I was digging around in the boot of the car, making sure I had all my wet market shopping, when there was a “WOOF!” from across the street. It was just one bark, and I recognised it instantly: my friend Pica, the Husky, was inviting me over for a cuddle.

Pica woofed because she wanted to talk to me, which is only sensible. However, when I heard her, I knew exactly who it was, and what it meant, before I even looked up. And that got me wondering: how good are dogs at communicating, and how good are we at understanding them?

While cats developed the meow specifically to talk to us, barking is a common part of canine language. And by all accounts, barking isn’t a simple sound; it’s quite a complicated communication system.

Ask yourself this: all dogs have a unique voice, right? But when your dog barks, is it the same sound no matter what, or does your pet make different sounds for different situations?

In one University of California study, researchers gathered together 10 pet dogs and recorded them barking. They recorded 4,672 barks in three situations: Intruder Alert, barking when a stranger rang the doorbell; Help Me, barking for attention when locked outside, away from the owner; and Whoopee, the barking for fun when playing with another dog or a favourite human.

I would have bet all these barks were totally different – and I would have been wrong!

The Intruder Alert was harsh, low-pitched and came in a loud volley. If you were there, you would hear, WOOF-WOOF-WOOF- WOOF-WOOF!!” The team called them “super barks”.

The Warning bark was unique; totally different from the other two barks. (See sidebar)

Interestingly, the Help Me and Whoopee barks sounded the same. They were both high-pitched, and it was very hard (if not impossible) to tell them apart.

What made the difference was the barking pattern. The dogs shouting Help Me would woof once and then wait before woofing again. Basically, they were waiting to see if their owner got the message. And if they didn’t, they’d bark again.

The dogs shouting Whoopee because they were having fun, barked much more randomly. That’s pretty much what I see too. When Pica is playing with her pal Hugo, they dance about, wrestle, and the excited little barks that escape are like champagne bubbles – totally random fun.

Obviously, the next question is, how good are we humans at understanding what our furry pals are saying?

There are very few studies on this because it’s quite a complex thing to set up in a research context. However, I found a Hungarian study that had a good go at answering the question.

These researchers gathered 19 Mudis (Hungarian sheepdogs) and recorded them barking in six different contexts. First was Stranger Danger, a warning at a stranger break into the garden. Second was Guard Dog, sounding a warning at a “bad man” attacking the owner. Third was Alone, the worried bark a dog gives when being tied to a tree and having the owner walk away. Fourth was Walkies, the excited barks a dog gives at seeing the owner pick up the leash before going for a walk. Fifth was Ball, the excited bark when it is shown a favourite toy. Sixth was Play, the happy bark that is given when playing a game.

They then got 12 Mudi owners, 12 regular dog owners, and 12 non-dog owners to listen to a random selection of voice recordings. Listeners were asked, “When you hear this bark, how is the dog feeling?”

I would have thought dog owners would be better at this than non-dog owners, and that it should be pretty clear when the dog is angry, happy and upset in a worried way. Once again, I got it wrong!

All the people were pretty good at figuring out what was going on. There were no significant differences between dog owners and non-dog owners. They were particularly good at identifying dog emotion in Stranger Danger, Guard Dog, Alone, and Play.

However, there was a problem in that the scientists asked people to rate along aggressiveness, fearfulness, despair, happiness, and playfulness. It was a little too complex, with too many overlaps.

People became confused over happy and playful when hearing Ball and Walkies, and there was also some confusion as to whether the dogs were angry or afraid when in Stranger Danger and Guard Dog situations.

If it could be rerun and simplified, I think we’d see Hungarian people being pretty good at telling anger/danger, worried/alone and happy/excited.

My question would be: would it work well in places where people aren’t familiar with dogs? I’d think not, but as I was wrong on pretty much everything else, it might be fun to look into.

As it is, I am now glued to the living room sofa, testing myself to see if I can tell what my neighbours’ dogs are saying. Give it a go, and see how good you are at decoding dog talk!

Super barks: How they sound and the reason for them

While some are quieter than others, all dogs bark, including wild canids. Wolves, coyotes and jackals, for example, will woof to tell others they’re about to cross into their territory, to attract attention, and so on.

However, wild canids tend to bark once or twice, keeping it short and sharp. They don’t go in for that loud continuous barking that we hear from our pets.

That super barking where you hear a volley of loud continuous barks, is strictly domestic dog behaviour. Ironically, this common cause for complaint in urban areas is probably a trait we’ve bred into our pets.


A Chihuahua looking rather wary during an international dog show, in this AFP file pic. Different breeds have varying levels of noisiness, and the Chihuahua is less vocal compared to the Husky, for example.

We love our dogs for many reasons. However, there is no denying that one of the major benefits of living with man’s best friend is that they guard our homes. As we have a long history of selecting dogs for their guarding behaviour (barking at intruders), domestic dogs have become a lot noisier than their wild relatives.

How noisy is said to vary across breeds. While you might have a noisy Husky or a quiet Chihuahua, breeds are associated with a rating for noisiness. Among the most famous for being particularly yappy are the Silky Terrier and the Miniature Schnauzer. Quieter breeds include the Shar Pei and the Saint Bernard. Some claim the Basenji doesn’t bark because it has a yodel rather than a woof. However, the noise carries!

So, if you’re looking for a pet, and sound is a factor, do take that into consideration when you adopt a dog.