Not Only Dogs, but Deer, Monkeys and Birds Bark to Deal with Conflict

Jul 14, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Biologically speaking, many animals besides dogs bark, according to Kathryn Lord at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but the evolutionary biologist also says domestic dogs vocalize in this way much more than birds, deer, monkeys and other wild animals that use barks. The reason is related to dogs’ 10,000-year history of hanging around human food refuse dumps, she suggests.

In her recent paper in a special issue of the journal, Behavioural Processes, Lord and co-authors from nearby Hampshire College also provide the scientific literature with its first consistent, functional and acoustically precise definition of this common animal sound.

As Lord, a doctoral candidate in organismic and at UMass Amherst, explains, “We suggest an alternative hypothesis to one that many biologists seem to accept lately, which seeks to explain dog barking in human-centric terms and define it as an internally motivated vocalization strategy.” In the researchers’ view, however, barking is not a special form of communication between and humans. “What we’re saying is that the domestic dog does not have an intentional message in mind, such as, ‘I want to play’ or ‘the house is on fire,’” explains Lord.

Rather, she and colleagues say barking is the auditory signal associated with an evolved behavior known as mobbing, a cooperative anti-predator response usually initiated by one individual who notices an approaching intruder. A dog barks because she feels an internal conflict―an urge to run plus a strong urge to stand her ground and defend pups, for example. When the group joins in, the barks intimidate the intruder, who often flees.

“We think dogs bark due to this internal conflict and mobbing behavior, but bark more because they are put, and put themselves into, conflicting situations more often,” she says.

The reason traces back to the first dogs that started hanging around human food dumps about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. They would have experienced a serious disadvantage if they had run a mile away every time a human or other animal approached. As Lord explains, “In evolutionary terms, dogs self-selected the behavior of sticking around, overcoming their fear and being rewarded by getting to eat that meal before some other dog got it. Thus these animals allow people to get unusually close. The scared ones die while those less scared stay, eat, survive and reproduce. So they inherit the tendency.”

She adds, “By contrast, like wolves have a very long flight distance. They hear something and they run before you’d ever see them. Dogs hang around, but now they have committed to holding their ground and the closer an ‘intruder’ gets, the more likely mobbing is to occur rather than running away.”

An example of the domestic environment (rather than the dog’s own behavior) that increases barking is the animal stuck behind a fence with a person approaching, says Lord. “The dog may either feel anxiety or excitement at seeing a stranger but in either case the dog is prevented from approaching or fleeing. This creates conflict, and thus barking.”

Several technical pages of the researchers’ recent paper identify eight different parameters in three categories which must be met in order to classify a given vocalization as a bark. These include tonality, noise, pitch, volume or amplitude, abrupt onset and pulse duration, for example.

In their view, barking is not self-referential communication to convey a message, but a short, loud sound characterized by combining both noise and tonal sounds, which is unusual in animal calls. This definition widens the bark’s usefulness as a functional behavior seen in many animals, though domesticated dogs display it more often. “Using this definition, even birds bark, and certainly many mammals besides canines, including baboons and monkeys, rodents and deer also bark,” Lord explains. “In a whole bunch of mammals and birds, what they do in such conflicted situations is bark.”

This evolutionary view of barking does not sit well with some pet owners who insist that Buffy communicates with them by barking, the researchers acknowledge. “We understand the objection when people say their dogs bark for supper or to get out and play,” Lord says. “Dogs do quickly learn the simple cause-and-effect relationship between their bark at 10 p.m. and the fact that you’ll get right up and take them outdoors. It’s true, but in our view it’s going too far to suggest the animal is intentionally referring to a specific activity. Rather, it has just learned cues, as it does when it learns to sit or beg for a treat.”

Provided by University of Massachusetts Amherst (news : web)

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Simonsez
not rated yet Jul 15, 2009
Very interesting research, but it certainly seems to imply that dogs are nowhere near as intelligent as humans give them credit for. In fact, the article makes dogs sound a bit like adaptive robots.

Dogs are able to give different intonations to their barks to show increasing anxiety/excitement levels. What does it mean when my dogs bark excitedly as I approach and then walk through the door? I know they are happy to see me, but this article suggests some sort of internal conflict in decision making. What exactly are they conflicted against? The door presents a barrier to them as they desire to meet and greet me, but once the door is open, then what? They have me in their presence and I give them attention. Is their barking just a cause-and-effect relationship between knowing that when I come through the door and they bark, I give them attention?

I suppose I will just have to read the actual research to find out how that sort of situation factors into their theory.