Behavior & Training
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Dog Speak: The Sounds of Dogs


Friedman shares the way she manages her own dog’s barking: “We live in the country, and when we let the dogs out, they bark at the deer for a number of seconds. Then we say, ‘That’s enough, thank you,’ and they are quiet and we praise them.” She adds, “It’s a [mistake] to think that barking is the problem. The real problem is that dogs don’t stop barking when we ask.”

So-called “quick fixes” can make barking worse, particularly if the underlying reason for the behavior isn’t addressed. “Putting an anti-bark collar on a fearful dog is unlikely to decrease barking if the consequence [shock or spray] increases the dog’s fear. If the fear increases, barking could as well,” explains Marylandbased Mary Huntsberry, MA, ACAAB.

Strategies for Change
So what can dog owners do about barking? Before you get carried away, consider whether or not action is even required. Friedman advises taking a step back. “When we ask, ‘Is barking a behavior problem?’ the [next] question is, ‘For whom?’ Barking certainly is a problem when people say it is, and for dogs, it is a problem when they are spending so much time doing it that it eclipses other healthful activities.”

Barking can be managed and modified, so if you want to influence your dog’s vocal style, it helps to start early and be observant. Teaching dogs the boundaries of acceptable vocalizations from an early age will pay off for everyone; when dogs are young, barking might be cute, but as they age, the cute factor tends to wear off. If the behavior is already in place, there are ways to alter it, Huntsberry observes. “It helps to do a functional analysis. During an extensive interview, I identify what happens immediately before (antecedent) and after (consequence) the unwanted behavior so I can identify the trigger and what maintains it.”

Monaco Torelli focuses her attention on the dog-human relationship. “When owners are frustrated by their dog’s behavior, we show them some immediate training goals and success points so they see that their dog can do what they want them to be doing, instead of what they don’t want them to do. This helps them rebuild their bond with their dog.”

The takeaway message is that barking is a nuanced and flexible behavior, and relationships can grow by paying attention to what your dog’s vocalizations mean. And if you’re on a post-holiday diet and want to train your dog to bark incessantly whenever you make a move for another slice of cake, well, that’s just good teamwork.



This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 73: Spring 2013

Julie Hecht, MSc, is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She writes a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Dog Spies at Facebook and Twitter @DogSpies | DogSpies.com

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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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