Updated - Oct 13th, 2022
“Why is my dog barking at nothing?” is a common question amongst dog owners.
There are many theories to this mysterious dog behavior. Some think it’s just an attention-seeking tool, whereas others go as far to say that dogs have a sixth sense for the supernatural.
Though there’s no conclusive evidence to support dogs bark at ghosts, it’s clear that barking means something. Our tail-waggers have learned to communicate this way, and it’s up to us to interpret it and respond accordingly.
Let’s discuss how dogs interpret the world differently than humans and why they may be barking at nothing…or so you think!
Human hearing vs. dog hearing
Human ears detect frequencies between 20-20,000 Hertz. Hertz is the vibration of frequencies per second of a sound. This means our ears can detect lower frequencies than a dog’s, although, some believe giant dog breeds can hear them.
Dog ears can detect frequencies between 40-60,000 Hertz. Their ears can also rotate to hone in on the exact location of a sound, whereas ours cannot. Dogs have the ability to hear the tiny squeak of a mouse underground, or the bark of a dog far away.
So, when we think our dogs are barking at nothing, chances are, they’re actually barking at something – we just can’t hear it!
Human smell vs. dog smell
Humans have 5-6 million olfactory receptors, whereas dogs have 220 million receptors. This enables them to not only smell the pizza in the oven, but also the pepperoni, the onions, the cheese, the sauce, and the crust with detailed clarity. There is also evidence that dogs can smell their person 11 miles away!
A dog’s sense of smell is so acute, that they’re used to sniff out drugs, bombs, detect blood sugar levels in their humans, seizures, and even cancer. A dog’s brain uses 40% more space for smell detection than a human’s brain. That’s a lot of devotion to smells!
With so much going on with a dog’s senses, it’s no wonder they bark at things we can’t see, hear, or smell.
Common reasons dogs bark
Whether it’s a truck driving down the road or a dog barking way off in the distance, your dog will usually respond by barking.
Protective, or territorial barking
There are usually two reasons your dog will bark at other dogs or animals: to create distance and keep their territory safe or decrease distance to socialize.
Barking increases the distance your dog perceives as their territory. This why they’ll almost always bark at wild animals like squirrels, birds, or bunnies. If your dog is social, however, they may be barking to draw the animal closer. Tip: By socializing your dog at a young age, you can help prevent aggressive, territorial behavior.
We all have that one dog in our neighborhoods that barks incessantly. Could it be lonely? The answer is yes! Dogs will bark when they are lonely or seeking attention. If your dog makes perfect eye contact with you while they bark, they’re requesting your attention.
Dogs are pack animals, so in single dog households, you are their pack. If they’re lonely, they will bark to decrease the space between them and you. If barking doesn’t do the trick, they can revert to destructive behavior such as chewing up your couch, peeing or pooping in the house, or pacing.
Tip: If you work a lot or are away from your dog for long periods of time, separation anxiety can be a challenge for your dog. Talk to your vet or an animal behaviorist to learn how to ease your pup’s nerves.
A dog in pain can exhibit excessive barking. Your dog may be in distress and is trying to let you know, especially if you are not within their immediate area. Dogs in pain will usually wander aimlessly or pace around the house for unexplained reasons.
Older dogs will aimlessly pace and bark incessantly if they become disoriented. A visit with your veterinarian may help you find a solution for this barking behavior.
A dog that is fearful will bark to create distance from the perceived threat. You can spot a fearful dog by their body language. Their ears will be back with their tail tucked between their legs.
Most barking problems can be easily solved with canine behavior training you can either do by yourself or with a dog trainer. Once you know the reason for your dog’s barking, it’s much easier to minimize it.
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How to reduce excessive barking
We now know that barking is a form of communication that needs to be decoded. Here are some ways you can better understand and reduce excessive barking. When in doubt, take a trip to the vet or give a local dog trainer a call.
1. Rule out medical issues
First, rule out any medical or compulsive barking issues your dog may suffer with. This is common in dogs with separation anxiety. A visit with the veterinarian or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist is a good start if you’re stumped about what your dog is barking at.
2. Decode the barking
What type of bark is your dog emitting? For example, there’s a difference between your dog’s excited barking when you’ve just arrived home vs. their territorial barking when they see another dog coming down the street. This will help you understand which social scenarios they need the most training.
If there’s no obvious cause for your dog’s barking, remember that we humans don’t hear well beyond walls and doors, but our dogs do. When your dog barks, look around for animals, people, or things you haven’t picked up on.
3. When in doubt, run it out
More exercise and mental stimulation will eliminate any pent-up energy creating boredom for your dog, thus barking. Going for walks or playing with toys may the solution to your dog’s barking habit. Remember: A tired dog is a quiet dog.
4. Play white noise
Playing white noise can reduce the number of outside noises your dog’s sensitive ears pick up. The white noise drowns out tinier sounds, so your dog can exist in peace.
5. Try pheromone diffusers
Pheromone diffusers can help dogs that are fearful of new smells and sounds, causing them to bark at everything. Adding a pheromone diffuser to your home will relax them because it’s filled with positive dog-appeasing pheromones.
Things to avoid when trying to reduce barking
Bark collars are not effective and can cause more harm than good. The citronella collars spray citronella in front of your dog’s face. They don’t like the smell or the spray, but will quickly learn to empty the canister allowing them to bark freely again.
Shock collars are not only painful but can damage your dog’s throat when used incorrectly. They may also cause aggressive behaviors. Steer clear of these!
Though basket muzzles are great for helping reactive behaviors in dogs (and are actually encouraged by vets and trainers) occlusion muzzles should be avoided. This type of muzzle prevents dogs from breathing properly and panting to cool themselves down. Muzzles are meant for short periods of time only. Always consult your vet or trainer before putting one on your dog.
Though the urge to shout at our dogs may be tempting when they bark, this is not effective. All we’re really doing is barking back at them, which gives them the perception that we’re joining in on the fun. Learn to calmly give your dog a quiet command and reward the success immediately. Pretty soon your dog will figure it out.
So, why do dogs bark at nothing?
You may feel like your dog is barking at nothing, however as we now know, this is likely not the case. Whether it’s a distant sound or smell, boredom, attention seeking, or alarm barking, there’s a reason for their barking. Decode the barks, and you can solve your dog’s barking problem.
Excessive barking could be a sign of underlying anxiety or aggression, which can leave you and your pup feeling deflated. That’s why Pumpkin’s dog insurance plans help cover treatment for behavioral issues, so you don’t have to think twice about saying ‘yes’ to the best care.
*Pumpkin Pet Insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions. Waiting periods, annual deductible, co-insurance, benefit limits and exclusions may apply. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/insurancepolicy. Products, discounts, and rates may vary and are subject to change. Pumpkin Insurance Services Inc. (Pumpkin) (NPN#19084749) is a licensed insurance agency, not an insurer. Insurance is underwritten by United States Fire Insurance Company (NAIC #21113. Morristown, NJ), a Crum & Forster Company and produced by Pumpkin. Pumpkin receives compensation based on the premiums for the insurance policies it sells. For more details visit pumpkin.care/underwriting-information and pumpkin.care/insurance-licenses.