Does your dog wake you at night barking at some imagined threat? Mine does. I turn on lights and look all over, only to find nothing. Does she really hear something? Is she overreacting? Does everyone’s dog do this?
Why DO dogs bark?
Since we are not dogs, it is hard to imagine what it is like to be nonverbal. Dogs use body language to communicate to other dogs, but have found it useful to become somewhat verbal in order to communicate with humans. Studies indicate that the act of barking is seldom used to communicate between dogs and is primarily a behavior designed to communicate with humans 1. So your dog truly is trying to talk just to you, even if you might not want to hear what he is saying…at 4 am.
Does she hear something that I don’t?
It is also possible (and likely) that your dog hears sounds that you do not. According to George M. Strain, PhD (Neuroscience at Louisiana State University), a dog’s audible range is 67-45,000 Hz while a human’s is 64-23,000 Hz approximately. This wide range indicates that the canine ear can hear things that are inaudible to our ears. Maybe your dog does hear something you don’t and she wants to make you aware? It is like she is saying, “Did you hear that???!!!”
Is she overreacting?
The answer to this question will probably depend on the individual dog. My dog tends to be an anxious type. She is not very brave and likes to hide behind me when scared, so it stands to reason that if she hears something, she wants to call for back up. If you think about an animal living in the wild, survival might depend on being able to react swiftly and adequately to a perceived threat. So if your dog overreacts sometimes, it is far better from a survival perspective than under-reacting. A failure to recognize a threat and be alert could be the last mistake you ever make in the wild!
You can modify your dog’s behavior by being careful not to reward the barking and only reward him when he is quiet. Give him a safe place to go when he feels afraid. Teach him replacement behaviors so when he does unwanted barking, you can give a command, change his thought to obeying and then give his praise or treats for that.
Remember when your dog seems to sound the alarm, be patient. He is merely trying to look out for his survival and yours!
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- Pongrácz P, Molnár C, Miklósi A. Barking in family dogs: an ethological approach. Vet J. 2010 Feb;183(2):141-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2008.12.010. Review. PubMed PMID: 19181546.