Understanding Vocal Communication in Dogs


The loyal dog, our first friend, has been an integral part of human society for thousands of years. Over this extensive period of domestication, dogs have developed a sophisticated and diverse repertoire of vocalizations, of which barking is the most prevalent and distinctive. Recent research has begun to unravel the complexities of dog vocal communication, revealing that barks may convey far more information than previously assumed.

Barking in Dogs: A By-Product of Domestication?

The theory proposed by Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev suggests that selection for tameness, or in other words, domestication, leads to a variety of changes in behavior, morphology, and physiology. This process is what he termed “domestication syndrome.” One of these behavioral changes could be an increased tendency for vocalizations like barking.

In the wild, wolves primarily use howls for long-distance communication. However, they are generally less vocal and use barks far less frequently than their domestic counterparts. Dogs, on the other hand, have developed a propensity to bark more frequently. This behavior could initially have been an incidental by-product of the domestication process, as selecting for tameness may have resulted in dogs that were more inclined to vocalize.

Deliberate Selection for Barking

While barking may have started as an incidental by-product of domestication, human influence did not stop there. Over time, humans began to selectively breed dogs that exhibited beneficial behaviors, such as alerting to danger, guarding property, or hunting, that involved an increased propensity to bark. The deliberate selection of these “watchdog” behaviors has likely enhanced the frequency and context of barking in dogs.

Context-Specific Barks

Further research into canine vocalizations reveals that the acoustic characteristics of a dog’s barks can vary depending on the situation or context. From lower pitched, harsh, and unmodulated barks commonly directed at strangers, to more tonal, higher pitch, modulated barks typically given in isolation or play situations, the context-specific nature of these vocalizations speaks to the complexity of dogs’ communication skills.

Individual Differences in Barking

Interestingly, research by Yin and McCowan (2004) indicated that dogs’ barks are individually distinctive. Spectrogram analyses of dog barks revealed that irrespective of the context, individual dogs could be identified based on the acoustic features of their barks. This finding suggests that dog barks carry more than just contextual information – they can also convey the identity of the vocalizing dog. This individual vocal signature could be particularly crucial for social interactions among dogs.


Understanding the language of barks opens a new realm in the study of canine behavior and cognition. Barks are not just random noise; they are complex vocalizations that can convey a wealth of information about a dog’s emotional state, intentions, the context of the situation, and even the identity of the barking individual. Such understanding is beneficial not just for enhancing our theoretical understanding of vocal communication in dogs but also for practical applications such as improving dog welfare, training, and our general relationships with our canine companions. Future research will undoubtedly continue to refine our understanding of this fascinating form of communication.


  1. Belyaev, D. K. (1979). Destabilizing selection as a factor in domestication. Journal of Heredity, 70(5), 301-308.
  2. Yin, S., & McCowan, B. (2004). Barking in domestic dogs: context specificity and individual identification. Animal Behaviour, 68(2), 343-355.
Print This Post Print This Post
Tony Bierman, "Understanding Vocal Communication in Dogs," OBTESA, Accessed February 28, 2024, http://esbt.us/h3.