Dogs bark. Whether you find that fact irritating, scary, or amusing, you probably wonder what your pooch is saying when she barks at the wind.
While humans haven’t created a dog-to-English translator (yet), it’s possible to get a pretty good idea of what Fifi means when she says, “Woof!”
As anyone who lives with a husky can attest, dogs are not limited to simple barks. Dogs have a large vocabulary of howls, whines, sighs, grunts, yips, and growls.
When translating what different dog barks mean, we will take into account all of the other sounds that dogs can make.
Dogs vary their vocalizations in three main ways, according to Dr. Stanley Coren, dog expert extraordinaire. These three main factors are:
Barks generally are an “alert” sound, while a threatening vocalization almost always includes growling mixed in.
Getting to know your dog’s repertoire of barks will help you decipher her vocalizations. While there are big general trends within “dogspeak,” many dogs will add their own individual flair to communication, making a definitive dog dictionary a fool’s errand.
Take my border collie Barley, for example.
He seems to only have three barks: a medium pitch bark when someone is at the door, a high-pitched single bark that slips out whenever I tell him to run through a tunnel in agility class, and a deep, drawn-out “whooh-whooh.”
It's the "whooh-whooh" bark that lets me know that something is concerning - this one is often paired with a growl and erect hackles down his back.
Meanwhile, Barley’s best friend Monty, also a Border Collie, “plays” with other dogs by running backwards and barking in their faces. It’s rude, but his tone is almost identical to Barley’s “someone’s at the door” bark.
It took me awhile to stop looking around for guests while watching Barley and Monty play, because their barks mean different things but (at least to me) sound the same).
It’s a bit frustrating for us vocal primates, but your dog’s body language is still one of the best ways to interpret her barks.
It might be easier for you if you speak a tonal language like Chinese, but deciphering dog bark tones is really challenging for humans.
Even the most vocal dog might as well be mute compared to the vocalizations of the quietest human! We humans simply rely on vocalizations to communicate much more than most other animals. Dogs largely use pheromones and body language to communicate.
Start by assessing your dog’s body language, then turn to her vocalizations.
To use body language to figure out what different dog bark means, familiarize yourself with Dr. Sophia Yin’s free dog body language posters and the DogDecoder’s app. The app shows dogs in a variety of situations and points out simple body language cues that give away the dog’s inner emotions and thoughts.
There are informational options as well as quick quizzes to test your dog-reading skills!
Once you’re familiar with basic dog body language, start taking note of it as your dog barks.
Is her weight forward or backward? Forward weight transfer can indicate a dog that wants to move towards an object, indicating curiosity, friendliness, or confident aggression. Backwards weight indicates an unsure dog who wants to move away from something.
Weight transfer takes a while to learn to see, but is endlessly helpful when deciphering a dog’s bark. You can also look for signs of nervousness or signs of arousal like prancing or piloerection (hair standing on end).
Tail wags are not all the same.
Much like a human smile, tail wags can indicate true happiness, fear or submission, aggression, or uncertainty. Do not make the mistake of assuming that a tail wag indicates a happy, comfortable dog.
It’s important to look at your dog’s barks in conjunction with body language, since dogs communicate through body language and scent far more than through vocalizations.e...
Dog body language is helpful in translating dog barks, but there are times where it can be hard to see your dog’s body. We will break down a variety of dog barks in videos along with the dog’s body language to figure out what the dogs are “saying.”
Luckily for us, YouTube is full of “funny” videos of dogs that show a wide range of different dog barks and body language.
Let’s keep in mind that we’re not 100% sure exactly what emotions dogs are capable of feeling. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, dogs probably feel excitement (positive or negative), distress, contentment (happiness), disgust, fear, anger, joy, suspicion or shyness, and affection or love.
Dogs probably do not experience more complex emotions like guilt, pride, or shame.
This is why many dog behavioral experts will tell you that those “ashamed dog” videos on YouTube are simply nervous dogs who realize their owner is unhappy, and are trying desperately to diffuse the tense situation.
Watch out! There’s something over there!
So-called alert barks are on of the most commonly heard dog barks out there. Your dog is barking at something outside that either startles or excites him.
This repetitive barking can be quite annoying and can drive your neighbors crazy if your dog is overly sensitive to noises. We actually have a whole guide on what's going on with dogs who alert bark constantly all night. Reduce alert barking by focusing on creating a more calm and focused dog with a relaxation protocol, then speak to a trainer.
Alert barks are usually accompanied by dogs peering out the windows, tilting their heads, and otherwise attempting to locate the source of the disturbance.
Get away from me!
This bark can come with a harsher tone to it, which generally means that the dog wants whatever it’s barking at to stay away. This subset of the alert bark may come with a wagging tail, forward weight, or a tucked tail and backward weight. Eyes will often be round or “hard,” and this subset of the alert bark is more concerning.
The dog in this video has a slightly sweeping tail wag and seems conflicted - she’s straining at the leash towards an object and flashing her teeth slightly when she barks, but softens and loosens up whens she looks at her handler.
Everyone look at that scary thing!
The “wooh-wooh” bark is another subset of the alert bark. Many dogs will make this bark when startled by a knock at the door or another larger disturbance. The situation may appear the same as the situations where other dogs will rely on a “look at that” or “stay away” bark.
Many dogs will just do a few wooh-wooh barks before either switching to growling or recovering. Many dogs will wooh-wooh bark while running away from or towards the source of the disturbance, often with their hackles raised.
Let's play - I'm gonna get ya!
Many dogs will bend at the back, tail wagging high in the air with their elbows on the ground. This “play bow” is often interspersed with several short spurts of running back and forth, pawing at the air, or rolling on the ground. Most of the dogs in the video above are showing examples of barking that is playful and asking others to join in.
This video is a good example of why looking at your dog often gives you a better idea of what she’s thinking than listening to her. Many of these dogs sound very different, but are soliciting play. Dogs in clips one, three, four, seven, and nine are all giving clear body language of wanting to play. The dogs in the other clips are either giving conflicting signals or appear to be “saying” something else beyond play.
This thing better watch out, if it gets closer I might have to bite it. But I’m a bit too scared right now.
It’s not just big dogs that try to scare things away. While many people think of the growl-bark or the bark-growl as the domain of Rottweilers and German Shepherds, all dogs will pair barks and growls to scare things away. This bark-growl combination usually gives away underlying fear from the dog.
Dogs that bark and growl want space between them and the scary thing. They may run away, circle, or do short charges towards the scary object. These dogs might bite if cornered, but often are trying to scare something off before it gets too close.
I'm not messing around - go away!
This bark is paired with teeth flashes, snarls, and forward weight. These dogs mean serious business.
Whether this is a trained response for a protection dog, or the learned behavior of a very serious dog, this bark-growl combination should not be ignored. Dogs that bark and growl while lunging or charging are likely to back up this bark with a bite.
Ouch! I wasn’t expecting that! Cut it out!
This high-pitched yelp often comes when a dog is surprised by something that suddenly hurts them. This bark is both one of surprise and pain, and could be interpreted as a request to stop whatever just happened.
This bark is emotionally charged in many cases, so be careful for “redirected aggression,” which is when a startled or aroused dog bites something other than its target because the dog is too worked up or in pain.
Someone please make this pain stop, come comfort me.
Dogs that are in pain will make a wide variety of sounds. The pitch may vary by size of dog as well as intensity of pain. In all cases, a dog that is whining, whimpering, yelping, screaming, howing, and/or barking should see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Since dogs are not as vocal as people, barks that come from pain should be taken especially seriously.
The videos above show the wide range of sounds that dogs in pain may make.
Someone come hang out with me. (Also, barking is more entertaining than being quiet).
Dogs that are really bored might bark to just entertain themselves. This can be a tough habit to break without really changing the dog’s environment, but is easy to combat with some good puzzle toys.
Dogs that bark endlessly while alone in a back yard are probably engaging in the “I’m lonely and bored” bark. They might not be barking at anything at all, just barking because it’s less boring than doing nothing.
Tone it down, buddy.
Two minutes into the video above, the adult dog finally has “had it” with the jumpy, bitey, and barky puppy.
He’s tried putting his ears back, turning his head away, sitting, moving away, and even curling his lips to tell this puppy that he does not want to play. When the puppy doesn’t take the hint, the adult dog barks while moving his head towards the puppy quickly.
Dog trainers often call this a “correction” from one dog to another, and it’s an appropriate way of communicating in the dog world. It’s a sharp, interrupting sound that is a warning not to do that again.
If you notice your dog giving a lot of corrections in a social situation like the dog park, don’t punish her for communicating clearly - but you might want to give her and her playmates a break. Also consider checking out our guide to dog park etiquette to better understand how your dog is interacting with her peers, and what to look out for!
Gimme! Gimme! GIMME!
Demand barking is one of the most frustrating behavior problems that clients call me about at Journey Dog Training. It’s not dangerous like aggression or crippling like separation anxiety, yet it can really drive a family to insanity.
Dogs learn quickly that barking at people often makes the people give up and give them what they wants. This quickly creates a strong habit of barking to get what a dog wants. This can be as simple as a treat or your attention. Dogs that sit and stare at you while barking are trying to ask for something.
Cure demand barking by teaching your dog other ways to get what she wants, teaching impulse control, ignoring her barking, and even leaving the room when she barks at you.
Dogs make plenty of other sounds not covered here, from the baying of hounds to grumble-howls of huskies. While there are some types of barks that generally mean the same thing, many dog barks are very difficult for people to translate.
Your best bet is to look at your dog and the situation when trying to translate a dog bark. A dog that has her hackles up and weight forward is “saying” something very different from a dog that’s wiggly and bouncy. Both those dogs might be emitting a growl-bark, but one is playful and one is very scared.
Does your dog have a specific type of bark not covered here, and you’re not sure how to read it? Post a link to the video below and I’ll help you decipher it!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.