Dog Talk: Cracking the barking code


Photo: 123rf

My friend Brandy is as cute as a button. She’s a Poodle, and so she’s not just pretty but also smart. Most of our connection is one way, with me seeing her on social media, but we’ve met several times in person too. The thing is, every time I see her, she barks at me.

The first time, I understood because I knew her but she did not know me. But after that, I wondered what was going on. We like each other, and she enjoys being petted, so the woof-woof-woof was unexpected.

Brandy’s dad, Stanley Saw, is both an avid pet lover and managing director of Abco-Asia, a pet food supplies and marketing company, so he is well versed in animal behaviour.

“Brandy’s barks are messages,” he says. “Most often they are about her wants, like a treat, or she sees we’re dressing to go out and she wants to come. It's communication.”

Brandy is a cutie who loves the excitement of a good bark. Photo: Stanley SawBrandy is a cutie who loves the excitement of a good bark. Photo: Stanley Saw

Wild dogs bark but those who live with us are particularly vocal. Interestingly, it is the human-canine connection that has given dogs their voice.

Scientists noted a long time ago that cats and dogs chat a lot, whereas lions, tigers, wolves, and foxes tend to be rather quiet. They theorised that our pets learn to chat because we like to talk.

That theory was tested neatly by Dr Svetlana Gogoleva, Moscow State University, Russia, and her team who evaluated 12,964 barks and calls made by 75 tame and wild foxes in 2008.

Their analysis showed that the tame foxes talked more and used distinctive cackles and panting sounds when communicating with humans.

This suggests that while wild animals have a value for silence (it keeps them safe), domesticated animals will focus on communicating with us – in whatever method their species finds easiest.

For dogs, barking is a simple way of getting attention. Pet owners agree that doggy barks have distinctive tones and insist that they can understand what their pets are saying.

“For Brandy, and for her friend Whiskey who passed away a few months ago from old age, it’s about expressing emotion, fear, warning, and want,” Saw says. “When the water dispenser man came to fix the machine, Brandy’s bark was territorial. She was saying, ‘I’m here and protecting my family.’”

While non-animal lovers scoff, science backs up pet lovers.

Dr Richard Policht of Czech University of Life Sciences Prague, Czech Republic, and his team studied 1,888 barks of 19 individual Dachshunds and Terriers that were used to hunt wild boar, red fox, rabbit and fowl.

They found that hunting dogs have different barks for each type of prey. Interestingly, the dogs have a super special bark for wild boar which are very dangerous, while the barks for the non-dangerous animals were quite similar.

Studies confirm pet owner views that a dog's barking reflects how it feels rather than it being an evaluation of what it sees.

In other words, the dogs are shouting, “OMG, it’s a BOAR! Watch out! Careful!” and also, “Hey look! Rabbit! See? Over here!”

If you’re a hunter, that kind of information is super useful. However, Brandy barking in the office when there is no danger is different. You can see from her happy little face that she’s not worried at all about my being there. In fact, her lolling tongue and wriggling little bottom are busy signalling her delight.

“Dogs get bored just like people,” Saw says with a laugh. “When there’s an office visitor, Brandy sees that as something to do, a bit of entertainment. She’s saying to herself, ‘I’m here all day, so now I can bark and run around.’”

As for the Tenaga man or the postman, that might be entertainment for some pets but there is another possibility. Dogs that see themselves as guardians may perceive regular workers as testing their boundaries.

Jyn who lived across the street from us was convinced that our postman, a thoroughly nice bloke, was secretly harbouring evil intent.

Every time Jyn heard his motorbike, she’d assume her fearsome Hound of the Baskervilles impression. She’d brace her paws, put up her hackles and show her teeth.

The second he was in sight, she’d bark her emergency woof: Loud, fierce and definitely the dog version of, “See you? Think you’re tough? Come here and try it! I’ll eat you alive!”

For Jyn, every day brought victory. She was the brave doggy who warded off the enemy.

Unfortunately, some people don’t see it that way. Dog barking is a big noise problem worldwide, and in many communities, there are limits on how much a dog may bark and disturb the neighbours.

A recent study showed that age may be a factor as to why some people are more annoyed by barking than others.

Dr Nikolett Jegh-Czinege of Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest, Hungary, and his team taped 12 different bark sounds in 2020 and then asked 153 participants of various ages to rate each according to how annoying it was.

The study found that high-pitched barks have a particular way of catching our attention. Also, when comparing children, young adults and older folks, results showed that the young adults found these barks to be the most annoying.

What is interesting is that other studies show that high-pitched baby cries are also top attention-grabbers. Therefore, given that we humans have evolved to be sensitive to this particular type of cry, it is possible that dogs have maybe evolved their emergency bark to be similar.

While I would never describe Brandy’s barks as shrill, they can be high-pitched when she’s over-excited.

“You can train dogs to be quiet with positive reinforcement training,” Saw says, “but when they’re over-excited, there will be some noise.

“Treats help, as does a hand on your pet’s head to remind them. Thankfully, with Brandy being so small, we let her have her moment and then we just pick her up.”

So the next time your furry friend barks, remember, it's just their way of saying, "Hello, I'm totally excited to see you,” or “I’m here to protect you!" Either way, that’s a good message.


Adopt Me

Smart is 10 months old, healthy, and fully vaccinated. This handsome boy is a mixed Husky. As he was born in mid-June last year, he is a typical Gemini: Playful, curious, and warm-hearted. Smart is very energetic and easy to train. He will be a wonderful companion for people as well as other dogs. Interested adopters, please call SPCA Penang (04-281 6559), Jalan Jeti Jelutong, 11600 Jelutong, Penang (spca-penang.net).

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