Want to know what your dog is trying to say? Here’s what his different barks mean

Research reveals how to interpret dog language (so you can understand what your dog is trying to say to you).

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  • You might be surprised to realize that your dog can understand an average of 165 human words (that's pretty amazing). But unfortunately, your dog isn't able to speak those words back to you (which is really unfortunate because in ABC's Downward Dog, Nan's dog is pretty insightful).

  • But just because your dog is unable to pronounce English words, it doesn't mean he doesn't try to imitate your cadences or communicate in ways that are discernible to humans.

  • Here we've complied research and insights from the world's most prominent dog researcher Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher as well as an author of several books about dog psychology and behavior. His research reveals the patterns of dog language so that you can better understand what your dog is trying to say to you.

  • "This is important"

  • You can tell that your dog is excited by listening to the rate he's barking. When your dog barks in quick bursts with intense repetition, he is trying to indicate urgency. Spaced out barks indicate less interest and import. The importance can be about something positive (that you just came home) or negative (a threat is approaching).

  • "I'm lonely"

  • When your dog feels lonely, he will express it with a long stream of continuous barks with an deliberate silence between sets. Dogs will often howl as well, a social call that lets you know he's there.

  • "Come closer"

  • If a dog wants to indicate that it's safe to come close, he will use a high-pitch bark. Across species (including the human species), a high-pitch sound is associated with smallness. By using a high-pitch bark, your dog is trying to signal that he's harmless and that it's safe to approach.

  • "Stay away"

  • On the other hand, you probably instinctively understand when a dog is trying to tell you to stay away. When you hear a deep growl, your mind assumes the sound coming from something big, triggering fear. For this reason, dogs (even small ones) will bark in a low-pitch to communicate that they want you to stay away.

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  • "Hello there!"

  • Dogs typically use one or two short barks in a high to midrange pitch as a friendly greeting. (This is different than the way he would greet a potential threat.) He is trying to say that he's happy to see you.

  • "I need..."

  • Your dog will indicate his wants and needs with a whine that rises in pitch at the end (causing it to sound like a yelp). The more frequent and loud the whine, the more emotionally attached your dog is to this need.

  • "Let's go"

  • Alternately, a whine that drops in pitch at the end or fades in pitch with no distinct ending is a plea to get a move on. Your dog is trying to tell you he's anxious to get outside to use the bathroom or he's anxiously awaiting you to throw the ball for him to retrieve.

  • "I'm here"

  • Howls are used to announce presence. Your dog's intention with announcing his presence may be to ask for attention when lonely, socialize from afar or to declare territory.

  • "Stop that"

  • When your dog is annoyed (such as when his hair is pulled or he gets woken up) he'll use a quick bark or two in the lower midrange pitch.

  • "I'm depressed"

  • When your dog sighs, he may be indicating that he's giving up on a situation. Like humans, he is releasing tension in an anxious situation. Oftentimes, he may sigh to indicate his sadness.

  • "I'm content"

  • On the other hand, also like humans, your dog's sighs may indicate contentment. For this reason, it's important to interpret sighs in context. In other words, if your dog sighs after failing a task, he's likely expressing depression, but if he's cuddling up to you after enjoying a doggy treat, he's probably telling you he feels content.

  • "Let's play"

  • When your dog gives a stuttering bark (something that sounds like "ar-ruff"), he is telling you that he is in a playful mood and wants to have some fun with you.

  • "I'm afraid"

  • Shorter bursts (as opposed to a sustained growl) indicate that the dog isn't confident about himself in a situation. For example, he doesn't know if he will be successful in an attack. When he barks in short bursts, he is admitting his fear.

  • "I'm not backing down"

  • When a dog sustains a bark for a long period of time, he is indicating that he's confident by making a deliberate choice about the signal he is sending. In other words, when a dog sustains a growl he is saying that he is ready to fight if necessary.

  • "Follow me"

  • Your dog will bay, a hunting-call howl, to express that you need to follow him.

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  • "Pay attention"

  • If your dog barks in a rapid stream of 2-4 barks with pauses between the sets, he is trying to get your attention. Your dog isn't necessarily fearful or threatened, but he definitely wants you to be aware.

  • "I'm surprised"

  • Your dog will indicate surprise or startling with one high-pitched, short bark.

  • "I'm hurt"

  • A dog will softly whimper when he's in pain. This encompasses both physical and emotional pain (such as guilt or fear).

  • "Prepare to defend yourself"

  • When your dog wants to prepare you against an imminent threat, he will use a slow, deep and continuous bark so that you are alerted and prepared to handle the situation.

  • Catch up on ABC's Downward Dog and get a new perspective on what your dog is really trying to say to you. Don't miss Nan and her dog Martin in the special one hour finale next Tuesday at 10/9c and be sure to catch up on episodes now at ABC.com and ABC On Demand.

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Melinda Fox has a bachelor's degree in English and is a member of the FamilyShare content team. She loves Shakespeare, listening to her favorite songs on repeat and journaling.

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