You’re in a new neighborhood, and as you’re walking down the street you almost jump out of your skin when a dog barks at you.
Happens to me all the time.
There’s an old folk saying that if you simply ignore a barking dog, they’ll stop and you’ll be safe.
Dogs bark to communicate a range of emotions and messages, from “Hey! Look at me!” to “I wanna play!” to “Get off my lawn!” and even “Help!”
While you can safely ignore some of these messages if you ignore the wrong one you could be setting yourself up to get bitten.
Are you afraid of dogs? Or afraid you’ll respond the wrong way to a barking dog? The best way to get over your fear and know the proper response to a dog’s barking is to learn to read dog behavior. Learn to read the context behind the bark, so you can tailor your action accordingly.
Broadly speaking, dogs may bark at you for any of three common reasons: to warn you away, or to communicate distress, or to communicate excitement and a desire for your attention or play.
When a dog barks at you, pause to observe the dog’s body language and scan the surroundings. More often than not you’ll easily be able to identify the reason it’s barking at you.
Trust your instincts.
Scientific studies have shown that humans, even non-dog-owners, score very well at recognizing the emotions behind domestic dog vocalizations.
Just don’t let your fear get the better of you, because panicking may trigger chasing or an attack.
How to Respond to Warning Barks
Dogs give warning barks to anyone intruding on their territory or anyone too near a resource they want to guard, like food, favorite toys, or puppies. The territorial warning bark is the most common to encounter from other people’s dogs. The first response to this should be to stop or back off.
Territorial warning barks are low in pitch, accompanied by intimidating body language such as raised hackles and tense, guarded posture with the dog trying to make itself look as tall and strong as possible.
The more alarmed the dog is the closer the frequency between barks.
It may also wag its tail – tail-wagging is not necessarily friendly, it just means the dog is excited.
Warning barks are often accompanied by a tail held stiffly erect and moving in very short wags like a tuning fork vibrating.
This is a gesture of dominance and warning.
If the dog is fearful and wants to get away or for you to go away, its barks will be high-pitched and the whites of its eyes might show.
A very frightened or aggressive dog may also mix growls with barking.
Territorial barking can give way to fear barking if you approach a nervous dog too closely, especially if it’s a small dog, or you’re wearing something strange to it like a Halloween costume, or you’re making noises it finds strange.
I’ve seen puppies driven crazy by a toddler’s squeaky sneakers!
Determine What the Dog is Guarding
When a dog gives you warning barks, stop and scan the dog and your surroundings.
Try to understand what it’s warning you away from and in which direction it is.
Can the dog reach you?
Does the dog show signs of rabies such as foaming at the mouth?
Do you see any puppies or signs the dog is nursing puppies, like distended udders?
Are you too near its food bowl?
Or are you just too near the dog?
Small dogs, in particular, are easily intimidated by strangers, and respond by fear-barking – that’s why many small breeds have a reputation as yappers.
What to Do if the Dog Seems Rabid
If it seems the dog is rabid, get out of there!
Back away and get back indoors or in your car as quickly as you can without running, keeping an eye on the dog the whole time. Pick up something you can use to keep the dog at bay if you can, such as a stout stick.
Once you’re safe, call Animal Control or 911 to alert them of the rabid dog.
Don’t try to capture or kill it yourself.
Run only if that’s the only way to escape an attack; even a rabid dog is much faster than a human and will likely catch you if you run.
What to Do if a Dog Chases You
If you encounter a hostile dog while biking or jogging, it may give chase.
Should you fight or flee?
Your first response to a dog chasing you, if it doesn’t look rabid, should be to stand your ground. Stop, and back away slowly if you can while facing the dog.
Most dogs will only chase you either to run you off their territory or in play.
However, most dogs do not want a fight, so if you send the message you’re no threat while maintaining a strong defensive stance, most dogs won’t attack. If can, try to place a barrier between your body and the dog, such as your bike.
Stay quiet, and remain facing the dog but avoiding hard eye contact.
At this point, you don’t want to provoke the dog further so don’t yell at it or throw stones at it. You can make yourself look bigger by holding your arms up or out.
Also, many dogs will flinch if you bend down to pick up a stick or stone, and many will stop even if you don’t actually find a stick or stone.
Do not flee unless there’s really no other choice.
If you’re on foot, a dog is much faster than you, and running away will only stimulate it to chase you more, while also exposing your rear to the dog.
If you try to flee on a bike, you could have an accident.
If you have to flee, try to get indoors, inside a car, or up a tree or fire escape ladder. Climb high if you’re being chased by a big dog – many can jump surprisingly high.
If the dog continues to approach, yell for help.
Only now should you try to frighten off the dog. If it looks like an attack is unavoidable, you can wrap a thick shirt or jacket around one arm to use it as a shield.
If the dog attacks and knocks you down, curl up into a ball and wrap your arms over your head and the back of your neck to protect these vital parts.
Most dogs will recognize this as a sign of submission and cease attacking.
If you bike or jog in areas where you know there might be aggressive dogs, consider carrying pepper spray, a baton, or a sturdy umbrella.
To prevent being surprised, don’t listen to loud music while you’re exercising – turn the volume down until you can hear the environmental sounds clearly.
Many victims of dog attacks were wearing headphones and so remained unaware of the dog’s presence or early warning signals.
What to Do If You’re Near the Dog’s Food or Puppies
If you’re too near puppies or the dog’s food, or it looks like you’ve strayed too deep into its territory, back away until the dog stops barking. Make sure you’re going in the correct direction, not closer to what it’s guarding!
My mother was once bitten by a dog because she’d mistakenly gone closer to its puppies’ hiding place when she thought she was moving away.
What to Do If You Must Pass the Dog’s Territory
Most of the time, though, chances are you’re being barked at just to let you know that you’re entering the dog’s territory without invitation. If the dog is free, consider changing your route so you’re outside its territory.
Dogs will usually cease alarm barking when you’ve moved what they consider a safe distance away. Just how far that is though will depend on the dog’s personality and reasons for warning you off.
My neighbor’s dog barks at me when I pass its side of the street, but stops when I stay on the other side. If the dog can’t reach you, you could continue as you are and ignore it – but be aware that its barking could be disturbing the neighborhood.
You can also help defuse a dog’s territorial or fear responses by adopting non-threatening behaviors. Don’t make eye contact with a barking dog – dogs consider staring and eye contact as challenges.
Look away, and present your side instead of facing the dog directly. Do not yell at the dog; you can try speaking to it in low, reassuring tones. Some territorial dogs however respond to any form of interaction by yet more barking.
If the owner is nearby, you can try calling a friendly greeting to him or her. The dog can be reassured when its owner returns your greeting.
Some mail and delivery personnel carry treats for the dogs they’re likely to meet during their rounds and toss the dogs a morsel every time they pass by.
This eventually lets them befriend the dogs. You can consider this strategy if you regularly have to pass a territorial dog’s home.
Make sure though that you only offer safe treats, and ideally, let the owner know that you’re going to give their dog an occasional treat to befriend it. While most owners are okay with this, some are concerned that strangers may try to poison or steal their dog.
What to Do About Small Dogs Barking
Small dogs often bark at visitors even after their owners have greeted you and let you in. This is normal since small dogs, because of their size, often have fear issues. When you’re the size of a Chihuahua, everything can look threatening until proven otherwise.
If the dog growls at you, you may ask the owner to confine it out of sight first. If it’s keeping its distance as it barks, ignore it and keep a calm demeanor.
Don’t try to befriend it immediately, and very importantly, don’t approach it and bend down to greet it. Small dogs can find a stranger looming over them terrifying, and doing this can trigger an attack.
Eventually, the dog should stop barking and settle down to observe you. If it’s satisfied you’re no threat, it may approach and befriend you.
Let the dog make the first move.
Some small dogs learn to accept strangers even on the first visit, while some may take several visits.
How to Respond to Distress Barks
Distress barking can be recognized by its high pitch and rapid frequency and may be punctuated with whining or whimpering.
This is a signal that the dog is in pain or has an emergency like being tangled and strangling in its leash, or is feeling anxious and lonely. Dog breeds prone to separation anxiety may give this kind of bark as you leave the house or after you’ve stepped out.
If you’re not the dog’s owner, the humane thing to do is to check what the reason for the dog’s distress barking might be. The dog may be in a dangerous or life-threatening situation, in which case you can try to find and notify the owner or if necessary, try to aid the dog yourself.
Even more important, the dog might be barking due to a human emergency.
Dogs whose homes or owners are endangered may also give distress barks to summon help. You might think it only happens in Disney movies, but there are many documented cases of dogs saving lives.
In Alabama, a normally silent Great Dane’s unusual barking in the wee hours of morning saved a family from a house fire.
There have also been many cases of dogs saving their owners, their owners’ family members, even strangers, from medical emergencies or accidents through their barking for attention, such as a blind man who fell into a frigid brook in Maine, and a smart little Chihuahua named Boo Boo who fetched aid on command for her elderly owner when he had a stroke.
Another brave dog named Lucky warned of a viper by her barking, saving a five-year-old child but at the cost of getting bitten herself.
So yes, if you hear a dog barking in distress, you owe it to our kind’s best friend to see what’s wrong. For all you know, the life you save might be your own!
How to Respond to Invitation to Play Barks
Dogs can also bark as an invitation to play or get petted. Such barking is recognizable by its high, excited pitch, and is accompanied by gestures such as the play-bow with the head down, rump up and tail wagging, prancing, and sometimes jumping on you.
You can also recognize this play behavior by the way the dog wags its tail in wide sweeps brushing its hind legs, sometimes accompanied by full-body wiggling.
If you’re afraid of dogs, try to stay calm. Don’t try to shoo off or scare off the dog. If you want to get over your fear of dogs, you can respond to such invitations by scratching the dog’s ears or the side of its head or its flank while talking calmly to it.
This response lets the dog know you want to be friends but communicates a lower energy level so the dog will lower its intensity too. As you grow more comfortable with the dog, you can engage in more active play.
If interacting with dogs is a problem for you, you can let the dog’s owner know the play behavior is making you uncomfortable. If the owner is not around, ignoring the dog will let it know you’re not accepting its invitation and it will look for amusement elsewhere.
Other Kinds of Barking
Dogs may also bark because they’re bored or lonely, or to demand your attention, or simply to express happiness and excitement, the latter usually expressed when the dog sees its owner returning home.
Loneliness barks often come in a prolonged series of single, widely spaced barks.
If you’re not the dog’s owner, you’ll likely hear this coming from indoors or someone’s yard, coming from a dog that wants to be let out or untethered, and most of all wants company.
Interestingly, studies have shown that this style of barking has no effect on other dogs; it has apparently developed solely as communication for humans, to signal the dog wants human company and attention.
Dogs who give such barks may be suffering from separation anxiety, or suffer from frustration because their owners aren’t matching their dog’s energy with sufficient playtime and exercise.
If you want to help and have the time, you can try volunteering to walk the dog.
Dogs also have a bark that means “Hey! Give me something!”
The demand can be for food, attention, or to be let out for potty.
It can be a sign of a spoiled or dominant dog. This is an issue for the dog owner to resolve, ideally by anticipating legitimate dog needs such as potty breaks after meals, and by conditioning their dogs to behave.
If you own a dog that demand barks too much, you can train it to keep quiet with a combination of negative punishment and positive reinforcement. When your dog demand barks, ignore it.
When it goes quiet, praise it and give it a treat.
Keep repeating this, until the dog understands that raising a ruckus gets it nowhere while behaving as you like means getting something good.
However, you should expect the dog to up its demand barking before it finally gets what you’re trying to teach. Just like us, dogs often show an ‘extinction burst’ of negative behavior before giving up.
For example, when the Internet is down do you often find yourself repeatedly and angrily mashing the Reload button?
Just before you give up, you’ll likely hit that button several more times even though you’ve already seen it’s not working. Dogs will do the same. To Rover, the first solution to being ignored is to bark even louder.
Just outwait him. It can take a while, but eventually, Rover will realize he only gets treats and pats when he’s quiet.
Dogs greet people they’re very fond of with excited yips and barks, accompanied by bouncing, prancing, and full-body wiggling.
If your dog greets you this way, congratulations!
You’re doing something right.
If it’s not your dog, then double congratulations!
You’ve made a friend!
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