Barking is one of the behaviors that most characterize dogs and which they use to communicate pleasure, fear, boredom, or aggression.
While it is clear to us that a dog’s bark is always driven by some stimulus, we don’t know whether dog barking is triggered by the cognitive function of thinking, in other words.
Do Dogs Think in Barks, Or Do They Think in Words?
What we know about dog cognition suggests that dogs don’t think in barks or words. A dog’s brain cannot think and reason or consciously direct its behavior. Dogs do not think like humans do. They are motivated by urges and emotions rather than cognitive thought processes.
In more detail, let’s look into what goes on inside your dog’s brain.
A Dog’s Brain Isn’t Made for Thinking
Dogs don’t speak or understand verbal language like humans do. So, for example, they don’t have concepts such as “dog,” “toy,” or “human” in the way that we do.
That means they would never be able to tell us if they think and what they think. It also means that humans interpret a dog’s bark solely from a human viewpoint and not the dog’s.
To determine if dogs think and if they think in behavior like barking, scientists have studied dogs’ brains to understand their cognitive ability.
From such studies, it seems your dog’s brain isn’t made for thinking the way you imagine it.
Thinking happens in the frontal lobes of the neocortex region of the brain.
While dogs have the same brain structures as humans, their brain size is a lot smaller than that of humans. Most significantly, dogs have a smaller cortex and fewer folds.
The smaller brain size means that dogs have less surface and fewer neurons for the thinking function.
Specifically, a dog’s frontal lobe size is only 10% that of humans, implying they could only have a 10% thinking ability compared to humans.
Some people have also taken this difference in human and dog brain size to mean that dogs cannot think, and if they do, it is minimal.
Take, for example, the dog in this short and adorable video (click to play):
If the dog could think, it would likely be able to figure out that it was trying to play fetch with a statue.
Dog specialists like Stanley Coren have suggested that a dog’s mental ability is at the same level as a two-year-old child’s. This means dogs have some minimal cognition but certainly not much.
To revisit our question of whether dogs think in barks, the most likely answer is that they don’t, and there is zero evidence or reason to believe that they do.
So, if your dog doesn’t think in barks, what meaning do dog barks have, and what functions control a dog’s barking?
NOTE – You might also be interested to read about why dogs bark when the doorbell rings.
The Meaning in a Dog’s Bark
Barking is one of the main ways dogs communicate with us, other dogs, and animals.
It has been established that dogs will vary their bark’s pitch, duration, and frequency to communicate different messages in different contexts.
Here are a few examples of dog barks and their meanings:
- Alarm bark: A series of two or four loud and rapid barks separated by pauses to alert you of imminent danger.
- Danger/intruder bark: Continuous barking in a slow rhythm and a low pitch to communicate an unusual happening or an approaching intruder.
- A greeting bark: One to two sharp and short barks with an average or high pitch. It often replaces the intruder’s bark when a stranger is considered friendly.
- Attention bark: A series of solitary barks with pauses between them come from a dog that is lonely and requesting companionship.
- Play bark: A stammering bark at a low pitch repeated now and then is a call to play. Often accompanied by a specific body posture: front legs flat and raised back.
- Excitement bark: Frequent, high-tone barks with short pauses. They are often accompanied by movement and whimpers.
- Frustration bark: A series of high-pitch long barks with moderate long pauses. It may be interrupted by yelps. Frustration barks are familiar among isolated dogs.
So, do dogs think in these barks and know what they want to tell us?
Even though dogs and humans understand each other, dog and human communications are very different.
Dogs minimally understand our verbal cues by pairing them with our gestures. However, dogs can’t fully understand or use human language.
A significant difference between canine and human communication is that human language is intentional communication because humans can, to some degree, tell other human’s states of mind.
Dogs don’t have the ability of intention, meaning their barking cannot be deliberate communication.
It is suggested that dogs perceive and respond to cues through pattern recognition rather than a thinking process.
In other words, dogs master the consequences of their behavior and learn to use this behavior to obtain pleasant consequences.
Also, compared to wild canines, domesticated dogs portray more pattern recognition in certain behaviors, such as barking.
This implies that consistent human-dog interactions through domestication have helped dogs learn to use the bark to communicate with humans and obtain specific responses to their barking.
Final Thoughts On if Dogs Think in Barks Or in Words
Dogs don’t think in barks or in words. Instead, they spontaneously reproduce barks that have consistently produced positive consequences.
Barking is done to trigger the same responses from humans or other animals with which they interact.
Dogs use barking as a primary form of communication with humans and other dogs and animals.
While we know that humans think in verbal and non-verbal communication cues, we often wonder if the same is true of dogs and if dogs think in barks.
A dog’s brain is not equipped with the same thinking ability as humans. Instead, dogs repetitively associate behavior such as barking with positive outcomes and repeat it to obtain pleasant consequences.
Tim is a proud, vetted, and experienced dog foster carer for a charity helping dog owners escape domestic abuse.
He has years of experience training and caring for dogs, both his own and other people’s.
He is an expert in canine behavior and is highly skilled in dealing with all dogs but specializes in the difficult ones that other people may struggle with.
When he isn’t fostering dogs, he is making friends with other people’s pups!