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Dog Speak: The Sounds of Dogs

Udell suggests that barking doesn’t have to be whittled down to one simple explanation. “If you look at communication and vocalizations in a wide range of species, it usually isn’t about one thing. Chickadees have ‘alert’ calls, but they also have songs, and the songs themselves can mean different things in different contexts. I think the same could hold true for dogs.”

So Annoying
These general frameworks are just part of the story. Genes and environment affect all things dog, including vocalizations. In their seminal study of dog behavior and genetics, Scott and Fuller note that when Basenjis, a typically “barkless” dog, do actually bark, they generally produce only one or two low “woofs.” On the other hand, “the maximum number of barks recorded for a Cocker in a 10-minute period was 907, or more than 90 a minute.” Why the Guinness Book of World Records was not contacted is beyond me.

But genes aren’t everything. As Susan Friedman, PhD, a pioneer in the application of applied behavior analysis to captive and companion animals and a psychology professor at Utah State University, explains, “While Shih Tzus as a group tend to display less barking than Miniature Poodles, that doesn’t mean barking in Miniature Poodles is impervious to change. And I’ve certainly known individual Miniature Poodles who are quiet and individual Shih Tzus who are barky, both based on their current situations. The individual always bests any generalization.”

Dr. Yin’s study of dog barks concurs. Even within breeds, she found variations in who barked and when. Rudy and Siggy, 11-year-old German Shorthaired Pointers, both barked in the disturbance context, but when alone, Rudy did not bark and Siggy had lots to say.

The effects of the social environment on dog behavior can be important because sometimes, dogs just go with the flow. On The Bark’s Facebook page, Bev Morey of Kansas commented, “After attending day care each afternoon, my Weimaraner now barks at anything and everything. So annoying.”

“So annoying” is one of the challenges of barking. While all vocalizations, including barking, are generally seen as normal elements of dog behavior, barking is one of dogs’ less-appreciated attributes. According to Laura Monaco Torelli, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, director of training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, “Barking can be especially challenging for those in urban settings, as they live in close quarters with neighbors.” Owners of barking dogs might receive dirty looks or formal complaints from neighbors, and enough complaints can lead to eviction.

Though dogs bark for any reason under the sun, barking is a construct of context, genes and environment, and so is flexible. For example, feral dogs are much less noisy than their counterparts who play with toys, sleep in beds and go to obedience class.

Friedman explains. “For dogs, barking is a functional behavior, meaning it is maintained, increased or decreased due to consequences. Once this is [understood], it opens the door to changing the duration, intensity and frequency of the behavior by changing the consequences.” In other words, dogs can learn to be quieter.

However, perfect quiet is probably unrealistic. Owners can’t always control the stimuli that prompt barking, especially if they’re not home 24/7. Moreover, barking that has been solidified and maintained over time through intermittent reinforcement has a lot of staying power. “It seems that owners unintentionally reinforce the barks produced when a dog is around food or toys, and these become the begging barks of that dog,” says Faragó.

Monaco Torelli agrees. “If a dog learns that the noise in the hallway goes away when he barks, barking becomes an effective behavior. Barking is followed by the consequence of the noise in the hallway stopping.”

Owners should focus not on eliminating barking altogether, but on reducing it to levels they find appropriate and livable. When she meets with clients to discuss their dogs’ barking issues, Monaco Torelli asks questions such as, “How many barks is okay? What’s excessive to you?” This, she says, gives the trainer a good starting point from which to develop a plan to teach the client how to reshape a dog’s barking behavior. Trainers and owners discuss acceptable barking, and then implement techniques to achieve desired levels in each context.

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Submitted by Mona Lindau-Webb | March 9 2013 |

Humans tend to be sooo human oriented, looking for "meaning" in animal vocalizations. Dogs bark, growl, whine, grunt, do soft mmh-mmhs, etc., etc. but the standard communication model for human speech with a speaker at one end, and a listener at the other and a "message" in between just does not fit animal communication. Animals probably do not convey information to each other. Why would they? It would not confer any survival advantage to the speaker. So instead, look at what the dog has to say from the dog's vantage point.

The frequency code as described by E.Morton has been shown to fit close communication between animals. There is now evidence from several hundred species on this, including fish and humans. The medium is the message, an animal uses ritualized communication to manipulate other animals into some sort of action. High pitch and harmonic spectrum communicate smallness, "don't hurt me", submission, friendliness, not willing to go into conflict. Low pitch and harmonic spectrum like a dog's growl is a warning. Low pitch and a spectrum with lots of noise is a dire threat that unless the listener moves away, something bad will happen.

What we call pitch is produced by the vibrating vocal cords, and animals reinforce this by also changing the resonances in the vocal tract size so that they sound smaller or larger. This is done by pulling the lips back to shorten the vocal tract so that the animal sounds smaller together with the high pitch, or by pulling the corners of the lips forward to increase the length of the vocal tract to sound larger. Look at a serious threat from a dog, the corners of the lips is the sure sign that tells you how close the dog is to follow through on the threat. In addition, dogs lower the larynx as well in a threat to sound even larger. Humans of course are totally used to decipher this, we constantly calibrate the speech of various size people to normalize the vowel space, for example.

Human speech uses the same frequency code where for example questions in many many languages are signalled by some sort of high pitch, a question meaning uncertainty, appeal to the listener. Lower or falling pitch over a sentence signals assertiveness, dominance (?), etc. So of course humans should be good at deciphering friendly and threatening canine vocalizations.

Humans also manipulate the size of the vocal tract in the same way as dogs and other animals by retracting the corners of the lips. John Ohala demonstrates that this is the answer to the eternal "riddle of the smile": why would you show all those teeth when you intend to be friendly? Well, retracting the commissure of the lips shortens the vocal tract so you sound smaller, and friendlier, and non-threatening.

Of course dogs have a lot more to say other than manipulating other beings. They certainly have the "alert alert alert" bark. There is a special high pitch of the play bark.

Some dogs use a type of harmonic spectra soft mutterings when communicating with people, never with other dogs, as if to imitate human speech to a small extent. I have observed these signals when dogs attempt to manipulate me into waking up, or getting my attention.

Canine vocalizations should really be described much more from the dogs' point of view, not from the usual anthropocentric angle. This article is quite correct that dogs have a lot to say. I also observe that dogs that have been brought up to communicate with their person
will produce fresh types of sounds that are vaguely similar to some human sounds when "talking" to their special person.

Evolution in the making???

Eugene Morton and Jake Page, Animal Talk. 1992.
John J. Ohala, The acoustic origin of the smile Journal of the Acoustical. Society of America 68.S33.1980
Mona Lindau, Testing a model of intonation in a tone language. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 80(3):757-64.1986

Submitted by J | June 23 2014 |

Humans are animals. Animal vocalizations, whether primate, canine, or anything else do have meaning. If anything, your definition of 'conveying information' is more human-oriented than the author's. Do you not think that a warning bark is trying to convey something?

You seem to be generally agreeing with the article, while your objections focus more on the language the author uses. It should be obvious that the author chooses that approach because they are communicating the information to humans, not to dogs

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