titled “The Sounds of Dogs” in the Spring 2013 edition of BARK magazine.
However, don’t get your hopes up. Nowhere in that article or this column is it going to tell you how to get your dog to stop barking. You will only get some information that will make the barking slightly more interesting, but probably no less annoying.
It’s hard to think of a situation other than sleep when a dog won’t bark. My dogs bark to go out. They bark to come in. They bark when they play. They bark when they are lonely or bored. They bark when they think it’s time to eat, never mind that it is not time to eat. They bark when we come through the front door even though we went out the same door not five minutes before. My dogs like to bark.
Interestingly, I guess, this love seems to be a product of domestication. Wolves, and even coyotes and foxes, bark far less than domesticated dogs. And I am using the term bark too generally. Dogs bark, but they also whine, howl, huff, growl, yelp and yip, and mine, at least occasionally, moan with pleasure, especially during tummy rubs. If you are an astute listener, you may have noticed that there are nuances even within these categories.
Tamas Farago of the Family Dog Project in Budapest identified at least three distinct types of growls — the “stranger approaching” growl, the play growl, and the food guarding growl. The food growl was usually accompanied by bared teeth.
Growling tends to attract human attention right away. Barking most often elicits a “Be quiet!” from humans without a lot of analysis. However, there are variations among barks as well. A doorbell is a stimulus for a ‘disturbance’ bark, which tends to be harsher and lower in pitch. Play barks, or the isolation barks (made by dogs left alone feeling sorry for themselves), tend to vary in volume and frequency, and have a higher pitch than disturbance barks. You may already be pretty good at differentiating your dog’s bark in certain situations. One study shows that by age 10, most of us can hear a dog bark and pretty accurately guess the situation he’s in.
There are also commonalities between human and canine communications. In playful, nonthreatening situations, both species tend to have a higher pitch in the sounds they make than in more serious ones. Think of how your voice sounds when you speak to a baby or a puppy vs. when your child gets in trouble or your dog just ate the remote control. There’s a pretty significant difference in the tone of vocalizations for both species.
One study by Drs. Kathryn Lord and Ray Coppinger finds that many species of animals make noise when there’s a conflict in their situation — for example, a bird senses danger approaching and needs to guard her nest. They posit that one reason domesticated dogs make so much noise is that they find themselves in so many conflicting situations.
They are inside but they want to go out. They are outside but now they want in. You reach for your car keys and Poochie wants to go NOW, but you still have to put on your coat and find your gloves. Feral dogs actually bark a lot less than the little darlings we keep in our homes.
Any dog’s barking also depends to a great extent on his temperament and breed. Anyone near my house can tell you what a corgi’s bark sounds like. However, they hear Irish the greyhound’s bark far less frequently, as he rarely joins the chorus. I took some comfort reading about a cocker spaniel who barked 907 times in a 10 minute period, more than 90 barks per minute. Pity his poor neighbors.
I think there might be some generalities to be drawn about groups of dogs and their barking habits, too. Sighthounds and many breeds of working dogs are often relatively quiet companions; scent hounds and herding dogs, not so much. And, of course, within any breed individuals vary. I have owned many corgis and they were all world-class barkers, but my dear departed Keiki Too might have thought her real name was Keiki Be Quiet, because those were the words she heard most of her days.
As I mentioned, you won’t learn here how to stop your dog from barking. However, I will share some strategies that don’t work. One of these I am frequently guilty of myself: When my pack erupts in a cacophony of noisemaking that surpasses my ability to think clearly, I have been known to reach for the tub of chewies. Five rawhide chews distributed among my pack gives me many minutes of blessed quiet while they happily either chew their own or try to steal someone else’s.
However, I am reinforcing their barking by essentially rewarding the behavior.
Another ineffective technique is yelling at your dog to be quiet (although I admit that in my less sane moments, it does feel good). However, yelling does not seem to have the desired outcome. My pack just thinks I am joining in with them, which only renews their enthusiasm for barking at whatever they were barking at.
The problem, as BARK magazine points out, is not that dogs bark, but that they don’t stop when we tell them to. I will add, and I am sure that those living in my neighborhood would concur, another problem is that they find so darn many reasons to bark. There are books, DVDs and websites devoted to solving behavior problems that we have with our dogs, and barking is always among the top five.
So, if Fluffy’s noisemaking is a problem in your household, there is help.
In the meantime, I will try not to slam my car door in your neighborhood and will appreciate it if you would avoid doing so in mine.
Nancy Carlson can be reached at email@example.com.