Every dog owner has experienced it. You sit down to relax for the evening, when out of the blue, your dog starts to bark. You don’t see or hear anything, so is your dog barking at nothing? Are there spirits in the room or does your dog just want to hear their own voice? Although it may seem like your dog can see ghosts, there’s a logical reason for the commotion.
Just because you can’t hear or see anything in the environment to explain your dog’s barking, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. Dogs don’t experience the world the same way humans do. Their senses like vision, hearing, and smell are tuned to different things. That means they can sense things outside your perception, and many of those things can trigger barking.
Dogs Can Hear High-Pitched Sounds
For example, thanks to their predatory heritage, dogs can hear higher-pitched sounds than humans. Sounds like squeaking mice. And at higher frequencies, dogs can hear extremely soft sounds, sounds far quieter than human ears can detect. That means there is a whole realm of sound flooding your dog’s eardrums that you aren’t even aware of. So, when it seems like your dog is barking at nothing, it could actually be a response to noises you can’t hear.
Dogs Can See in Low Light
In addition, dogs can see in low light far better than humans. What looks like a pitch-black backyard to you is full of shapes and movement to your dog. That’s because dogs have a tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind their retina (the light sensing surface at the back of the eyeball). The tapetum lucidum bounces light back through the retina for a second pass increasing the amount of light the retina receives even in darker conditions.
Dogs also have far more rods in their retinas than humans do. Those are the light detecting cells that operate in low light. All those rods allow dogs to see well even without a lot of available light. Thanks to the abundance of rods and the tapetum lucidum, dogs can see with only one quarter of the light humans need. So, when your dog is barking at something in the dark, they may see something lurking that you can’t.
Dogs Can Smell Incredibly Well
And of course, dogs have an amazing sense of smell. Where humans rely on vision as our primary sense for experiencing the world, dogs depend on scent. Some breeds like the Bloodhound are noses on legs. Dogs have such incredible sniffers thanks to their anatomy. First, they have far more olfactory sensory neurons than humans. Second, they have a much larger surface in the nose devoted to detecting odors. They also have a proportionately larger area of their brain devoted to interpreting smell. And finally, they have a special olfactory organ called the vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s organ that detects pheromones, chemical signals animals use to communicate.
All this adds up to a world of scent beyond our comprehension. Dogs can even smell diseases like cancer that we need complex machinery to detect. So, while you’re looking around to find what your dog is barking at, your dog might have been smelling around. And who knows what faint scents have alerted your dog to danger, prey, or fun.
Acknowledge Your Dog’s Barking
Now that you know your dog is barking at something, you still need to silence the problem. There are many ways to stop nuisance barking, but don’t yell at your dog in an attempt to stop the noise. From your dog’s point of view, you will be barking too. Remember they don’t speak human languages, so they don’t understand what you’re saying. They will just know you’re upset and assume it’s due to the same thing that got them barking in the first place. And as barking is contagious, you may have the opposite effect on your dog’s behavior.
One way to manage this type of barking is to acknowledge it. After all, your dog might be alerting you to what they perceive as danger. A fox or coyote in the backyard is certainly bark worthy from your dog’s point of view. A calm “thank you” or “I know” shows your dog the warning has been heard and you have things under control. For some dogs, that’s all it takes to settle them down.
Teach Your Dog a Quiet Cue
However, other dogs will continue to bark. They might think you haven’t got the message yet or they might simply want to inspect or chase whatever they have detected. In this case, teaching your dog a quiet cue will let them know it’s time to stop barking. You can use any word you like, such as “Quiet,” “Hush,” or “Stop.”
You want to reward your dog with something that makes silence worthwhile, so start with delicious smelly treats your dog adores. Next, trigger your dog’s barking. Ringing the doorbell or knocking often work well. Now wait for your dog to stop barking. As soon as they do, pop one of those treats into their mouth. With enough repetitions, your dog will begin to realize that silence earns rewards. Now you can wait for longer and longer periods of silence before giving the treat. Add your quiet cue once you know your dog is about to stop barking.
If your dog is an enthusiastic barker, you may need to lure some quiet. To do so, try catching their attention with a favorite toy. Or you can hold the treat directly on their nose. They should stop barking long enough to inhale the delicious scent. As soon as you have silence, reward your dog. Clicker training can also help. Use a clicker or marker word to mark the moment your dog becomes quiet to help them understand exactly what you’re rewarding.
You can also teach the quiet cue when you teach your dog to speak. Teaching two cues at once can be challenging, but as your dog will be barking on and off during the speak exercise, you can take advantage and build both cues into your training session. Simply add the quiet cue right before you suspect your dog is about to stop barking and reward the silence as well as the noise.