Barks are more than just “Hey, you!”

From Bloomington, Ind., at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society

We may not be giving enough respect to the communication power of barking dogs, says veterinarian Sophia Yin of the University of California, Davis.

Behaviorists have long leaned toward the opinion that barking doesn’t carry specific information but serves as a general attention getter, much like a person calling, “Hey there.” Yin tested this notion by applying a method used for analyzing primate calls. She recorded 4,600 total barks from dogs in three situations: inside a house with a stranger at the door, isolated outside a house with the dog’s owner inside, and playing with another dog or a person. Then Yin used computer software to search for patterns in the sound qualities of the barks.

The analysis shows that dogs do indeed summon different barks in different situations. Barks at a disturbance, such as the ominous stranger at the door, tended to have more rapid repetitions, a harsher sound, lower frequency, and less modulation than barks from isolated and playing dogs. In those situations, the pooches’ barks tended to have richer harmonics. The researchers also could identify a particular dog from its bark, regardless of the context.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.