Whether it’s the mail carrier, a squirrel on a fence, or a couple nosy pooches, dogs frequently bark excessively to the annoyance of neighbors. Now, researchers studying dogs living in the suburbs found that it’s not just noise: There’s information in those barks, they report in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
To decipher the acoustic communication between dogs in their natural environment, a team led by Pongrácz Péter from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest tested bark playbacks with suburban dogs in their homes using a hidden sound system placed near the gate outside the property.
Each dog was exposed to pre-recorded barks of an unfamiliar dog and of a familiar dog that were recorded in two contexts: when the dog was left alone or when it was barking at a stranger near the fence. (Let’s call these “lonely” barks and “stranger” barks.) Then the researchers observed their reactions to the various woofs, noting whether the dogs positioned themselves near the house or near the gate where the sound was coming from.
The team found differences in the dogs’ behavior depending on their familiarity with the dogs in the recording, as well as the context of the playback barks. The dogs stayed at the gate (nearest to the sound source) the longest when they heard an unfamiliar dog barking at a stranger. When the dogs instead heard the “lonely” barks of an unfamiliar dog, they stayed at the house. The dogs also oriented more towards the house when they heard barking from a familiar dog.
All the test dogs barked the most when they heard “stranger” barks—regardless of the familiarity of the barker.
The work suggests that not only can dogs distinguish among the barkers, they can also extract detailed information encoded within the barks. No word yet on their reactions to “Missing Dalmatian puppies, help!”