Dogs Communicate Well Both Verbally and With Body Language

You may not want to hear it, but your dog is trying to tell you something.


As I scooped horse manure in my barnyard this morning, I heard a cacophony of dog noise over a nearby hill. My “dog radar” alerted immediately as I listened for canine distress sounds. Upon concluding that it was a pack of hounds that some hunter had let loose, joyfully giving voice to their pursuit of quarry, I returned to my rural exercise program.

My manure meditation was next interrupted by Tucker, our 75-pound Cattle Dog mix, whose guttural barks warned away the Australian Shepherd who routinely wanders over from three houses away and fights through the fence with Tucker. The ugly sounds ceased before I could intervene, and I made yet another mental note to go plead with the Aussie’s owners to keep him at home where he belongs.

Barn chores completed, I walked back to the house, and was welcomed by the staccato greeting barks of Katie, our Australian Kelpie. Her cheerful “Hello” always ends in a most endearing series of “woo-woo” sounds that brings a smile to my face. Entering the house, I could hear the irritating and persistent, high-pitched demand barking of Dusty, our Pomeranian, who knew that his breakfast was next on the morning agenda. As I let him in to stop his chatter, Dubhy, the Scottie, issued several gruff “alert” barks, announcing the arrival of the neighbor cat who gratuitously does rodent patrol in our barn.

Who says dogs can’t talk? In less than 30 minutes, I had been treated to five audible canine communications, each with a clear and distinct meaning and purpose. While dogs are, indeed, exquisite body language communicators, they are no slouch in the vocal communication department. It behooves us to pay attention to what they have to say, and to use it to our advantage to enhance our relationships with them.

When we discuss barking in a dog-training context we tend to focus on canine vocalization as a problem. However, like so many other dog behaviors that may be considered unacceptable or inappropriate in our society, barking serves a useful purpose to the dog. To him, it’s all appropriate bark-ing! Only when human and canine cultures clash does it become a problem.

Let’s look at some of the types of barking that dogs engage in, the reasons for the barking, and what we should do about them.

Territorial / Protective Barking
These utterances may start as low growls or barks that become sharper and more rapid as the intruder approaches. The dog’s posture is usually threatening – tail high, ears up and forward. While territorial barking may be diminished to some degree by spaying or neutering, surgery won’t stop it completely. Tucker and Dubhy, both neutered, were doing territorial barking this morning; one at a canine intruder, one at a feline trespasser. They also do protective barking at cars or delivery trucks that venture up our long driveway, and when visitors knock at the door.

A limited amount of protective barking may be a good thing. Backyard protective/territorial barking can be reduced by minimizing the visual stimuli – making the fence a solid privacy fence rather than chain-link see-through (or worse, electronic, non-visible.) Living in the country, I like to have a little audible deterrent for any trespassers who may have evil intentions. I suspect those living in the city do, too. However, whether city or country, indoors or out, it’s nice to be able to turn off the deterrent after two or three barks.

Don’t make the mistake of yelling at your dog for barking. He may well think you’re joining his attempts to ward off the intruder, and redouble his efforts. There’s no point in getting angry – it just gets your adrenaline pumping as well as his! Besides, he has no way of knowing who he should bark at and who he shouldn’t – it’s simply his job to alert you to the presence of a non-family member. The best way to turn off his bark is by teaching him a “quiet” cue. It’s easier than you might think.

I start by teaching a “positive interrupt” independent of the barking behavior. When your dog is calm and relaxed, say “Over here!” in a cheerful tone of voice, make a kissy noise if necessary to get his attention, and feed him a tasty treat when he looks at you, or comes to you. Repeat this exercise until your “Over here!” elicits a prompt and happy response every time. Now you are ready to try it out with the barking.

Ask a friend to help you. Have her come to your house and knock on the door to elicit the barking. Let your your dog bark three times, then tell him “Over here!” (remember to keep it cheerful). If he doesn’t respond, put a bit of delectably high-value treat (such as canned chicken) under his nose to turn his attention to you. When he stops barking, tell him he’s a good boy, and feed him a few more chicken tidbits. Then have your friend knock again. Repeat the exercise until he will respond to your “Over here!” cue as soon as you give it. Then take a break and invite your friend in for coffee and cookies. Remember to let your dog bark three times each time before you give the cue, or he may learn to not bark at all!

You might need to invite your friend back for a few more visits to get your dog reliably responding on the first knock each time. When he seems to have the idea, you can start calmly adding the word “Quiet!” or “Quiet, please” after the “Over here!” cue. Eventually you will be able to just say, “Quiet, please,” without the “Over here!” to stop the barking. I personally love the “Quiet, please” cue, and always follow it with a “Thank you!” You can easily generalize this to other protective barking situations, and over time, you can gradually randomize the treat reward, replacing it with praise and petting (if those are rewarding to your dog), with only an occasional treat.

Attention-Seeking / Demand Barking
This is the kind of barking that dear little Dusty does when he wants his breakfast. While we generally consider demand barking to be “bad,” it is also what Dubhy does when he makes a sweet little grumbling noise in his throat to tell me he has to go outside.

Many of our dogs use attention-seeking sounds and behaviors to let us know they have a need that they would like taken care of. Whining is another common manifestation of demand behavior, often with an anxiety component. If we are in the habit of meeting our dogs every demand, then yes, it can become oppressive. Properly managed, it can be a charming communication tool to help us understand our canine companions.

Dusty’s breakfast barking is the epitome of annoying little-dog yapping. If I wanted to fix it, I would need to very consistently ignore the behavior I don’t want (breakfast barking) and reward the behavior I do want (waiting calmly outside for me to open the door to let him in for breakfast). I know this, and I will confess that I have deliberately chosen simply to let him in to eat to stop his barking. It is the only time he does it, and the time and effort it would take to change the behavior just isn’t worth it to me.

Making a behavior go away by removing the reward that the dog enjoys for it is called “extinction.” It can be a very effective behavior modification technique, and I use it often with clients whose dogs liberally engage in demand barking. We see it most frequently in class, when the dog knows his human is in training mode and has treats at hand. (Since I almost always carry treats, my dogs don’t see this as a reliable predictor that they will necessarily get a steady flow of treats, hence, no demand barking.)

In class, I tell my students that they must consistently turn their backs on their dogs as soon as the demand barking starts, and then, when the dog is silent, say “Yes, quiet!” and turn around to give the dog attention and/or a treat. The dog must learn that it is “quiet” that earns attention and treats, not barking or whining.

When the human is consistent, the method works beautifully – especially if the person is savvy enough to recognize the behavior in its early stages, before it is deeply ingrained. However, dog owners have varying degrees of success with this, for several reasons.

A lack of promptness and/or consistency will decrease the effectiveness of this method. The quicker and more consistent you are in ignoring the dog, the faster the dog gets the message. Behaviors that are occasionally rewarded become very durable, so if you sometimes give in to the dog’s demand barking, even inadvertently, the dog will keep trying, and it becomes even harder to extinguish. Eye contact is attention, so if you just look at the dog before turning away, you have rewarded the barking behavior.

Another reason for varying degrees of success is something called an “extinction burst.” When you try to extinguish a behavior that has been very successful for your dog in the past, he is likely to engage in an extinction burst, which is akin to the temper tantrum of a spoiled child. He may bark louder, longer, and more insistently in order to try to get the behavior to work that has worked so well in the past. If you give in during the extinction burst, you have taught him to offer a much more intense level of behavior, and your life becomes even harder.

The degree to which you reward your dog’s quiet behavior will also affect your rate of training success. If your dog demand-barks for your attention, it is important to give him attention before he barks. Otherwise he will learn a behavior chain of: bark, get ignored, be quiet, then get attention.

I put up with Dusty’s demand barking because I don’t want to go through the headache of his extinction burst. I treasure Dubhy’s “potty grumbles,” but I make sure he’s not using it because he wants to go out, but because (I think) he really has to go out. He gets to communicate, but not control.

Play / Excitement / Greeting Barks
This can be a fun kind of barking, as long as it doesn’t get carried away. It’s sort of nice to have someone who is “woo-woo” happy to see you even if you’ve only been out of the room for a minute or two. It can, however, get out of hand, and it’s nice to have a turn-off switch. You can use the same “Quiet, please” cue that we discussed under the “Protective Barking” section.

This is also an ideal place to use the “Ask for an Incompatible Behavior” technique. Simply teach your dog to greet you (or others) with a toy in her mouth. Have a basket of toys next to the door, and when someone comes in, pick up a toy and toss it for your dog to chase and bring back. With her mouth full of toy, the best she can do is a muffled bark. She’s more likely to be focused on “toy” than “bark” anyway! Before long, she’ll be seeking out the toy to greet people with, and you won’t even have to throw one.

Play barking can be a tad more difficult. Some dogs – especially the herding breeds, seem to have a genetic predisposition to bark when playing with other dogs, and with rowdy humans. Actually, I suspect they aren’t really playing – with their workaholic personalities I am sure they are actually hard at work, trying to round up their uncooperative playmates. Your best recourse with these barkers might be to come to an understanding with neighbors about appropriate barky play-times, and perhaps passing out earplugs to the entire neighborhood. Seriously though, when excited play leads to over-aroused barking, time-outs are an appropriate remedy. I suggest using an “Oops” as a “punishment marker” when removing the vocal offender from the play group in order to mark the behavior that earned the time-out. In time, the barker may learn to control her own voice in order to enjoy uninterrupted play privileges.

For the hunter whose dogs I heard baying over the hill, the “chase” barking of his hounds is beautiful music, and he wouldn’t dream of trying to modify that behavior!

Fear / Startle Barking
Dogs who bark out of fear can generally be identified by their body language. Unlike the protective barker who leans forward with ears pricked and tail high, the fear-barker is likely to hold her tail low, flatten her ears, and back away from the fearful object. The best approach to modifying fear-barking behavior is to desensitize and counter-condition the dog to the things that frighten her. A puppy who is well-socialized during the first four weeks to four months of her life is unlikely to become a fear barker if her humans continue to provide her with positive social experiences throughout her lifetime. (See “Canine Social Misfits,” February 2000.)

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are modification techniques that help a dog learn to have positive associations with things that she previously viewed as negative and scary. The process involves presenting a scary stimulus at a safe distance, and associating its presence with something wonderful, such as canned chicken. As the dog learns to tolerate the scary thing – even look forward to it because it means something wonderful – the intensity of the stimulus is gradually increased. You may need professional help with this process in order to successfully desensitize your dog. Meanwhile, you want to try very hard to avoid putting your dog in situations that cause her to bark out of fear.

Health / Age-Related Barking
As our faithful friends age, they sometimes succumb to a condition only recently identified as Canine Cognitive Disorder (CCD), where they become disoriented easily and can get lost in their own backyards, trapped behind furniture, forget that they are housetrained, pace, stare into space, and not always recognize friends or family members.

According to Pfizer Pharmaceutical, 62 percent of dogs age 10 years and older experience at least some of the symptoms related to CCD. Along with this syndrome, or unrelated but also linked to age and its accompanying impaired hearing and vision, may come an increase in barking, whining, or howling, as the dog expresses frustration with the mysterious changes in her ability to function.

In either case, it can help to keep your dog’s world as simple as possible, and avoid making major changes in her environment. Understanding why the barking has increased can help you be sympathetic rather than angry with her, and give you the patience to simply extricate her when she barks because she’s stuck in the corner again. If you think your dog may be suffering from CCD, you can consult with your veterinarian about a new drug, Anipryl, which has been shown to alleviate some of the symptoms of aging.

Perhaps also related to some environmental frustration, or their own inability to hear themselves, deaf dogs are sometimes reported to be barkier than normal hearing dogs. A positive interrupt, using a light beam or vibrating collar as the interrupt signal, can also be effective in teaching deaf dogs a non-verbal “Quiet, please” cue.

Social Isolation / Boredom / Frustration Barking
This is by far the saddest category of barking behavior, and probably the least normal. It is the incessant barking of the dog who is removed from the normal social interaction of the rest of his family, be it canine or human. It’s the dog who barks all day and all night in the backyard, bored and lonely. It’s the puppy who is crated in the basement, miserable, crying to be back with her littermates. It’s the dog who suffers from separation anxiety, who screams for hours, voicing his panic at being left alone.

In his normal, natural world, a canine lives with other members of his pack virtually 24 hours a day. It speaks volumes for the adaptability of the domestic dog that he can learn to tolerate being left alone. But if you have a dog whose barking falls into this category, then it’s time to examine your lifestyle and make some changes to better meet his needs for social interaction and stimulation.

If he’s a backyard dog, bring him in. If he’s a neighbor’s backyard dog, talk to them about bringing the dog indoors, or at least enriching the dog’s environment with interactive toys and other activities that will improve the quality of his life and reduce the need for barking. You can use crates, tethers, and pens to prevent chaos while the backyard dog learns house manners.

If the barking dog must be left alone all day, search out a daycare situation – perhaps a commercial doggie daycare, or a friend or neighbor who would like company, or whose home-alone dog might also like a pal. Take him to a training class – or several. Have him go jogging or hiking with you. Discover a dog sport that can showcase his natural talents. Join a dog club. Find a dog park in your community – or start one.

If your dog has separation anxiety, seek the help of a qualified trainer/behaviorist who can help you overcome his panic attacks. (See “Learning to Be Alone,” July 2001, and “Relieving Anxiety,” August 2001.) Make him a full-fledged member of your family, and he will no longer be bored, lonely, and frustrated.

The next time you hear a dog bark, rather than being angry or irritated, stop and try to figure out what the dog is saying. Enjoy the fact that dogs can communicate with us vocally as well as with body language, and decide if it’s a communication that merits reflection, a response, or just a smile.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Modifying Your Dog’s Barking Behavior.”

-by Pat Miller

Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Fairplay, Maryland. She is the president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training.