Jack russel terrier on lawn near house. Happy Dog with serious gaze Credit - Getty Images
Puppies aren’t born barking, just as children aren’t born chattering. They learn their voice, and then they learn to use it—partially from others, partially from the effect the behavior has. With the litter of eleven mixed-breed puppies that I observed from birth, I first heard a bark come out of a puppy mouth at three weeks. It was the suggestion of a bark, an evocation of a bark—as though saying “bark” in quotes. Two weeks later, most of these puppies growing up in a house with several other barking dogs—and a noisy cockatoo—were barking, and even dream-barking. I remember the first day I heard the dog I lived with in my early adulthood, Pumpernickel, bark: she was two years old, and her dog friend Lindy, a commanding German Shepherd, began barking at a squirrel. Pump followed her friend’s lead; the squirrel took heed and fled. From then on, my dog was a squirrel-barker too.
I now live with a dog who barks. She came from that litter; she was essentially bark-trained by other dogs. I have to admit, I hate the barking. Intellectually, and as a scientist of dog cognition, I am completely accepting of it. A bark is, simply, a communication—and, like everyone else who lives with dogs, I want to know what my dog is saying. Wolves rarely bark, so it is likely that we humans made ancient wolves’ descendents (soon to be dogs) barky through domestication. Indeed, it is suggested that, since barks are produced in the auditory range of speech sounds, barking developed in order for dogs to communicate with us. After all, to dogs, we’re barking all the time.
Moreover, barking is a communication with a function—or, actually, many functions. There are barks in play, barks to request play, alert barks, warning barks, barks as requests. Each bark is, to use the audio term, “noisy”: full of broadband sound, different frequencies without a clear tone. But they vary in length and pitch and even rhythm, and the keen listener can distinguish them. Dogs bark when they’re happy, or angry, or fearful, or unsure. They bark when excited. Of course, they bark at strange noises and strangers, when in a conflict or when conflicted. They bark when finding a trail; they bark to get attention. Even if my scientist mind knows this, my emotional reaction is: stop it. Our dog, Quiddity, whose first year of life I detail in my new book The Year of the Puppy, barks what I would call rudely, using human gauges. She barks at visitors to our home. She barks at kind-hearted strangers who want to pet her. And she barks at dogs littler—and only those littler—than she is. While I admire the acuity of her perception of their relative size, people with small dogs do not share my admiration. And her bark is sharp: high-pitched. Unavoidable. That she stops barking shortly, often walking away nonchalantly, does not mitigate its impact. It’s a shocker.
In cities, the most problematic bark for residents is the “alone” bark: the bark heard ’round the neighborhood—except by the owners of the dog who left them home alone. Barking of even a few minutes—a bark that cries “hey, I’m alone! hello!”—is considered a public nuisance. Landlords can measure the length and frequency of barking to begin to gather evidence of this civic infraction; tenants can be evicted for this noise-making. Some people relinquish their dogs—to a shelter, to another pair of hands — for fear of losing their homes. I’ve been on the receiving end of nonstop neighbor-dog barking. While it’s not lovely, the poignancy of dogs’ plea for company leading to their possible loss of family is not lost on me. I’ll not report on that dog.
I think it’s a mistake to think of barking as a “misbehavior,” as it often is. We define dog misbehavior as those things they do that we simply do not like, regardless of whether the dog is equipped to understand or appreciate the rules they are breaking. When our new puppy chewed up several rollerball pens, leaving expressive blobs of black ink on our carpets and floors, I could have scolded this “bad” behavior. But really, I reason, it is my misbehavior: I shouldn’t have left those rollerball pens out—and nothing else for the puppy to chew on. And similarly, when she barks at a person entering our apartment, I now see it as my mistake: I need to give her something else to engage her when the person arrives—or introduce them outside, or with a tennis ball, her favorite toy.
In the end, the problem with her barking is my problem. I’ll give myself a break on this one. After all, I know that in my heart, I’m a good dog.