We Talk, Dogs Bark

Tonight I recorded some of Day-ay’s “howling,” a not-uncommon trait for Chihuahua mixes or dogs who have listened to coyotes at night in New Mexico (like her).


To understand dog vocalizations, one starts with pitch. Is it low or high? If it is low, it’s probably threatening or aggressive, and usually directed at another animal. If it is high, (and anyone who has been near a dog who got hurt knows of the excruciating yelping sound) it signals pain or fear. And then there is play, which is also higher-pitched but different in frequency, such as the link above.

A dog’s pitch is not altogether different than the pitch of the human voice, which goes low in anger to high and shrill in fear.

Another telltale signpost is the frequency with which a dog makes its barks. A dog that barks repeatedly in high pitch is trying to tell you either something urgent, or some really exciting news. Something like:

The house is on fire!  
On the other hand, if the barking is is continuous but of low pitch, the dog senses an intruder into its doggie territory, on who may be dangerous, so he gets into attack mode. This is the typical reaction when Day-ay’s son, Ragazzo, is walking along the sidewalk, sees another dog coming in the opposite direction, and starts to warn us he’s:

Coming into our territory!

The next key to understanding your dog is through the duration of either a bark or a sound: does it last a long time, such as a growl? That’s one serious dog. It’s making a conscious effort about the signal and what it would do next, which is:
  I’ll kick your arse!

And then there’s the series of sharp, short barks. That’s what you probably get when you arrive home from work and your dog greets you at the door. Usually this is high or midrange barks, accompanied by lots of jumping and tail-wagging. This dog is saying:

 Hi there! My foodsource is home! 

If a dog barks in a long string, but with pauses between barks, it sounds lonely and it means a call for companionship to any other dogs who can hear. A dog left home in an apartment might frequently bark at the door when he or she hears someone walking by, or when it hears an elevator going up and down. This might be:

woof … woof … woof … i’m lonely … woof…
And if a dog gives a growl-bark, kind of like “garufff” and it is accompanied with a “play stance” where it dips its front feet down, and raises its rump, it’s an invitation to play. This would be the stance a dog would take, and the accompanying sound, if it were to drop a ball at your feet and prepare for a fetch. It might be saying:

  Join me in funtime.

And one last word about the “howl,” which Day-ay loves to do. Howling is an affirmation of the self, in dog language, kind of like when a human being looks in the mirror and likes what he or she sees, so it’s:

Yeah, I’m awesome. 
Next time you hang around with dogs, give a listen to their barks. They talk. They just don’t use words.

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6 Responses to We Talk, Dogs Bark

  1. Interesting post. My pup rarely ever barks so I can't really analyze her pitches. If she ever decides to start I'll def refer back to this post.

  2. Amanda Burns says:

    I can completely relate to my cats' noises. I speak to them as if they were human, its as if I know what certain meows mean. It's fun to try and interpret their sounds!

  3. Janet Sassi says:

    I'd love to know what breed you have. Please share!

  4. Janet Sassi says:

    Yes, I had cats in my 20s and loved their vocalizations too. Haven't studied the sounds. Their pitches are less humanlike, but I imagine they are equally as smart as (and many feel smarter than) dogs.

  5. Sarah Doar says:

    This is so cute, love it. Definitely thought about my dog while I read this. He's a Brussels Griffon, very full of himself and likes to bark at anyone who has the nerve to walk past our house. I love breaking the "code" of his sounds!

  6. Janet Sassi says:

    Sarah, know what is cool? It is recording and videotaping your dog and then watching it back for little nuances. Just started doing this for the blog and it is very revealing.

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