Barking is the Language of Dogs

Learn What They Are Trying to Tell You

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Brenda M. Negri – Barking is a language for all dogs, and livestock guardian dog (LGD) breeds are no exception. In fact, barking is an integral part of what LGDs do. It’s always done for a reason and a purpose. Not all barking is the same and once you begin to understand your LGD’s barking language, you’ll note the variety of barks he or she possesses.

When a dog barks, it’s:

• Communicating with you, or with its own kind
• Barking as a guardian
• Barking a warning at a perceived threat
• Expressing happiness, sadness, or loneliness
• Barking out of frustration, fear, and stress

Learning to logically distinguish those barks is an important part of being a good LGD owner and can help you help your LGD do a better job.

One of the common complaints I read and hear about with livestock guardian dogs has to do with what their owner calls “excessive barking.” Novice and first-time LGD owners sometimes claim their LGDs bark excessively. Usually, it isn’t that the barking is necessarily excessive, but more of a problem of the owner’s inability to understand the reason behind the barking. That’s a problem that can be cured with education of the owner.

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Types of Barking

In her book, Barking: The Sound of a Language, famous European dog behaviorist, author, and trainer, Turid Rugaas, categorizes dog barking into six different types:

• Excitement barking
• Warning barking
• Fear barking
• Guard barking
• Frustration barking
• Learned barking

Rugaas’ book goes into great detail on each type of bark.  Although an LGD is capable of all six kinds of barking, the two most frequent barks you’ll hear from them are warning barking and guard barking.

Livestock Guardian Dogs And Barking
LGD pups will emulate their mentors and parents. This includes learning what to bark at and when.

Why Guardian Dogs Bark

The role of the livestock guardian dog is to deter predators from approaching livestock.  There are many ways this is accomplished.  One is by leaving scent or sign, by defecating and urinating around the perimeters of the dog’s patrol area.  By marking his “turf” an LGD sends a powerful message to any interlopers or intruders: “Be gone! And stay away from my flock!”  LGD breeds have been bred for generations to do this.

In Barking: The Sound of a Language, Rugaas writes: “In the scattered farms throughout Europe and other places with lots of space and few people, early settlers preferred dogs who (sic) barked when strangers were approaching, as a warning.  Today, if you get a dog like a Great Pyrenees, you will find out that they are still very good at barking in similar situations.  They are genetically dispositioned to do it and it would be cruel to punish them for it.”

Warning & Guard Barking

Besides marking territory, another way of telling predators to “steer clear” is by barking.  A warning bark is usually one sharp bark notifying you, the owner, that something is amiss.  Or there may be danger afoot and your LGD wants you to know about it.

By guard barking, the LGD ends a message to hungry coyotes, wolves, bears, or other predators to not come any closer, because this is the LGD’s territory and it is protecting it.

A dog’s sense of smell and hearing are much more accurate than that of a human.  Thus they typically smell and hear things we cannot.  This is why dogs often seem to be “barking at nothing” to the average observer, when in fact, they hear, smell, or even see something that escapes human detection.  They are actually warning or guard barking.

It’s prudent, therefore, for the LGD owner to first go outside and check what it is that his dog is barking at, rather than simply yelling at them to stop barking.

Livestock Guardian Dogs And Barking
Bark signals are a universal language of all livestock guardian dog breeds. But some are less vocal — and less prone to barking — than others, even when something attracts their attention.

A Case Study in “Excessive” Barking

I would like to share a story from a client who sought my help with her LGD’s barking.

Barbara Judd of Froghaven Farm in Washington has four LGDs she received from me: Two purebred sibling Spanish Mastiffs and two dogs that are crossbreds of Great Pyrenees and Pyrenean Mastiff. The dogs protect her heritage flock of Buckeye chickens and goats on her 40-acre farm.  They had begun a habit of standing at a back fenceline on her large farm and barking off into the woods.

Barbara could not see anything, but she knew herds of elk and deer often passed through the area beyond her perimeter fence.  She also lives in a large predator area, with bear, lion, and coyote packs.  There’s no telling what could have been beyond her fenceline, on the prowl.

Two of her LGDs seem obsessed with something they could not see, and would stand for long periods of time barking at a high repetitive pitch that was both bold, yet concerned in tone.  Whatever was out there was disturbing them and they felt it was a threat to their chickens and goats.

Parallel Walking to Calm Your Livestock Guardian Dog

Taking a tip from Rugaas’ book on barking, I asked Barbara to go out and put the dogs on a leash and place herself between the dogs and the unseen but perceived threat “out there,” beyond the fence. I told her to walk them along the perimeter fence, parallel to what was disturbing her dogs. The important thing was to place the owner between the dogs and the perceived threat.

Barbara did this for about 20 minutes, then two more times later that day. The dogs calmed almost immediately. In just one day, doing this drastically cut back on her dog’s non-stop barking. She was able to help them and give them peace of mind.

Why did it work? Because she showed her dogs that she was involved in their dilemma and taking action to help them.

By placing herself between the threat and her dogs, she was showing her LGDs she was part of the guardian team. Likewise, this powerful body language put their concerns at ease.  The dogs knew she was taking responsibility for this, too.

They were still vigilant. But they relaxed, realizing their owner was not only aware of their guard barking, she responded to it, and showed them she too was concerned and cognizant of what it was that concerned her dogs. By putting herself between them and the perceived threat, she eased their minds. By this simple, yet powerful act, her body language showed her dogs she was listening.

The four dogs now have stopped their incessant barking at the fenceline. They are still vigilant and do their jobs, yet they’re no longer stressed or hyper-concerned and/or needlessly worried. They know Barbara is there to help them if needed.

Livestock Guardian Dogs And Barking
Brenda M. Negri is an author, illustrator, and rancher, who raises and trains livestock guardian dogs in Northern Nevada.

Listening to Your LGD

Being tuned-in to what your LGDs are doing — and what their barking is telling you — is part of being a responsible LGD owner.

Likewise here, when my LGDs are barking at something beyond my fence that I cannot see, I typically go outside, stand next to and just in front of them, between the perceived threat and the dog.

I will stroke their head and back and speak calmly in a low voice. Their barking stops almost instantly. They realize I am there and invested in this possible threat, just as much as they are. That is usually all it takes.

Your guardian dog needs to know you are interested in what they are doing. They need to know you recognize what they’re telling you with their barking signals and that you are not ignoring them, but are engaged and acting on it.

The simple act of participating in the perimeter patrol was all it took to show Barbara’s LGDs that their owner was backing them up, paying attention, and was responsive to their concerns. Once they had that confidence, it calmed them and the excess barking stopped.

An owner or keeper should never punish a livestock guardian dog for doing its job when it’s barking and the keeper doesn’t understand why. It’s better to work at understanding the root cause of the barking. Show your dogs you’re part of the “protection detail” on your farm. Never resort to using harsh and painful artificial methods such as shock collars, electric collars, or muzzles, which can be incredibly painful.  And they confuse the dog.

Take the initiative to help your guardian dog out, by listening to their barks, understanding what they’re barking at and why.  And participate, by showing them you’re backing them up.

Recommended Reading:  Barking: The Sound of a Language, by Turid Rugaas, Copyright 2008, Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, Washington, USA.

Originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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