Just like humans, dogs have very effective communication systems. Although we humans have language to communicate, we use inflection (our tone of voice), as well as body language. Human communication is complicated, but we have learned how to interpret the combination of the words someone uses with body language.
Because dogs cannot communicate with our language, they have to use other methods. The first is non-verbal communication which primarily appears as body language. Anyone who has spent time around dogs can get a fairly decent picture of what a dog is trying to communicate just by looking at their body. Tail wagging, crouching, tensing up, and position of ears can all give you clues at what a dog is thinking (and we should be wary). A dog who barks and rolls on his back is more than likely playing.
The second way dogs communicate is through barking. This is their verbal communication and very similar to language. We do not speak this language, at least not fluently. But over time we have been able to determine what all that barking means.
Here are five reasons dogs bark:
Barking can indicate excitement in dogs. In fact, they frequently use barking to communicate excitement to each other. They also tell us that they are excited by barking. You can easily identify excited barks: once your dog knows your routine, he will happily bark when he anticipates something positive. This can be your arrival home, getting out his leash, or when you start to prepare food.
What he is telling you: “Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh boy, this is great!”
Dogs will often bark as a warning or alert to what they may perceive as danger. This happens when a stranger comes to the door, you start cutting the grass with a lawnmower or anything else that makes him nervous. This bark is usually loud and sharp.
I had two dogs for many years and became very familiar with their barking. One day I heard the “danger bark.” But there was something more to it: the pitch was higher and it sounded panicked. I knew immediately that there was something very wrong. I discovered that my elderly dog had fallen into the pool and was struggling. The younger dog was giving what I can only describe as a “severe danger” bark. Fortunately, his bark alerted me and we safely got my other dog out of the pool.
What he is telling you: “Danger! I am here protecting my place. Don’t mess with me!”
When your dog gets anxious, he will give a low, deep bark. This may also be associated with fear. If your dog does not like getting his toenails clipped, he may bark and growl as you hold him down to cut. You will often see a tail between his leg when he barks like this.
What he is telling you: “I don’t like this. There is problem here.”
Some dogs are happy sitting on the couch all day. Others need much more activity. This depends on the breed, and often the individual dog. Dogs that have more energy will sometimes bark out of boredom. They just want to hear their own “voice” and could be lonely.
What he is telling you: “I’m bored! I’m lonely! Let’s do something!”
When a dog is in pain, he may bark or yelp. It is often high-pitched. You will hear this happen when dogs are playing and one of them is hit too hard or falls. If you accidentally step on your dog’s foot, you will usually hear the pain yelp. This is also a signal to other dogs in his pack that he is hurt and needs help.
In cases where there is no actual injury, there may be only one or two yelps or barks. But if your dog has a more serious problem, you will hear much more. If they have an injury, they may bark in anticipation of pain when you try to pet him. This is the time to contact your vet.
What he is telling you: “That hurts! I don’t like this! Help me!”
Remember that dogs use a lot of body language in combination with the barking. To properly assess what the dog is communicating, you need to take that into account. With your own dog, you will easily learn his intentions because you will see behaviors repeated. With unfamiliar dogs, you should always be cautious. Carefully assess the body language and barking before approaching.