Most animals bark a little

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.

16 Responses to Most animals bark a little

  1. thepoormouth says:

    Can’t really speak about dogs as I’ve never owned one. I can tell you this about cats: they recognise every word we say. Sadly they interpret it as variations on a theme of “How can we serve you better, oh lord and master”

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    I agree with the author’s position that humans make an utterance when startled or surprised, but the utterance varies contextually. The emotion or circumstance dictates the utterance. If you tell me you just won some money, and I like you, I would probably say, “That’s great, Stan!” or something similar, depending on specific dialect. If I drop a glass, and it shatters on the floor, there’s no contest: My response is almost always, ” goddammit it!” If you tell me some surprising fact, I might say, “Huh!” with strong aspiration on the “h.”

  3. alexmccrae1546 says:


    I just love the slightly suspicious, quizzical looking expression of the pooch* on the cover of Thomas’ book.

    If he (?) had the ability to talk, I could imagine him grunting out something like the classic Clint Eastwood /Dirty Harry line, “OK, punk. Go ahead…..make my day!”

    Happily, if truth be told, it’s usually our loving and loyal canine companions that make OUR day(s)….. w/ their unconditional affection, willingness to please, and always being there for us, no matter what.

    Interestingly, some folk who sadly suffer from the neuropsychological disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, will often break out into involuntary barking jags, sounding very much like an actual barking dog. For those unfamiliar w/ this dis-ease, encountering a barking human can be quite a shock from the norm.

    Sudden vocal tics, ofttimes violent, uncontrollable physical spasms, and the blurting out of salty, or lurid expletives are other common outward manifestations of the disorder, as well.

    Curiously, psychiatrists and neurologists working in the field of Tourette’s haven’t really uncovered a definitive causal reason for this barking behavioral aspect of the disorder. (Perhaps they’ve just been barking up the wrong tree. Groan.)

    Stan, thanks for including a link to those cartoony, delightfully expressive drawings of Ms. Chin. Definitely captured the unique intelligence, cuteness, and pug-naciousness of the popular Boston Terrier breed.

    *My guess is that the ‘cover’ doggie is a Jack Russell terrier. A very intelligent, scrappy, playful breed, indeed. (I think they were expert ratters, way back when?)

  4. Stan says:

    Jams: Ha! Just as I suspected. Luckily for them, I am a willing servant of catkind.

    Marc: She was referring to occasions when we’re “surprised and puzzled simultaneously”, so I think that would preclude your first two examples since they don’t involve puzzlement. It would be interesting to hear how different people say Huh in different circumstances.

    Alex: Various editions have different covers, but I like the image on my copy the best (the cover photo is by Richard Bucknall). I think it is a Jack Russell – smart, lively dogs. All this talk of barking humans has reminded me of a scene in Twin Peaks where two characters in prison bark fiercely at another to intimidate him. It’s an effective scene, but I can’t find it online.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Don’t get me started on “Twin Peaks’—one of my all-time favorite dramatic TV series…..ever; and one of a handful of auteur David Lynch’s many off-center filmic tour de forces. (Some of his detractors might argue, ‘tour de farce’.)

    Back when it originally aired, I must confess I had a huge fanboy crush on the alluring actress Joan Chen, who, as I recall, played the widowed wife of an affluent local lumber baron. (Talk about major reverse type casting; yet in this instance, the odd coupling seemed to be believable.)

    I kind of see life imitating art, relative to Joan Chen’s Twin Peak’s femme fatale character’s marriage to a wealthy caucasian indusrtial tycoon, playing out in today’s May-to-December real-life partnership between communications mogul Rupert Murdock and his third wife, the much younger, quite attractive, and clearly ambitious, Wendi Deng. But I digress.

    Stan, I imagine if you were to Google search by typing in , you just might very well get a whole litany of links to that odd-ball small-town eccentric, ‘the log-lady’, who along w/ the creepy dancing lounge-dwelling dwarf really managed to set the weirdness quotient for the entire series very high.

    And here we thought the “pet rock” was a kooky concept. HA!

    For me, when the UFO/ aliens angle, and Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent character Dale Cooper finds himself possessed by the sinister specter of the evil entity, BOB, kicked into the unfolding narrative toward the end stages of the series, I must admit I had pretty much reached my weirdo/ bizarro tolerance threshold.

    Up till the startling revelation of how, and who offed the young Laura Palmer, w/ the unhinged father Leland Palmer seemingly playing some key role in her ultimate demise, the series, though strangely surreal, still retained a thread of believability. But IMHO, the story-line eventually drifted markedly into the wacko world of total make-believe by the final few episodes. (Even Salvador Dali would be left scratching his head.)

    Now, the series seems so distant in my memory, and yet when it initially aired on network TV back in the ’90s, it appeared that a “Twin Peaks” contagion had swept over a huge swath of the nation’s television viewing audience. Not unlike w/ today’s mass appeal for the AMC ’60s advertising age dramatic series “Mad Men”.

    Most ‘Mad Maniacs’ were so darn loyal that they waited out almost a year-and-a-half-long hiatus between the show’s last aired 4th season, and the ‘loosely’ scheduled upcoming 5th season; which, in fact, began anew on the third Sunday evening in March of this year. Thankfully, the show seems as fresh and engaging as ever. Brilliant writing and equally brilliant acting from the tight ensemble cast…… w/ a few new characters added to the mix, of course.

    Stan, I apologies for the digression. I may have been barking up the wrong tree, on this one.

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Goofy me, in the 4th paragraph of my last post, I forgot to type in what you should type into your Google search. (Doh!)

    It should read …… by typing in ,…

    Without the Google search data, what follows would make little sense….. the ‘log-lady’ reference, and such.

    Serves me right for trying to be a smart Alec, there.

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Technology rears it’s ugly head once again.

    In my last post I put the aforementioned Google search info inside those bracket things, and, voila!….. it disappeared into thin air when I posted my comment.

    So hopefully, for the last time, I should have typed….. Google search by typing in ( bark/ “Twin Peaks’).

    Trust this will be the last word on this now somewhat tedious series of ‘remedy’ postings. (Ugh!)

  8. Stan says:

    Alex, I enjoyed your digression. If asked to name my favourite TV series ever, I wouldn’t hesitate in picking Twin Peaks. For all its faults and indulgences, it turned TV soap opera – something I have no patience for – into something artistic and extraordinary. It did get a bit loose and ragged in the second season, partly because Lynch was away working on other projects a lot of the time, IIRC. As for fanboy crushes, I think it’s impossible to watch the show without developing a mild crush on at least one character, but I must say never saw the parallel with Murdoch! The Log Lady was a friend of Lynch’s, I think, and was involved in his filmmaking from the early days. The DVD set I have offers a feature where she introduces each episode briefly, and of course cryptically.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    On my personal observation of my dog:
    When I am home, if anyone, friend or foe, comes to the door, she will bark without cease until I order her to stop.
    When I am not here, apparently, she welcomes all and sundry with wags, licks and frolic.
    She is very smart I should add, 95% border collie.
    I think she personalizes the watchdogging by limiting it to a personal defence of me.
    The house is obviously up for grabs by any random stranger if I am not here.

  10. Jacobson’s Organ! I loved that book. You are only the second other person I’ve come across who nose it. :)

  11. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Hate to dwell on my recent ‘disappearing brackets mystery’, but I’ve discovered that using the chevron-like, adjoining “V”s kinda- resting-on-their-side bracket configuration to isolate particular info in regular copy, is NOT recommended; ’cause these specific brackets (and the contained info,within, as well), will invariably dissolve into thin air when one’s message, or comment is sent.

    I guess I found that out the hard way, ending up w/ some egg on my face in the process. Oh well.

    Moving right along— Stan, interesting factoid that the woman who played the quirky cameo role of the Log Lady in ‘Peaks’ was a longtime friend and working colleague of director Lynch. I imagine, like many fledging movie-makers, particularly in his early indie filmmaking career, Lynch would sometimes rely on a coterie of his close friends (and even relatives) to act in his formative works, w/ sufficient funding to sustain production momentum invariably being a constant challenge. (In other words, friends and relatives tend to work cheap. HA!)

    I’m thinking back to his “Eraserhead” days.

    Frankly, I’m thinking I should really just spring for the “Twin Peaks” DVD boxed set. Somewhere in my dusty trove of ancient VHS TV-fare recordings, I actually have the entire “Twin Peaks” series on tape; but of course, w/ the deluxe DVD set you get those superb behind-the-scenes, up-close-and-personal, extra bonus features…. and those sometimes comical, or awkward out-takes.

    @wisewebwoman. You are right on the mark w/ your personal observation re/ your pooch’s inconsistent guard-dogging behavioral pattern.

    In my view, most dogs will tend to bark incessantly, and w/ conviction, when a stranger, (or even a casual familiar) approaches their owner (hate the term “master”), and will hopefully cease (barking) on a strict command from their human companion. However, w/ some diehard barkers, that tactic will often fail. The little breeds seem to be the yappiest, and the hardest to cure of this annoying, antisocial habit.

    But as you say, if the owner is NOT on their home turf, the dog-alone scenario if you will, some dog’s will behave in a completely docile, approachable manner, uttering nary a bark, or woof, tail likely wagging in the breeze. (The perfect set-up for a burglar, or trespassing no-count.)

    In my experience, most suburban pooches will tend to predictably bark at the post-person, UPS, or FED-ex delivery folk, the DWP and Gas Co. meter readers—basically anyone wearing a uniform, who looks outwardly different from their family members, or immediate neighbors.

    And yet the typically large, aggressive, bred-mean, ‘junkyard dog’* appears to be a whole breed apart, and will defend its owner’s property 24/7, whether the owner is present, or when the enterprise is closed for business.

    You don’t want to mess w/ these formidable, scary characters. Better odds w/ a great-white shark, I reckon.

    *Always loved that tune, “Leroy Brown”, by the late, great balladeer, Jim Croce; especially that line “…. meaner than a junkyard dog.”

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    To stick my nose into the DVD Rave Club: I did like Twin Peaks but I have to say my all time fave was “The Wire”.

  13. Stan says:

    WWW: Border collies are beautiful dogs, and very intelligent. Interesting how her defence of the house depends on your being there; some dogs do the opposite. I liked The Wire but I wouldn’t put it in quite the same bracket as TP.

    Ashley: For all their speculative ramblings, I love Lyall Watson’s books. His passion and wide-ranging interests make for very entertaining reads. I’ve only read a handful, but my favourites are probably Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind and The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs.

    Alex: Not to worry; I’ve had the same trouble with brackets, and as far as I’m concerned there was no egg on face! WordPress can be a bit fiddly with formatting matters. I had Twin Peaks taped off the telly too, and tended to rewatch the whole thing every four or five years, though it’s been longer than that since my last visit. A DVD box set would be worth the indulgence of any keen fan. (He said, enablingly.)

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Thanks for your reassurance and enlightenment re/ those annoying ‘phantom brackets’. For a bit there, I was convinced I was losing my marbles*. (And frankly, I don’t have many to spare…… marbles that is.)

    I must confess I was somewhat of a cheapskate back when The Wire was airing, becoming such a huge must-see, critically acclaimed dramatic series. (In other words, my innate Scots thrift got the best of me, and I balked at signing up w/ HBO. Same deal w/ The Sopranos, another blockbuster HBO franchise.)

    For some time now, I’ve been content w/ my basic-cable offerings, plus a limited sports tier which includes both professional golf and tennis coverage. (B-O-R-I-N-G!)

    Whether the widely esteemed Twin Peaks is the crême-de-la- crême of all TV serial dramas, ever, is very much open to debate; but I do, however, appreciate, and respect the passion, and loyalty exhibited by the legions of The Wire aficionados for this long-running, compelling, verging-on-cinema verité, gritty, inner-city crime-and justice-themed drama.

    But like you Stan, I find it hard to trump the skewed, engaging narrative vision of David Lynch ground-breaking, off-center Twin Peaks. (IMHO, Lynch was definitely channeling the spirit of the late Rod Serling, and The Twilight Zone/ Night Gallery vibe.)

    Although to be fair, ‘Peaks’ and The Wire are two dramatically disparate genres in terms of basic theme, character portrayal, and visual presentation. (Maybe not apples-and-oranges, but definitely logs and crack pipes.)

    * “marbles” loosely translates as functioning brain cells (HA!)

  15. […] Dennett, Sontag and Hofstadter have had cameos before and Lyall Watson appeared in passing in a post about barking animals. I try not to reuse titles, but Sontag’s was in ‘Virtual light in the heart of the sea’, […]

  16. Satyajay Mandal says:

    Yes,barking dogs seldom bite

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