Acoustic Features of Dog Barks Predict Annoyance Levels in Humans
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM, ELS
Dr. Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. She is a practicing veterinarian and a certified editor in the life sciences (ELS). She owns Walden Medical Writing, LLC, and writes and edits materials for healthcare professionals and the general public.
A recent study explored the relationship between acoustic parameters of dog barks and annoyance levels of human listeners and found that acoustic features that evolved as useful vocal signals may be the most irritating to humans.
When does the sound of barking dogs become a nuisance? A recent study explored the relationship between acoustic parameters of dog barks and annoyance levels of human listeners. The results suggest that acoustic features that evolved as useful vocal signals may be the most irritating to humans. Participants also judged barking to be most annoying when they perceived it to result from a dog’s negative emotional state.
The authors recorded barks of 26 Mudi dogs, a Hungarian herding breed, in 6 contexts: seeing a stranger at the gate, undergoing Schutzhund training with someone mimicking an attack, being left without the owner, anticipating a walk, asking for a ball, and playing. To minimize individual dog differences, the authors used these recordings to create composite bark sequences categorized by pitch, harmonic-to-noise ratio, and the interval between barks.
Volunteers were recruited from 2 countries, Hungary and Brazil, to assess cultural differences in responses to dog barking. Participants assigned 1 of 5 canine emotional states (aggression, fear, despair, playfulness, and happiness) to each bark sequence. They also rated the annoyance level of each sequence.
High pitch was the most annoying acoustic feature overall. Men found high-pitched barking, and indeed all barking in general, more annoying than did women. Low-pitched barks with a low harmonic-to-noise ratio (harsh sound) and a rapid repeat were also considered irritating. The authors note that sounds that are acoustically similar to the cries of babies provoke strong responses in humans. High-pitched barks probably evolved as attention-getting communication signals, they say, but as with crying babies, the sound can annoy some listeners.
Bark sequences perceived to express negative emotional states (fear and despair) were scored as more annoying than those perceived to express positive states (playfulness and happiness). However, perceived aggression did not significantly correlate with annoyance ratings. The pitch and tonality (harshness) of the barks affected participants’ perceptions of the intensity of the dogs’ emotional states.
The results indicated no significant difference in annoyance ratings between volunteers from the 2 countries. The authors attributed this result to 3 possible causes: similarities among the participants (most volunteers from both countries were university students), similar attitudes toward dogs among residents of the 2 countries, and universal human responses to certain auditory stimuli.
“The selection for increased attention-evoking potential of particular dog barks coupled with the unnaturally high density of urban population of dogs and humans creates an unfortunate situation where acoustic features that originally were selected for effective vocal signalling may become a serious environmental disturbance for the humans,” write the authors. They suggest that owners try to manage situations in which their dogs are likely to produce high-pitched barks (vigorous play, separation, and guarding the home) to reduce their neighbors’ exposure to the sound.
Dr. Laurie Anne Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. After an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University, she returned to North Carolina, where she has been in small animal primary care practice for over 20 years. Dr. Walden is also a board-certified editor in the life sciences and owner of Walden Medical Writing, LLC.