The impact of dog barking - do we sympathise or worry?

The impact of dog barking - do we sympathise or worry?
Researchers from the Department of Ethology investigated the effects of dog barking. They were interested in the effect on the owners, in addition to the reason for barking. The research found that barking can be frustrating for humans if they cannot intervene, which may be because we care for the animal and want the reason for the barking go away, but there may be a bigger problem behind the barking.

At the Department of Ethology we have already discovered that human listeners are capable of understanding the basic emotions conveyed by dogs’ barking. We can also reliably guess why the dogs bark – in other words, what is the context of their vocalizations. However, dogs’ barking is also a well-known nuisance for many. Recently our researchers showed that there are especially annoying types of dog barking – primarily those, which are emitted by aggressive, or troubled (e.g., left alone) dogs.

But why?

In our new research we investigated whether particular barks become annoying, because we take them as ‘alarm signals’ (thus, urge us to intervene); or because we understand the animal’s negative emotions and feel empathy towards it. We tested 40 volunteers, who had to listen and score various dog bark recordings, but only after they received either an intranasal oxytocin or a placebo treatment. Oxytocin can have various effects on humans, here we expected that it may sensitize the participants towards the emotional content of dog barks; and we also expected that the participants will be more accepting after the oxytocin treatment, thus they will be less annoyed by the dog barking. Our volunteers were all young adult men, because our earlier experiments showed that men and young adults react with higher annoyance to dog barking.

The participants evaluated each bark sequence according to three emotional scales (how aggressive, fearful, and happy the dog was, based on its bark), and they also scored how annoying were the barks. The oxytocin treatment had an interesting dual effect. The treated participants gave higher ‘aggression’ scores to the deep-pitched barks, and at the same time, gave lower ‘annoyance’ scores to the otherwise most annoying noisy, rough barks.

By using oxytocin, we could prove that dogs’ barking affects people through a dual mechanism. First, its emotional content evokes empathy. Second, particular acoustic characteristics of dog barking – similarly to the highly annoying baby cries – act as ‘alarm signals’ and urge intervention. Due to their specific acoustics, we cannot habituate to (and ignore) these barks, and if cannot intervene either, we get frustrated – and annoyed. We can conclude that if we think that a dog’s barking is especially annoying – there is a good chance that something is not right. Either with the dog… or in general.

Pongrácz, P., Lugosi, C.A., Szávai, L. et al. Alarm or emotion? intranasal oxytocin helps determine information conveyed by dog barks for adult male human listeners. BMC Ecol Evo 24, 8 (2024).