How to Decode Your Dog's Barking & What to Do About It
Step 5 of 14 in the Dogly Barking Channel
with Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals, Training Advocate

A dog bark is a natural way your dog communicates with you, and it's a good thing to be in tune with what your dog is feeling and thinking. Of course, barking can develop into too much of a good thing that can also get the attention of our neighbors, other dogs, and random passersby.

How do you help your dog continue to express him/herself with useful barks, understand your dog's needs behind the barks, and stop your dog from building a pattern of excessive barking?

It starts with understanding what all the barking is about and learning to think like your dog.

Expectation vs Reality

Our expectation is that dogs will be quiet in our human world but that doesn't always fit with reality. Every dog barks, it's one way our dogs communicate.

Who doesn't know the feeling of being in the middle of an important conference call and all of a sudden (or so it seems) your dog is barking excessively in the background?

What often happens in the moment with what is likely an attention or demand bark is - the dog barks, the dog parent either shushes the dog to be quiet or tosses a treat or toy, then the dog barks again, and the dog parent responds again. So the dog now knows, I bark, the human responds, it works! An endless cycle.

Okay, but tell me more

If you speak back at your dog, or give your dog any attention, even looking at your dog, then you've just reinforced the bark, and created a cycle of learned barking, or demand barking, which is an attention-seeking behavior. (If you know your dog, the barking in this example of the conference call probably didn't happen out of nowhere. Knowing your dog and understanding barks helps you anticipate, so you could have given your dog an engaging food-stuffed chew toy or other enrichment in advance and averted the bark cycle.)

Some dogs are quiet naturally, while others will have full-fledged conversations with you, and on occasion or often, many dogs bark excessively. Whatever barking inclinations your dog is showing at any point in time, every bark indicates your dog's emotions...


3 key indicators of the meaning behind your dog's bark

1) Pitch of the sound - what pitch is your dog's bark?

  • High
  • Low
  • Growling or sort of a low, rumbling complaint

2) Frequency/repetition rate- are sounds repeated and spaced in what intervals?

  • Short static barks
  • Multiple barks in a row
  • One single bark
  • Hysterical barks
  • Growl then bark
  • Pauses between barks

3) Duration of the sound - how long is your dog barking?

  • Non-stop barking
  • Howling
  • Long and sustained barking
  • Momentary barks

A few examples of different barks and how they sound...

  • A dog who is fear barking will have static and almost hysterical barks for as long a time as they see the scary thing.
  • A dog who is giving warning/guarding barks will have a grrr--bark-grrrr that is shorter in time but with non-stop frequency and deeper in pitch to indicate that he/she feels threatened and wants the person to back off. If a dog is afraid and feels threatened, then the barks and growls will be more high pitched.
  • A dog who is play barking will have short static barks with pauses between them to see what the other dog will do.


Here's how to decode some of the most common dog barks and their meaning

  • Alert or alarm barking - A dog has seen something that makes him/her interested and alert such as a squirrel or rabbit (prey drive) or a person or dog walking by your door or window. For more on alert barking, check out this guide.
  • Anxiety barking - Persistent barking or howling due to separation anxiety or separation distress when a dog's person leaves. For more on separation anxiety, go to the anxiety channel here on Dogly.
  • Fear barking - Highly fearful of a certain stimulus and barks so the scary stimulus goes away. For more on fear barking, check out this guide.
  • Excitement barking - Excited and happy like greeting you, or going to the park and will often jump or run in happiness. For more on excitement barking, check out this guide.
  • Play barking - Normal dog play behavior is to bark when playing with another dog to encourage more play or chase
  • Frustrated barking - Dog is frustrated and stressed due to inability to access resources like a person, toy, or other dog
  • Learned barking - Demand barking or barking that has been reinforced by your behavior. For more on demand barking, go to this guide.
  • Warning barking - A dog is highly stressed and feels the need to defend him/herself

Every dog bark depends on your dog's emotional response to the situation and context. Sadly, many dogs get unnecessarily reprimanded or punished for barking, when all they're trying to do is communicate their emotions.

What can you do to support your dog and stop unwanted barking?

Let's take a look at a few common types of barking and the steps you can take to help...

Step-by-step method for dealing with fear barking

The tried and true way to help dogs who are fearful to learn not to be fearful is through systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, a gradual step-by-step method.

The goal is to help your fearful dog not be afraid of whatever is causing his or her fear. Your training sessions needs to be at a distance from the scary thing and where your dog feels comfortable. Then step by step moving your dog closer or increasing the intensity of the stimulus your pup fears. 

Why barking works in the moment for fearful dogs

  • Dogs bark to make the scary thing go away.
  • The scary thing is anything that makes them nervous, fearful, or feel threatened such as delivery drivers, mail carriers, people walking past, other dogs, bicycles, or cars.
  • Why the barking continues - when fearful dogs bark, the scary thing eventually will leave (it worked!), which is why barking will continue and will actually increase in frequency and intensity. It's a self-reinforcing behavior, naturally increasing it.
  • An excessive dog barking response can actually heighten your dog's sense of stress into an arousal/adrenaline rush that continues into other areas over a period of time.

For example, on a walk after your dog has reacted with a barking response, the stress is at a higher starting level when your dog sees the next bike, dog, or other trigger, often known as trigger stacking. (Often, the best thing to do is to call it a day after your dog has a major barking reaction and give your dog a decompression break with treats and relaxation at home and not let the compulsive barking cycle take root and grow.)

How to use management for fear barking

Working with your dog on desensitization and counter-conditioning takes time, so meanwhile, to set your dog up for success you'll want to use management to eliminate or reduce triggers to prevent your dog from practicing the fear barking and having it reinforced with each incident.

Try this

  • Use window film and cover the part of the window if your dog is reacting to outside triggers.
  • Take sniffing, exploratory walks where and when it's not busy and you're not likely to run into other dogs, bicycles, etc.
  • Plan enriching play in your own backyard more often for now.


How to help your dog's fear barking

Fearful dogs need extra support, patience and understanding. It's important to remember your dog could be in a state of fear at any given time and trying to cope with the stress by barking or other behaviors.

It's also important to provide a safe space for your dog where he or she has no triggers and can relax.

Here are 4 desensitization and counter-conditioning steps to help your dog:

1) Get distance - whenever your dog barks or sees another dog barking on a walk you have 3 options: engage-disengage game, magic hand, and high rate of reinforcement, but first, put distance between your dog and the scary thing.

The point about desensitization and counter-conditioning is to create distance from the scary thing where your dog can see/hear the scary thing in a comfort zone while being treated and then gradually, slowly decrease distance, getting closer to scary things as your dog is comfortable (using desensitization and counter-conditioning to change your dog's emotions).

2) High rate of reinforcement - feed your dog rapid-fire treats (don’t forget to MOVE AWAY from the trigger) and then slowly drip feed the treats

3) If you’re at home - your reinforcement could involve doing a treat party away from a window or door.

4) Remember the 4 cues that can be used to help this are - magic hand, treat party, engage-disengage game and rapid-fire treats.

How to help your dog's frustration barking

1) Remove your dog from the situation that is causing frustration

2) Teach your dog alternative behaviors (like "touch" which you can learn here if your dog doesn't already know it).

3) Provide your dog with sniffing opportunities to create calmness (a sniffari in your back yard or on a decompression walk or treats hidden in a snuffle mat or grass).

4) Use window film on the windows or some form of barrier on your fence to decrease barrier frustration if that's the trigger.

How to help your dog's learned barking

This barking stems from fear, frustration, excitement or guard barking and is consciously or unconsciously reinforced by the dog's human. It can look and sound something like this: your dog barks, takes a break from barking, looks at or for you, then continues barking. This is your dog looking for reinforcement or attention for barking.

So, what to do? Again, no reprimand - it's counterproductive on every level. Instead teach your dog to replace the barking with another behavior. 

This will take time to teach, so be prepared that it will take your dog time to unlearn if currently your dog barks excessively. Remember, even talking is attention when your dog barks since your dog has learned he or she will get attention with barking.

Try this

1) Management - don’t leave your dog alone for long periods of time or stand for long periods of time talking to people and ignoring your dog.

2) Start training and identify the trigger event and then train your dog to have a different response than barking using techniques (like "touch," treat scatter, checking in with you, etc) described above.


How to help your dog's warning barking

Give your dog space! And make sure that space can't be violated by another dog, child, etc.

How to help your dog's play barking

When your dog is joyfully engaged in play and interacting with a play bark, let your dog be a dog and happy-bark away!

How to help your dog's alert barking

When your dog barks when you're at home to alert you to whatever, give your dog a positive opportunity to disengage so your dog stops barking and focuses on something else.

Try this

1) Say "thank you" (after all, in your dog's mind, your dog has gifted you with a thoughtful warning about something you should know about) and put some food in your pup's snuffle mat or on a lick pad or reward in another way that engages your dog.

Note: You are not reinforcing the bark - you are reinforcing the disengagement. You are also not reprimanding your dog for normal dog communication.

Now that you have a good foundation in understanding barking from your dog's perspective and a deeper sense of barking dogs as a natural part of communicating, you can help your dog disengage from barking in a healthy way. And you'll have the added bonus of improving the bond and communication between you and your dog as you work together!

Recommended Products

Next up in the Barking Channel on Dogly

Now that we've discussed the why and what of different types of dog barks, check out the rest of the Barking Channel for full guides dedicated to fear barking, demand barking, alert/alarm barking, and excitement barking, each guide from a force-free, certified professional dog trainer and Dogly Advocate here to help you with any and all of your dog's barking.

If you think your dog's barking might be related to separation anxiety, there are 9 in-depth guides in the Anxiety Channel focusing on the specific, step-by-step plans to address separation anxiety created by separation anxiety specialist and Dogly Advocate Melissa Dallier.

For any questions about your dog's barking, just ask in the discussion here in the Barking Channel.

Or if you ever need more personalized dog training guidance, please reach out!

Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Ruby because she brings her rescue experiences to our dogs - to increase our bond, decrease behavior issues.

Ruby guides you

New Dogs - Manners - Enrichment - Reactivity - Barking - Walking

Ruby is certified

Low Stress Handling - Fear Free Veterinary Professional - Fear Free Shelters - Shelter Welfare - Enrichment - & Canine Behaviour