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In Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, the infamous ‘Twilight Bark’ was explained away to viewers as the dogs version of the ‘telephone’. Little did we realise that over fifty years later science would prove just that!
Pongrácz Péter from Eötvös Loránd University and his team have conducted a study to investigate whether dogs can decipher the acoustic communication between others in their natural environment. The team tested pet dogs in their suburban homes using a hidden sound system placed near the gate outside the property. Each dog was exposed to pre-recorded barks including an unfamiliar dog and an unfamiliar dog within two contexts: when the recorded dog was left alone (let’s call it “home alone”) or when it was barking at a stranger near the fence (“stranger danger”). The researchers monitored the reactions of the test dogs to the various barks, noting whether the dogs positioned themselves near the house or near the gate where the sound was coming from.
The team found differences in the dogs’ behaviour depending on their familiarity with the dogs in the recording, as well as the context of the playback barks.
When the test dogs heard the “stranger danger” barks they stayed at the gate (nearest to the sound source) the longest when they heard an unfamiliar dog barking at a stranger. When the dogs then heard the “home alone” barks of an unfamiliar dog, they stayed at the house. The test dogs also positioned themselves more towards their home when they heard barking from a familiar dog. And, all the test dogs barked the most when they heard the unfamiliar dog’s “stranger danger” barks.
This is the first empirical study that illustrates dogs distinguish between the barkers and can extract detailed information encoded within the barks. This is good news for those blighted by nuisance barking as this study may help in the understanding and management of this common canine behavioural problem.