Dog Behavior: Why Do Dogs Bark?
Is Barking Genetic or Due to The Environment?
Barking: from a canine's standpoint barking is quite similar to a human talking; its main purpose is indeed to deliver messages. While dogs are masters in body language; vocalizations generally rank second as their preferred form of communication. Dogs communicate by baying, barking, whining, whimpering, howling, yodeling and growling in a variety of circumstances. Generally, low-pitched sounds such as deep barks and growls are used for distance increasing purposes, in other words, to say "stay away from me". On the other hand, high-pitched sounds are distance decreasing, meaning the dog is likely inviting others to come closer. "It's safe to come closer" is what these dogs are trying to say, explains Stanley Coren in his book "How to Speak Dog".
Regardless of its meaning, barking and its vast repertoire of accompanying vocalizations, is a way dogs communicate a vast array of emotions from "I'm lonely" to "I want to play" to "go away!". There is a genetic component to barking because it is essential for dogs to communicate their needs (puppy whimpering to get mother's attention), whether the dog lives in the wild or in a domestic setting.
Canines in the wild must communicate for many survival purposes. Wolves howl for aggregation purposes, so they can gather and get ready to hunt. Yet, they also howl to manifest unity and to celebrate their bond. Puppies whimper and whine to manifest their submission or their needs, whereas, adult dogs leave their most guttural, deep barks and growls to send a potentially dangerous predator away.
In a domestic setting, barking is often used to communicate needs towards humans from the demanding attention-seeking barking to the dreadful howling of the socially isolated dog. Barking is also used as a way to alert the owner of possible intruders.
While barking and other verbal displays, played, and continues to play, an essential role for the survival of wild canines, it is also true that once dog met humans, the barking behavior increased because it was prized. Our ancestors used dogs as watch dogs which were used to alert humans of night-time predators or hostile bands of humans getting close. Humans took this dog's ability another step further and then started selectively breeding certain dogs for their ability to bark.
A closer Look into Genetic Barking
As seen, barking played and continues to play an essential role for survival purposes, but is also utilized as a form of communication to connect with humans and manifest needs. As mentioned, several dogs were selectively bred for their barking habits; indeed, for community security purposes, humans in settlements, purposely looked for a dog with a loud and persistent bark. Dogs that barked the most were bred with other dogs that barked, whereas, dogs that barked little were not bred or were disposed of because of their uselessness. However, it is also true that some dogs were selectively bred for their barking abilities much more than others and for several purposes.
Interestingly, while deep barks and growls may be used to intimidate a potentially dangerous predator away, dogs were initially by nature silent hunters. It would have been totally counterproductive indeed for dogs to bark right upon spotting prey! However, because domestication has created a partnership between dogs and humans, it was useful to instill in certain dogs the trait of barking upon spotting prey for the purpose of alerting the hunters.
This applies to terriers. The word terrier derives from the word "terra" which means "earth". These dogs' specialty is to dig into burrows to flush game out and kill it. In this case, the barking would alert the hunter so he could intervene before the terrier was in jeopardy upon confronting a potential fox or badger.
On the other hand, hounds bay to indicate the presence of their quarry to other dogs in their pack. Their bay is simply telling the other hounds to "follow me and gather" so to elicit cooperation for the hunt.
Following are few of several dog breeds predisposed to barking:
- Yorkshire Terrier (bred to hunt mice and rats in small places and used as home guardians)
- Cairn Terrier (bred to hunt foxes and badgers and bark to hold them until farmer intervened)
- Miniature Schnauzer (bred to hunt mice and vermin and used as farm guardians)
- West Highland White Terrier (bred to chase rats underground and bark to alert handler)
- Fox Terrier (bred to flush foxes and bark while hunting)
- Beagle (bred to hunt hare and rabbits and bark while hunting)
- Breeds bred to guard, livestock guardians.
Interestingly, barking appears to be a dominant gene. The Basenji, which is a breed of dog that rarely barks, was crossed with the noisier cocker spaniel in an interesting study conducted by Scott and Fuller. The result was a litter of dogs with a high predisposition for barking. Stanley Coren suggests that most likely this explains why, back in the days, it was so easy to produce a domestic dog with a strong predisposition for barking.
A Closer Look into Environmental Barking
Put a breed genetically predisposed to barking into an environment rich of stimuli that potentially stimulates barking, and you will have the perfect recipe for a 'yappy' dog engaging in nuisance barking. But what environmental stimuli make dogs more prone to barking? It varies from one dog to another.
For instance, you would expect some guard dogs to be very alert and prone to sound the alarm for every little noise, but in reality, some guardian breeds engage in a "wait and see approach". A rottweiler, for instance, is not on the top list of barkers because according to the AKC the Rottweiler is "self-confident and responds quietly and with a wait-and-see attitude to influences in his environment." Indeed, this breed takes top spot as one the breeds less likely to bark according to the book " The Perfect Puppy: How to Choose Your Dog by Its Behavior".
Common stimuli and circumstances that trigger barking spells in dogs;
- Knocking on the door
- Unusual noises
- Intruders in property
- Social isolation
- Needs not met
- Other dogs
It is important to recognize that barking can be a strongly reinforcing behavior, especially if the barking is for distance increasing purposes. In this case, the dog is saying "stay away from me or my territory" and if the person or dog complies by moving away, the dog will further engage in this behavior because it fulfills its goal. This explains why dogs bark repeatedly at mailmen and pizza delivery guys despite seeing them every day. These dogs do not habituate to their presence for the simple fact they learn that their barking is effective in sending the person away and this is reinforcing. According to Thorndike's law of effect "responses closely followed by satisfaction will become firmly attached to the situation and therefore more likely to reoccur when the situation is repeated" the dog will therefore repeat the behavior over and over.
If a dog is socially isolated and the owner comes home when the dog is actively barking, the dog will very likely believe that barking brought his owner back. The dog therefore will bark and bark every day in hopes the owner returns. Attention barking is obviously rewarded by attention being either negative or positive.
Some forms of barking can be reduced by habituating the dog to certain stimuli. Recordings of door bells, fire crackers and thunder storms played at a low volume, may help reduce reactive barking overtime. If counterconditioning is added to desensitization, the effects may be even more powerful. For more information about these techniques read:
A television channel known as DogTv is now being launched in California, where programming offers exposure to environmental noises for the purposes of desensitizing dogs. To learn more read:
Barking to stimuli in the environment may be frustrating at times, especially when there are neighbors complaining. Dogs left in the yard all day, are more prone to problem barking because of the greater number of stimuli around them or the lack of exercise mixed with loneliness. However, dogs that bark a lot when left alone may be also suffering from separation anxiety. These dogs often require veterinary intervention and an appropriate behavior modification program.
Nature Versus Nurture: What's the Verdict?
So is barking the result of a dog's nature or nurture? I believe the verdicts says both. Dogs are barking machines by default, with some breeds more motivated to sound the alarm than others, but the environment with all its stimuli known for triggering barking, does all the rest.