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Science marches on and quite often it is telling us what we all already know, but the beauty of the scientific method is that it is done in such a way that it can be verified by others as being correct or wrong. Today there is reported in the newspaper Daily Mail a fine example of science in action, in this case using analytic methods to study the barks of dogs. The original report was in Animal Cognition.

Barking dog. This appears to be a barking dog giving a slightly oblique but strong territorial warning.


Snarling dog. Here is very anxious snarling dog who is warning that he feels threatened and will fight if approached.

The tests in the study were very limited, using only 14 Hungarian sheepdogs in six different situations, and just the audio portion of the dogs’ communication. As Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, will tell you the dog’s primary communication is with smell, and physical behavior signals. But, it is the combination all of these signals, and the order, and relationship of the signals, which creates, and defines a social dominance or submission relationship. Dogs don’t seem to have syntax, but they do have standardized sequences of expected behaviors, and counter-behaviors. These sequences appear to be genetically hard wired into dogs, or at least the sensitivity to learning them very easily is hard wired. Snarling isn’t seen very often, but it seems to come very easily to dogs under what they feel are challenging situations.

Snarling wolf. Snarling dog. Snarling dog. From Scalp Hunters by Mayne Reid. Snarling wolf.

(I searched the term snarling and found the picture on the left. I thought I recognized it from a really old copy of a book I read ten years ago by Mayne Reid called Scalp Hunters, which was first published in 1851, and I found that illustration, shown here on the right. The engravings for these two pictures seem to be derived from the same photograph.)

As I write this post, and think about dogs barking, it seems to me that barking refers almost exclusively to territorial space creating. We use other terms for dogs’ other vocalizations. Howling, yipping, crying, growling, whimpering, mewing, snarling, panting. The audio research, which I haven’t heard, may have been calling some of these other vocalizations barking, but making assumptions about what the dog is saying with a bark may be as superficial to the complexity of the  dog’s situation as to what a human is saying when they say, look-out.

I like the basic idea of the study because it gives other people something specific to work with and develop as a group into a coherent set of testable ideas about how and what dogs communicate.