The Meaning of a Dog’s Bark

By Linda Cole

Dogs are like us in that some enjoy “talking” as much as some people do. A dog’s way of communicating is usually a bit louder than ours, though. Most pet owners who pay attention to their pet can understand what their dog’s bark means. What’s interesting about a barking or growling dog is they can change the pitch and tone of their voice to communicate to us and other dogs what they are trying to say, and what their intentions are.

What Pitch Means

Our tone of voice is understood by dogs. They can tell by the pitch in our voice whether we are pleased or displeased with them. The supposed guilty look dogs have is a myth and is a reaction to the harsh tone of voice we use when they misbehave and we’re upset with them.

Dogs also use pitch to communicate when they feel threatened or indicate they aren’t a threat. Growling is done in a low pitch and says “I’m scared or angry and could become aggressive.” It says the dog needs space and wants the other dog or person to back off and stay away. It’s a way for a dog to suggest he may be larger than he really is, or for larger dogs to communicate their bigger size to another animal.

A whine or whimper is a high pitched sound that says “I’m not a threat and have no intention of being aggressive. I’m harmless and need help or would like to come closer.” It makes the whimpering dog sound non-threatening regardless of his actual size.

Length and Frequency of Growls or Barks

How long a sound lasts determines what the dog is thinking. The longer the duration, the more likely a conscious decision was made by the dog about a point of concern, and what his next move might be. A dog that issues a low pitched, drawn out growl is saying he will not back down and is prepared to fight. Short successive growls that last only for a short time suggest fear and that the dog lacks confidence in his ability to defend himself if attacked.

The duration of a bark determines what message is being sent. Continuous repeated barking is a sign the dog is excited or sees something that bothers him, and barks that aren’t repeated have less of an excitement level. A few ruff ruffs at someone walking down the street says the dog is only somewhat interested in what’s going on.

The dog that gives repeated barking bursts over the course of a minute is saying he sees something that’s important which could be dangerous. I’m sure to my dogs, the cat sitting in the garden staring at them is important, but I doubt the feline poses a serious threat to them, unless she suddenly turns into a stalking Saber Tooth Tiger.

Common Dog Barks

*A quick succession of two to four barks with pauses in between says pay attention because something isn’t quite right. Someone needs to check it out. The pitch is in the midrange.

*Rapid and continuous barking with a midrange pitch is a “call the pack” bark. Something has invaded our territory and it could be a problem. A slow continuous lower pitched bark says “there’s danger close by and we need to be ready.”

*Repeated and constant barks with pauses in between is a lonely dog who wants to know if there’s anyone out there who can hear how miserable he is.

*A greeting bark that says “Hi” is in the midrange pitch with a couple of short quick barks.

*A short quick midrange bark is one used by a mother dog telling her pups to mind. It can also indicate a dog is annoyed with you or another dog, or didn’t like you tugging on his foot or ear. It means “stop it.”

*A short quick bark in a higher midrange pitch indicates the dog is surprised by something. If it turns into a series of two or three barks, the dog is telling the rest of the pack to come look at what he found. If your dog uses the same kind of bark, but it isn’t as short and quick, he’s saying “come here.” You might recognize this bark when your dog goes to the door wanting to go outside. When a lower pitch is used and the bark is relaxed, it means “cool or great.”

*If your dog gives you a midrange stutter bark that sounds like “harr-ruff,” he’s asking if you want to play.  “I’m having so much fun” is a series of barks that start in the midrange pitch and then rises sharply.

Understanding your dog’s tone of voice and frequency of a bark helps determine the seriousness in a bark. This is good to know, because sometimes what they are communicating to us is important.

Top photo by Szymon Nitka
Middle photo by Scott Barron
Bottom photo by Alan Levine

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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