New research by Direct Line Pet Insurance reveals pet owners may not be as in tune with their dogs as they think. A confident 47 per cent of owners boasted they could tell a dog’s emotion from the bark alone. However, the study shows frequent misinterpretations of what a canine is trying to communicate.

It has been discovered that British pet owners do not in fact speak “dog”. Nearly three quarters (71 per cent) of owners were unable to recognise the sound of their dog barking in terror, with 35 per cent mistaking the fearful sound for excitement or playfulness. One in five (19 per cent) mistook the sound of a scared dog for one that was bored.

Even the most experienced of dog owners can misinterpret what their pets are trying to tell them

As part of the study, committed owners were asked to listen to a series of barks selected by an animal behaviourist and identify the emotion the dog was trying to communicate. When asked to listen to the sound of a bored dog barking, only 41 per cent selected the right emotion, and 37 per cent thinking they were listening to a scared dog. A bored bark is typically characterised by an incessant whine, whereas a scared dog will often create a rapid high-pitched noise.

Only 20 per cent of owners could tell when a canine was making an excited sound with the majority (58 per cent) thinking the animal was bored or experiencing separation anxiety. Owners were best at picking up on aural clues for pain and warning. A dog experiencing pain or shock was the easiest emotion to identify accurately, as 86 per cent recognised a yelp of pain. More than three quarters (78 per cent) could tell that a deep pitch bark was a warning or pack alert. 

Prit Powar, head of Pet Insurance at Direct Line, said, “Even the most experienced of dog owners can misinterpret what their pets are trying to tell them. Because animals cannot verbally communicate their feelings to us, it can be easy for pet owners to miss warning signs of distress or pain. This is why owners need to be informed and vigilant. Learning to recognise symptoms of common ailments via an animal’s body language provides valuable cues for pet owners and may save invaluable time if your pet is ill and trying to communicate this to you.”

Many owners admitted they actually encourage their dog to bark or howl, with 18 per cent trying to spur on the behaviour – meaning that they could be making their communication with their pets even more unclear. Nine per cent admit to filming their dog barking and howling, either for social media or for their own enjoyment. Some also tease them with objects like remote-controlled cars (9 per cent) and 15 per cent put on music and TV programmes they know will trigger a bark.

Prit Powar continued, “Dogs can bring joy in many ways, but it’s important that their entertainment value does not trump their welfare. While it might seem funny to spur them to bark by using stimuli like TV programmes and sounds of other dogs, this can be very distressing for a pet if they think it’s a sign of a threat or conflict.

“Owners need to consider why their pets react in certain contexts and try to limit stressful situations.”

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