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Bark 2: Study says barks have little meaning

What’s your barking dog trying to say?

Nothing in particular, according to a University of Massachusetts study. It concludes dogs do not bark differently in different circumstances; rather, they have one all purpose bark to ward off predators and deal with conflict.

“What we’re saying is that the domestic dog does not have an intentional message in mind, such as, ‘I want to play’ or ‘the house is on fire,'” said Kathryn Lord, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst doctoral candidate, who worked to define the bark.

She believes the dog bark evolved about 10,000 years ago, when dogs needed to stand their ground to eat at human dumpsites. Instead of running away every time a human came near, they participated in mobbing behavior, bravely barking to intimidate intruders instead of running away and wasting food energy.

Lord pointed out that not all dog noises are barks, and that the other noises might have other motivations behind them, according to a WCVB TV report.

But as for barks, she insists, dog’s aren’t trying to tell us anything, just voice their “internal conflict.”

“There’s no deep cognitive understanding, and I think that upsets a lot of people,” she said.

Dogs had no comment on the study.


Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time July 23, 2009 at 8:58 am

It’s interesting to me because I’m fond of hounds, and especially one particular hound. As a group, they’re very vocal, and most have a whole vocabulary of different sounds and signals in addition to their regular old bark.

If they’re lonely, if they hear another dog (or a fire engine), or if they scent a prey animal, they bay. (Some people would say “they howl.”) A lot of them also have a set of very clear, much softer, vocal signals for things like “Out, please!” or “I’m excited.” or “I’m contented.” or “I’m beginning to get frustrated and will shortly be barking.”

I think they do all this because their original purpose involved hunting (and living) in packs. They needed to communicate with each other, and with the humans who were following them, over long distances while locating and tracking their prey. And when they got home, they needed to establish some kind of social order and smooth operations within their packs. Lots of dogs give vocal cues, but the hounds seem to have developed their voices into precision instruments.

Comment from Eighteenpaws
Time July 23, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Agree w/ Anne! I have multiple dogs, and they love to alarm me in the woods or when looking out a window when I am far away in another part of the house. I can always tell WHICH dog, as well as whether it’s “stranger spotted” or “bunny seen” or “throw me that tennis ball already,” or whether it’s a sight or a sound that has attracted their attention. One dog’s bark alerts and affects the others differently and specifically, so for sure THEY understand one another’s language. I think that if you live closely with your dogs, you learn a good part (but not all!) of their language. “No cognitive understanding?” That is impossible, Your numerous blogs and tales have demonstrated time and again that dogs are way smarter than we usually give credit.

Comment from Ashley
Time July 26, 2009 at 2:14 am

A few weeks a study came out arguing that cats aren’t as smart as initially thought and that their vocalizations and purring didn’t actually mean anything either. Having spent plenty time around both species, I have my doubts about these claims. I know these studies are done on domesticated animals but are they even taking into consideration the complicated social structures and habits of their wild cousins, wolves and lions?