Why Do Dogs Bark When Playing?

Adrienne Farricelli

Many dogs bark when playing and dog owners may often wonder what triggers this behavior. Why do dogs have to"talk so much" when they are having fun? What are they trying to say? And most of all, where's that "off button"? How can we reduce a dog's barking behavior when playing?

Many dogs bark when playing and their barking often assumes a specific tone that may pierce our ears. Play barking also often is quite repetitive in nature and may get on the nerves of surrounding people and neighbors. Yet, we can't tell a dog to stop playing as play is so important for their emotional and physical well-being. Fortunately though there are ways to reduce barking when dogs are playing. 

The Typical Play Bark

Before looking closer as to why dogs bark when playing, it helps taking a closer look into the typical play bark in dogs, how it sounds and how to distinguish it from other types of barking. 

The typical doggy play bark is a high frequency sound, a sound associated with dogs seeking attention or companionship. This sound therefore lacks the serious tone of intensity observed when a dog is barking because of a threat or a warning.

This makes sense considering that lower sounds are typically emitted from larger animals and dogs may use deeper tones to appear bigger in a threatening situation, explains Alexandra Horowitz in the book: "Inside of a Dog -- Young Readers Edition: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know."

 Play barks often also typically present as a series of barks with small breaks in between displayed in a sequence. 

Of course, on top of noticing how play barks sound, it helps to look at the accompanying body language and context in which this type of barking occurs. 

Typically dogs who bark in play will be wagging their tail excitedly, exhibit a play bow with their front legs lowered and rump in the air, and their pupils may be dilated. They may also show a play face (mouth open and ears pricked). 

Dogs' bodies may also be quivering in anticipation as their muscles are full of adrenaline, and dogs struggle to keep still. As dogs play bark, they may also simultaneously engage in jumping up and down, spinning and romping around in hopes of being chased.

Play barking therefore presents when dogs are in the mood for playing and can be directed towards human or dog playmates to solicit play. Even among play barks, there may be different forms such as dogs barking from excitement, frustration, attention or as a way to control the interactions.  

Barking Out of Excitement 

With the body quivering in anticipation and the muscles full of adrenaline, it makes sense for dogs to bark as a way to release their excitement. After all, play is a very exciting event for dogs. 

Many dogs start whining and barking in anticipation as they are loaded in the car, destination "dog park." Some dog owners could swear their dogs know whether they are making a turn for the dog park or the vet's office. 

Once at the dog park, excited dogs may be pulling on the leash with all their might eager to encounter their doggy pals and engage in some boisterous play accompanied by lots of... you guessed it, excitement barking!

Excitement barking is often seen in dogs with a history of playing either too much or too wildly with other dogs. This can cause their excitement and stress levels to go up upon noticing another dog which makes him bark, explains Turid Rugass in the book: "Barking, The Sound of a Language."

Barking Out of Frustration 

Sometimes what looks like a play bark is in reality a frustration bark. Well, both really go hand in hand, because often the frustrated barking takes place when a dog is prevented from playing. 

A common scenario is when a dog owner grabs a ball and shows it to the dog and teases the dog with it. The owners may bounce the ball around and then hide it behind the back as the dog barks in frustration. 

It's as if these dogs were saying: "Hey, that's not fair, gimme that ball, I want to play with it! Stop hiding it!" Interestingly, this form of barking is predictable enough that showing a toy to a dog, and then hiding behind the back, is a method often used to evoke barking in dogs and getting dogs trained to bark on cue. 

This form of barking may also take place when a dog is playing with another dog (or person) and this latter stops in their tracks. "Bark, bark, bark!, I want to keep playing! Keep moving!" says the dog as he sometimes engages in intrusive behaviors such as barking in the face or nipping in hopes of provoking another bout of play. 

Barking For Attention

Some dogs may bark in hopes of getting your attention and inviting you to play with them. These dogs may therefore bark as they look at you and do a play bow or move around hoping for you to chase them. 

This form of barking is often found in young dogs who have a strong need for exercise and play. It can get more demanding if dog owners come home from a long day at work only to ignore the dog and sit on the couch to watch TV.

Rover may therefore approach and bark with a ball in his mouth in hopes of a game of fetch. This barking is often fueled by attention, even of the negative type. So expect this barking to put roots if, upon barking, you look at your dog, touch your dog or talk to your dog (even if to complain), since from your dog's perspective you have provided interaction rather than passively watching the TV. 

Barking to Control 

And then you have some dogs who may start barking when two dogs are playing in a rough manner assuming what is referred to as the 'fun police role." More than an excited play bark, it has more of a controlling feature: "Hey, you two! It's time to calm down or I must intervene, your play is getting out of hand, so stop acting like stubborn sheep!"

According to Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell, herding dog breeds are over represented for playing this role. 

"Herding dogs are fun police extraordinaire —if something moves too much, it needs to be controlled. And a herding dog is just the dog to assume responsibility for controlling it. It is a far too common sight at agility trials and flyball tournaments to see herding dogs, particularly Border Collies, barking at the top of their lungs in frustration because they can’t stop all the motion as they watch other dogs running and jumping," she further explains in the book: "Teach Your Herding Breed to Be a Great Companion Dog, from Obsessive to Outstanding."

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have their good reasons for barking during play. Barking on its own is a self-rewarding behavior and a normal form of communication. It's also exciting and fun to play and many dogs look forward to it. 

Of course, this form of barking should never be punished, nor should you be angry with your dog for engaging in it. However, if you have neighbors who may complain, you have several options to turn it down a notch. Here are some options to stop a dog from barking in play. 

  • Encourage tugging games. If your two dogs bark a lot when playing, providing them with a long tug toy, where each dog can grab one end, can turn the barks into muffled play growls. Basically, this game will keep their mouths busy. With the mouth occupied, less barking, so win-win! Of course avoid this type of game if your dogs are toy-possessive. 
  • Play fetch. If your dog is playing with you when he barks, you can reduce barking if you play a game of fetch with him. Train him to sit politely before you toss the ball so you reward a calm behavior rather than barking out of excitement/frustration. 
  • Give your dog something to carry. There are toys that dogs can carry around when they are excited such as the Kong Stick Squeez or a crinkle toy which dogs love to chomp on. 
  • Encourage other calmer forms of play in the yard. Scatter some treats in the yard so your dog can go on a treasure hunt, provide a Kong Wobbler, encourage your dog to dig in a designated area where you have buried his toys. 
  • If your dog barks to entice you to play with him, make sure you have met his daily needs for exercise, training, mental stimulation and play. Try to prevent this form of barking by providing him with activities before he starts to bark. So upon coming home, make it a habit of walking your dog, playing with him, and when you are ready to watch TV, provide him with something to do such as access to a food puzzle or interactive toy. 
  • If your dog barks at you in a low or threatening tone, please play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional.
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