Dogs bark for a variety of reasons. To determine why a dog is barking, I consider what happens prior to the bark, the body language of the dog, the pitch of the bark, and what follows the bark. Those events prior to the bark are called antecedents and those that follow the bark are consequences. Antecedents and consequences, together with observations of the dog’s behavior, help paint the “why” behind the dog’s bark.
Barking with a friendly intent
When a dog barks at a familiar person the intent is normally friendly and an attempt to access attention or another want or need. In addition to who the bark is directed towards, consider other antecedent events. Is mealtime approaching, is it time for your dog to potty, have you just picked up a leash, are you about to throw a ball for your dog? All these antecedents likely signal to your dog the opportunity for access to meals, outdoors, a walk, play, etc. Those “items” are out of reach or not within your dog’s possession and the bark communicates those wants or needs. Your dog’s intent is friendly, and they are simply communicating their interest in whatever activity the environment is signaling.
Now consider your dog’s body language and the sound of the bark. These are not dead giveaways but can help fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Usually, dogs barking in a friendly manner will have loose body language and appear somewhat “bouncy” or move like a noodle. They may be offering a play bow or even jump up on you. Some dogs will move closer towards whatever it is they are asking for—the food bin, backdoor, pile of toys, or you! Dogs may bark in a higher-pitched tone, begin howling or even growling. For more information about friendly dog body language check out my blog here.
Lastly, consider what has historically happened to your dog after the bark. Is a meal normally fed, a door opened, a toy thrown, petting or a walk started? These are all considered consequences and maintain that barking behavior. Food, attention, access to outdoors, toys, and putting on a leash all serve as regular consequences for our dogs. For those dogs that engage in a lot of attention-getting behavior, verbal reprimands can be enough to maintain barking with a friendly intent. After all, for some, bad attention is better than no attention!
Barking to alert or warn someone to go away
Using the same strategy looking at antecedents, body language, the sound of the bark, and consequences, you can help decipher a completely different type of bark—one that is used to alert or warn someone to go away. This type of bark is normally directed at an unfamiliar person (except for dogs who resource guard which is often directed at family members).
Antecedents for this type of bark include someone out of view, again usually an unfamiliar person, entering the dog’s line of sight or moving closer to the dog. The sound of the doorbell or a knock at the door could also serve as an antecedent event. The sound of the bark is generally low pitched, is more incessant and the dog’s body is stiffer. Their body weight is usually forward, and they may run toward the target. To read more about body language that signals an alert or warning check out my blog here.
In looking at consequent events, dogs often experience the target of the bark moving away or going out of sight. What can be tricky is that the consequence of the person or dog moving away does not have to happen every time. In fact, it does not have to pay off even 30% of the time—just think of your dog as a gambler! The payoff simply needs to happen on occasion. Consider how often your dog barks at the mail carrier or another dog passing in front of your home. Eventually, those individuals move away from your dog. It does not matter what the intent of the person or other dog is. The point is that the bark resulted in the target moving away for your dog.
Barking with the intent changing
For some dogs, there is a clear and obvious intent behind all their barks. Their behavior is directed at a familiar or unfamiliar person and the antecedents, consequences, and body language are clear. Most dogs, however, engage in both types of barking, often within a few moments of each other, and tend to confuse matters! Dogs bark with the intent of warning the target to go away and then the intent changes as the target gets closer. This is where observations of your dog can get interesting, and you can get to know your dog on a deeper level!
My dogs do this almost every day! Just last night my mastiff, Tank, saw what he apparently thought was a strange person or unfamiliar thing on our sideyard. He exploded into a deep, tense bark. His body was stiff, and the bark certainly appeared as a somewhat serious warning. Within a matter of a few seconds, my son—quite possibly Tank’s favorite person—said, “Tank, it’s me, buddy.” Tank’s deep bark turned into a moment of silence during which his tense body started to wiggle. Following the silence came a growly, howl, and some high-pitched barking—one that historically results in attention from my son. My son ran up the stairs to play with and pet Tank. Both of my other dogs also give alert-type barks which communicate go away, but as soon as they come within 50 feet of the target, their behavior flips, and they engage in attention-getting behaviors towards unfamiliar or familiar people. In fact, when they hear a car pull into the driveway, they give off a warning bark and when it is a familiar person, you can see their behavior change quickly.
It is certainly not only my dogs who do this. In my practice, I hear reports from clients all the time suggesting their dog barks at a distance to “say, hi” but once they get close enough to a person or a dog, they are quiet. During the bark, their body language suggests one of alertness. It is unlikely the dog is barking at a distance to indeed say hello. Instead, it is most likely a “go away”-type bark but does not elevate beyond that. That said there are some dogs that engage in barking at a distance to say, “hello.” They are generally under 1 year of age and are extremely exuberant. They ooze friendliness and bounce at a distance—those messages are heard loud and clear and difficult to misinterpret.
In summary, dogs bark to communicate needs and wants, including food, water, access to potty, attention, and play, or to communicate to the target to go away. When determining the intent of the bark consider the antecedents—those environmental events prior to the behavior—and the consequences—those environmental events that follow the behavior. Observe your dog’s body and the sound of the bark to help complete the puzzle and learn more about your dog!