5 Reasons Why We Think Dogs Bark

Bunny the Talking Dog took the world by storm when videos of the sheepadoodle "talking" with her owner through a mechanized board using a few select phrases went viral (posted on YouTube). Before the videos, Bunny's owner, Alexis Devine, had spent months studying canine cognition and talking with a speech pathologist to determine the extent to which the TikTok experiment could be performed, according to The New York Times.

This social media phenomenon is just the latest example of dogs communicating with humans. When dogs tilt their head or raise their eyebrows, for example, it is a means of building sympathy in their owners, per The New York Times. Dogs have learned many tricks since they were domesticated some 20,000 years ago. Beyond sit and stay, they can also assist hunters in capturing prey and provide vital assistance to people with disabilities (via The New York Times). At the same time, some dog owners for the life of them can't get their dogs to stop barking. So why do dogs bark, and how does it relate to us?

The food bark

It's hard to guess exactly what a dog is trying to communicate when barking, but researchers have been trying to study various different barks to determine their possible meanings. In one study, researchers recorded different growls from different dogs and labeled them based on what they thought the dogs were trying to communicate, according to Scientific American. Then, they gave a set of experimental dogs whose voices had not previously been recorded a juicy bone and played the various barks to see how it changed the dogs' behavior while approaching the bone.

What they found was that dogs who were introduced to the bone with a "food growl" playing in the background were more intrigued and willing to pick up the bone and chew on it than dogs that were played a "stranger growl" when presented with a bone. Scientists hypothesized that the "stranger growl" alerted these dogs to an intruder that was near, spoiling their appetite, per Scientific American.

The stranger bark

Stemming from their wolf ancestry, some dogs will protect their "pack" of humans when an unfamiliar person comes near the home, which explains why dogs often bark when a delivery person drops a package at the front door. Typically these "territorial defense" barks are lower in pitch, like a growl, and may be accompanied by body language like tail tucking or retracted lips, according to Discover Magazine.

Ironically, this type of behavior is thought to be a by-product of domestication rather than a trait passed down from wolf canine ancestry, as just 3% of what wolves use their vocal chords for is to bark, according to Scientific American. A Russian experiment in which a group of foxes was bred to be docile and compared to a control group of wild foxes further proves this point. What scientists found was that the foxes raised in captivity barked when they saw people, but the wild foxes did not, indicating this aggressive bark has domesticated roots (per Scientific American).

The solo bark

At this point in history, dogs have been domesticated by humans for so long that many of their barks are related to us. However, if the only reason dogs barked was to alert humans to an intruder or to ask for food or attention, why would dogs continue to bark when they were completely alone? To understand this phenomenon, researchers recorded the barks of dogs when they were alone and the barks of dogs that were with their owners, according to Scientific American.

When the different barks were played to a group of dogs newly introduced to the recordings, researchers found that the experimental dogs did not pay much attention to the barks that occurred when the dogs were alone. However, when they rolled back the track to play dogs barking to alert their owners to a stranger nearby, the dogs also became alert, paying close attention and growing agitated, per Scientific American.

The dog-to-dog bark

It is thought that cats do not meow among themselves, but rather that they have learned to use this form of "speech" to communicate with humans, according to Live Science. But dogs and cats are notoriously at odds with each other, and the same is not true for dogs. Although dogs can bark to alert and protect their humans from intruders, they also bark to communicate with each other, per Scientific American.

Dogs have a "modifiable vocal tract," which means they can change up their vocal chords a lot, according to Scientific American. In the lab, scientists have measured the range and pitches of dog barks and found that a canine's barks can vary in timing, pitch, and amplitude, depending on the situation. In fact, one study showed they can recognize specific canine pals in recordings, much like humans might recognize a familiar voice, per Discover Magazine.

The human bark

Some dogs bark more than others. The Basenji, also known as the "Barkless Dog," can't bark at all. On the other hand, hunting and herding dogs like huntaways and beagles are used to employing their barks to herd sheep or alert their owners to prey. As a result, they might be more accustomed to barking than a breed that doesn't have those purposes bred into them, like a labradoodle, per Discover Magazine.

Another way dogs use their barks to communicate with humans is to ask for attention and interaction. Your dog might bring a toy or ball to your feet before looking in your eyes and letting out a sharp yelp. Dogs have been bred for hundreds of years and have grown accustomed to barking to attract our attention. They may also have anxiety when they are separated from their humans or hear loud noises like fireworks, per PetMD.