Seeing all the ways dogs communicate is an interesting exercise if you happen to find the time. Many bark, growl, and howl, and some even combinations of the three; creating some noise similar to a belch and a yawn at the same time. For the lucky few, they howl a show-tune that takes them from small-time house dog to beloved by millions. Between all the hootin' and hollerin’, it's easy to see why we have grown such a fascination with the ways in which dogs choose to communicate with us and the world around them. Why is it that there is such a diversity, even among dogs of the same breed?
The Root of the Behavior
Wolves howl and it is kind of their trademark. Their biological descendants do as well, but the brand that is commonly associated with their form of communication is a bark. A wolf does not bark. As it turns out, this may be a learned behavior. In the wild, barking does not offer much assistance. It is not easily confused with another species, so predators wouldn't likely be dissuaded. The prey would also recognize the noise, and in their fear, would scatter and hide. The loud and repetitive sounds from a dog barking don't carry the same way a howl does and so would be less effective for communication. Alas, the bark does very little outside the house but in fact, carries a great power in the context of human companionship, especially in less developed times. Dogs, through much of human history, have been used as an alarm system. Loyal to their human companions, any unknown or unwanted guests greeted by the bark of the beast would often turn tail because they understand exactly the same thing the dog understands. The bark is not meant to scare them off but instead is designed to alert you to their presence. We likely have trained them over thousands of years of conditioning to behave this way. Barking has also had an important place in hunting, a sport and way of life that has a long history with canines. A hunting dog will run and bark at prey, scattering them and making others take flight. This bark signals back to the hunter that prey is near and the direction they should be looking. The animals’ reaction to the dog removes it from hiding, and whilst evading the dog, becomes a clear and easy target for the hunter.
Most importantly, a dog’s bark benefits them. It is an easy way to communicate and who could fault them? Where would you be in your life if you could not articulate even the simplest phrases like "Hey bro, I'm hungry."
Encouraging the Behavior
Adjusting the behavior of your dog can be tricky and it all really comes down to what is causing the behavior in the first place. If your dog perceives danger, his reaction will be to bark to alert those nearby of the danger. If barking at strangers approaching your house is how excessive barking usually comes about, it may be wise to consider not changing that behavior. It could come someday to save you or your possessions. If, however, the barking is far less beneficial, then you can take steps to change them. Remember this is a learned behavior and it is all about how you respond to them barking. If they bark at you whenever they want you to fill their bowl, then filling their bowl after they bark only reinforces that behavior. The same concept applies to the mailman approaching. If you run up to your dog when they begin to bark, this is you responding to their alarms. In their mind, they have done what they set out to accomplish and therefore reinforced the behavior. The key is to break the cause and effect relationship. If they bark at you for food, switch to a scheduled time each day to feed them and do not react when they bark at you. Eventually, they will understand that is not working and they will drop the tactic.
Other Solutions and Considerations
It is the most effective way for any canine to communicate with you and any reaction you have will teach them that barking works when trying to get your attention. A dog howls and barks because the howl is their natural form of communication, like the wolf. The bark, however, is the way we have taught them to communicate with us, whether we know it or not. How you react to them barking is going to determine when they bark and why. Undoing a trained behavior like this can be very difficult and a behavioral specialist or a trainer may be needed.
We taught dogs to bark. We continuously teach them to bark and even our passive reactions can reinforce this behavior. Not to advocate having a wolf as a pet, but if we did, they would likely bark as well. It is not that dogs don't have the physical ability to bark while wolves don't. instead, human companionship has taught them to use this technique to communicate with us. You can hear a lot if you listen.