The Familiar Sounds of Barking

Study finds that we’re born with a natural ability to understand dogs.
By JoAnna Lou, August 2009, Updated July 2016

An important part of being a dog lover is learning to understand canine body language. Personally, I attribute my knowledge to my pups, a perfect teaching team. But it turns out that we may be born understanding more than we think. 

A new study published in the July issue of Developmental Psychology found that 6-month-old babies could match the sound of an aggressive bark with a picture of an angry-looking dog and the sound of a happy bark with a friendly-looking dog, even if they didn’t have pets at home. 

In the study of 128 infants and toddlers, the researchers played barking sounds while showing the babies two photos of the same dog, one displaying aggressive body language and the other friendly body language. They found that the babies were more likely to look longer at the picture of the dog whose expression matched the barking. Only 15 percent spent more time looking at the wrong dog or equally at both.

Prior research has shown that babies can distinguish between happy and angry sounds, but the ability to match sounds to photos is remarkable. Dogs and humans have no doubt evolved with each other over the years. So I’m most interested in the scientists’ next study, which will compare how humans relate to dogs versus wolves in an attempt to understand our unique relationship with domesticated canines. 

It's important to note that while it appears that babies have some understanding of canine communication, it doesn't mean they know how to interact safely with dogs. Doggone Safe provides a wonderful resource for teaching bite prevention to children.


JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.