Why dogs bark (and should we stop them?)

Updated: Jan 18

People talk. Dogs bark. We might not always like it, but expecting our dogs to never bark is a bit like expecting people to never talk. It’s more about being realistic about what to expect from your dog. Which means understanding them and why they do it in the first place.

Whether your dog is an occasional yapper or the canine equivalent to a chatterbox, knowing why they do it can help in knowing what to do about it – if anything at all.

So why do dogs bark?

Let’s start by thinking about why people talk. We say things (or make vocal sounds) to express the way we feel, get attention or sometimes for no reason at all. Whatever the case, it’s a way of communicating – and it's the same for our dogs. It’s a quick and easy way for them to say something loud and clear.

What’s your dog saying?

Decades of research tells us that barking is a form of communication. But when it comes to understanding what dogs are likely to be saying, context is everything.

These common scenarios give us some clues as to what our dogs are likely to be telling us when they bark:

  • Barking at a knock at the door or at another dog on a walk = “Stop! Don’t even THINK about coming closer”

When a person, cat, dog (anything) gets closer to a dog’s ‘territory’, they’ll bark in an attempt to ward off this possible threat and alert others about it. The closer the threat gets, the louder the bark. And when the threat moves on, it’s easy for the dog to think it’s because he barked. That’s why they’ll often keep doing it – because from their point of view, barking worked. It did the trick.

  • Barking at a loud noise = “AHH! What’s that?”

When a dog hears something loud or unexpected – like fireworks, thunder or even the hoover – they might get a sudden fright and bark. It’s a bit like humans yelping or screaming when we’re shocked or startled. Like a reflex action.

  • Barking in the house when no one's there = “I’m so bored right now” and “Does anyone care?”

When a social animal like a dog is left alone for hours at a time, they can easily become bored, upset or both. Sometimes the most interesting thing for them to do is listen to the sound of their own voice and see if it gets a response. Or if they’re feeling lonely and anxious, they can be barking as a cry for help.

  • Barking at the back door or when it's dinnertime = “Erm…hello! H-E-L-L-O!”

There’s nothing worse than trying to get someone’s attention and they just don’t see or hear you. While we might wave our arms about and shout in an effort to catch their eye, a dog is likely to bark. Usually a lot. It could be that they want dinner, to play or be let outside for a wee. Whatever the case, the dog is asking us to look, listen and give them attention.

  • Barking after dropping a ball at your feet = “This is fun! More! More!”

Imagine a playground full of children playing silently. Doesn’t make sense, does it. Same for our doggos – puppies and adults alike. Whether it’s a lively game of tug-o-war, fetch, hide-and-seek or rumbling with their favourite squeaky toy, it's normal to hear some playful growls and barks. It’s all part of the excitement.

  • Barking when left alone at home or outside a shop = “Where are you? Come back!”

There’s nothing more heart-breaking than hearing a lost child cry for their mum or dad. It can be really distressing. In a similar way, when a dog forms a strong attachment with another dog or a member of its human family, they can become just as distraught when they’re separated (separation anxiety) – even if it’s just for a moment. The barking that can follow often has an edge of panic, urgency and desperation to be reunited.

What’s breed got to do with it?

Just like us, every dog is an individual. They each have their own personalities, temperaments, experiences, and family history. So it makes sense that not all dogs bark the same.

But it's worth keeping in mind that some breeds were purposefully 'designed' to be vocal – particularly working dogs bred for guarding (German Shepherd), hunting (Beagle), and herding (Border Collie).

If you do have a barky dog, it can helpful to learn more about their breed so you know what sort of behaviour to expect and, to some degree, accept as part of who they are.

What if barking becomes a problem? Like anything with our dogs, understanding them goes a long way to building a two-way relationship with them. But sometimes, certain behaviours need to be managed for their wellbeing as well as our own.

If excessive barking is a new habit or a behaviour that’s unusual for your dog, it’s always a good idea to get them checked over by your vet in case the cause is an underlying health issue.

If their behaviour isn't new but you don’t know how to handle it (or the neighbours are complaining) it might be worth reaching out to a dog behaviourist who can teach you and your doggo some positive ways to manage their barking - rather than screaming and shouting at them, which is as good as barking along with them!

So next time your dog starts barking, stop and think about what they might be telling you. It’ll help you better understand where they’re coming from and how to help them – or accept it as being part of who they are.

If you want to learn more about your dog, you can get FREE trusted advice and resources on puppy and dogs from Sarah Whitehead’s website at Sarah’s a leading expert in positive-led dog training and behaviour.

In the meantime, keep being pawsome!

Fi x

I'm a student of canine psychology & behaviour, a socialisation and training helper at The Puppy Nanny, and experienced dog mum to Indy & Mav (RIP my precious Jewels & Russ).

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