In The Hidden Life of Dogs, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports what she has learned about dog behaviour and psychology from watching different breeds in diverse environments and social situations. I like the observations she makes about the communicative aspects of barking and sniffing:
[O]nly the pugs took much interest in the human life around them, so only the pugs barked. Of course, most animals bark a little – which is to say that if surprised and puzzled simultaneously, most animals, including human beings, make a short, sharp call; the call is ‘Huh?’ in our species. Highly domesticated dogs make an art of their puzzlement and bark insistently, alerting others to unexplained events. But not the huskies, who didn’t bark at human-generated sounds or happenings any more than they barked at birds in the sky, and surely for the same reason: the doings of the birds and the people lacked significance for them.
Is it true that most animals make such a sound? It depends on what’s meant by animals, I suppose: mammals or non-aquatic vertebrates may be closer to what was meant, but I still don’t know how true it is.
In any case, by the author’s reckoning I myself have, on occasion, barked in puzzled surprise. Maybe you have too. I don’t know if there’s another verb for when people make this sound. Huh is a good phonic approximation but it doesn’t lend itself naturally to inflection. Yelping is usually high-pitched and is associated more with pain. I’m open to suggestions of existing words or invented ones.
Marshall Thomas continues:
In contrast, the dogs took an unlimited interest in each other. When a dog returned after a brief absence, the others would quietly surround him and investigate him for scent – the scents of his own body, which would show his state of mind and probably a great deal more as well, and the scents of the place he had been, which he carried on his fur. They’d smell his lips and his mantle, his penis, his legs and his feet. Seldom, if ever, would they investigate his anus or anal glands, evidently because the information therefrom has to do with a dog’s persona but not with his travels. The dogs would investigate me too, particularly if I had been away a long time. They paid special attention to my legs from the knees down, as if I had been wading through odors.
‘Wading through odours’ is a lovely, memorable description, evoking the dog’s sensorial surroundings with appropriate emphasis on smell. What a rush of stimuli it must be for a dog to go exploring outside, where – save a minuscule stationary layer above the ground – the air is more subject to turbulence and so constitutes a fluctuating ‘garden of exotic flora and fauna’, to use a phrase from Lyall Watson’s book Jacobson’s Organ.
Humans’ sense of smell is puny by comparison, and our visual sense may have crowded the field in recent history, but our noses are still capable of delivering intense and subtle effect, sometimes transporting us instantly to another time and place. Most of us need hardly a moment’s thought to list many smells that give us particular pleasure; other smells might even make us bark.
Related items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from Marshall Thomas’s very enjoyable book, which includes the marvellous phrase cynomorphic substitute; you can read chapter one of Watson’s book on smell and pheromones online; and finally, here’s a fun drawing by Lili Chin of a Boston terrier’s body language.
Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour, has an interesting note on barking in a section on neoteny and how dogs are essentially juvenile wolves. She describes research that found that ‘the more wolfie a dog looks, the more wolfie it acts’:
I saw this up close in a dog I knew. He was a mixed-breed black-and-white dog with perfect, pointed ears and a long tapered nose, just like a wolf’s. The strange thing about him was that he never, ever barked. He could bark, and he easily learned to “speak” (bark on command for food). But left to his own devices he didn’t bark. He’d sit in the front bedroom monitoring the street, but when people came to the door he didn’t launch into that crazed barking other dogs do. He’d get worked up and do a little “sneeze-bark,” but that was it. I think that was probably his wolf ancestry showing through his dog exterior. Wolves don’t bark, and neither did this wolfie-looking dog.