Why Do Dogs Bark On Command?

If you hold a treat above a dog, 10 out of 10 hungry dogs will quickly learn to sit. If you then hold out  a little longer while simultaneously encouraging the dog to “Speak”, 8-to-9 out of ten dogs will quickly do so. Why? — and — How?

(Note that one doesn’t have to “capture” the behavior in some other context in order to “put it on cue” as learning theorists advocate. In fact, in my opinion that would profoundly slow down the learning process. I also want to add that those dogs who are slow to bark, the 2-out-of 10 types, will at some point learn to do so as well, and again without capturing and cueing. So the question remains what is it about the makeup of a dog that compels it to bark?)

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Published October 6, 2014 by Kevin Behan
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8 responses to “Why Do Dogs Bark On Command?”

  1. Leslie Craig says:

    My dogs bark when they know what comes next, but they’re not sure that I do. The interaction is hung up somehow (like that treat being held up in the air over their heads, which a sensible person would have given them by now; or the walk we should already be out on), and they want to make sure I have their attention. I’m not sure, however, whether the intruder bark is aimed at me or at the intruder. Or both.

  2. Carol Speier says:

    My dog has yet to bark on my command. After reading through this post and especially the related posts(Barking on Command), I am starting to understand the importance of the bark. I had all the information from you before, but it just was not coming together. Now it makes sense to me. I did not see the wave relationship of the dog climbing up on me to the galloping movement and ultimately the bark. Now I see more clearly the necessity for my dog to bark and have a better idea of how to get there. This was very helpful to me. Thank you.

  3. Kevin Behan says:

    Thanks Carol and Leslie for your input. With this post I’m trying to get down to the underlying mechanics of the bark, revealed for example by why the reticent dog starts out with a snuffle, sneeze, look away, jaw tremor or action, burp, fidgeting of the front feet and/or hind end, jumping up, etc., only to sort out as the exercise progresses into a full bodied, deeply-rooted metered bark. The mechanics as to how a dog barks, reveals the why of the bark, whereas to date a human rationale is always projected into such behaviors because thoughts are reflexively ascribed to the dogs’ mind. So we should ask why is the deep, metered bark the end point of the behavior, how does the dog know he’s doing it right. Yes we’re reinforcing but we were reinforcing the snuffles, sighs, yawns etc., and the dog kept going to the deep bark, he didn’t stop at that level, he was able to push through to the optimal expression. So looking at the example Leslie offers, were we to put it into emotional thermodynamic terms, the person holding the treat becomes a “complex object of resistance,” something the dog must overcome as in generating enough force to counterbalance the resistance the handler is offering, it must push through this resistance to get to the food. But because the food is something dog and handler have in common, the resistance can also effect a counterbalancing/mirroring dynamic so as to align and be in sync with the handler: { A Being equals (-) plus (+) ; i.e. a negative-granting-access-to-positive } So the dog tends to sit or even down which manifests the emotional counterbalance, the bark taking the place of the physical action of pushing forward and overcoming the resistance. Now the first thing that has to happen in order to generate force to deal with the resistance, is that the dog must hold its breath (imagine gathering oneself to move a heavy load, one holds their breath and then releases it with the expenditure of effort). This means that on the deepest architectural level of how the animal mind is organized, the breath is what the animal associates with whatever happens. It’s the feedback meter from which the animal makes sense of experience. If it’s holding its breath it’s in a loading state. Whereas if it’s breathing deep and rhythmically then its locomotive rhythm is fully expressed and the moment is wholly conductive. Because the breath is the deepest metric of experience (or I should say it lets the dog into the deepest vagal circuitry) is why even if a dog is trained to sit for a cookie, or do high fives or twirls, in very quick order he can learn to tune out all those more surface physical memories and drill down to the deepest metric of experience, i.e. how he is breathing. So the bark on command allows the dog to learn to throw out the breath as an expression of emotional momentum without throwing out actual physical momentum by catapulting its body forward. The dog is integrating his sense of his self with the being of the owner because its breath is being so directly affected by this core exercise and because he is mirroring the handler as its stress is now serving as an emotional counterbalance rather than the generator of old patterns of perception/behavior. He is becoming comfortable with stress, stress is becoming integrated into the feeling of flow (locomotive rhythm). A wave is running through the dog and enfolding his feeling for its owner into the overall state of its body/mind. The breath is a wave; (just as the Orcas synchronized their wave action in order to knock the sea lion off the ice flow with a bigger surge of water than they could individually muster on their own. I believe this is the deepest explanation for all collectivized behavior, the integration of the many into one; geese honking for example in order to align and sync up and feel the flow of being in formation toward their migratory destination.)
    As a final note let me add that when the dog becomes subliminally aware of its breath as the feedback device that is affecting its reality, it is able to map the threshold value { (-) / (+) } onto an object of resistance so that it can initiate this counterbalance mirroring phenomenon and arrive at a new emotional value for the object/resistance rather than going by instinct or an old emotional value pulled up from its physical memory banks.

  4. steve says:

    It’s been fun & warming to watch my older rescue dog regain his confidence & ‘dogness’ over the last 12 months & start to gain some composure since reading about your methods & way of thinking.
    Started teaching him to bark about 6 months ago now, after a few months of pushing/ tugging, & he’s followed the pattern you describe exactly. He would sneeze, shake, whine, turn away, growl if I got too close & would go for me if I really got too close. I even posted him up a couple of times at first(feel a bit cowardly about it now haha) till I ‘sussed out’ his ‘safe distance’, but never got a deep solid bark from him for at least the first 3 months of trying.
    But the amount of effort you could see he was putting into it each time was quite painful to watch & listen to, all whiny & high pitched, with visible emotions on his face, (the only thing we know about his history was that he was picked up as a stray & had been in the kennels a few months, he may have had a good life previously for all we know but…) but while he was trying to bark, we could see fear, confusion, panic, all come flooding out.
    He can bark fantastically deep now, still not all the time, but the number of situations where his resolution is a good bark are increasing all the time. A sheep appeared from nowhere the other day which shocked him! Result – no teeth baring, no straining on the lead, a deep bark at the sheep & turned away to me to push without any prompting. Makes me smile every time it happens. (Must admit I scoffed a bit when I first saw Nola doing the same with Neil & thought there’s no way that’s ever gonna happen with my dog!)
    The intensity is generally much greater when we’re out on a walk/ in the fields, indoors he will move forward but remain sat or down while barking. Outdoors I can get close enough to squeeze his bubble to the point where he will spring at me (much higher than his general attempts at jumping btw) ready to bite but the force of springing up forces out a good bark & by the time he hits/ lands on me, he’s softened & ready to play.
    Alongside this, initially if we saw another dog he would be uncontrollable for at least a few minutes after. Tonight two dogs charged up to their gate as we walked past. He still went mad, but it lasted all of 5 seconds before again looking to me to push. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!
    His main (only?) issue now is being able to approach & walk past another dog without perpetuating the devil dog myth! If he meets them unexpectedly close up, he doesn’t have time to get so over excited, and has run and played with just about every dog he’s met this way in the last few months, hopefully continuing in the same way will continue to ‘increase his bubble’ to be able to approach & pass dogs from a distance.
    Apologies for the long ramble, but its a relevant (& successful so far) topic for us at the moment, & maybe someone else who doesn’t feel they’re getting anywhere might read it & gain a bit of hope.
    My short answer to the initial question, from my limited experience, would be because it feels good for them to ‘offload’ & to be able to trust you enough to be able to ‘give’ you that stress, much like human talking therapy (or running up to the top of a hill & shouting your head off!)

  5. cliff says:

    Funny, after an extended period of hanging out with L, if we ask L to speak when the chihuahua is there *he* would give a good yap! I would have thought it very unlikely, and we weren’t even trying.

  6. MWRIGHT says:


  7. yorgos70 says:

    nice perspective on dog barking

  8. yorgos70 says:

    an interesting perspective about dog barking. thanks.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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