Do Dogs Think in Barks? Learn How Your Dog Experiences the World

It is unlikely that dogs think in barks since thinking requires processing complex abstract concepts. According to canine psychologists, a dog’s brain is rooted in instinct rather than conscious thought. Thoughts such as pride, guilt, or embarrassment require emotional consciousness. Without cognitive processing abilities, dogs respond automatically to instinctive emotions such as joy or fear. If they lack consciousness cognitive processing functions, then dogs likely cannot think in barks. 

Dogs can’t read or write or use words to communicate what they are feeling. It’s no secret that dogs are highly intelligent and can learn human words and symbols. You probably wondered what your dog is thinking when she greets your return home with an explosion of joyful yelps.

Since humans first domesticated dogs around 20,000-40,000 years ago, dogs have interacted with humans via barking and learned words. With proper training, a dog can identify over 1,000 words. Although humans have studied dog behavior scientifically since the early nineteenth century, there is still much that we do not know about a dog’s internal world.

Like humans, dogs are able to perceive the world around them. Instinct plays a key role in why your dog barks. The Department of Anthropology at Duke University has a canine psychology center that studies how dogs socialize and communicate with other dogs and respond to the spoken word. 

Do Dogs Think in Barks or Words?

Your dog’s barks are based on images, primal emotions, and external stimuli rather than on conscious thought. For instance, a dog reacts to an impending threat rather than stopping to think about it.  

  • Dogs think in images rather than words.
  • Dogs express emotions instead of verbalizing thoughts when barking.
  • Dogs react primally to their environment through sights, sounds, and smells.

Dogs express their instincts through barking. They use instinctive communication to interact with other dogs who understand them on a primal level. While dogs can communicate in this way, they do not consider barking a language that is associated with words or concepts.

Since dogs do not draw symbols or consciously communicate, canine psychologists have determined that dogs do not have the human capacity to think in a way that characterizes abstract thought.

Dogs can learn human words 

This does not mean that dogs cannot learn to recognize symbols. Scientists have determined that a dog possesses the intelligence level of a two-year-old toddler. Although dogs cannot conceptualize a vocabulary, you can teach your dog to recognize words and symbols. Most dogs can learn and store up to 150 words in their memory.

Some dogs can even master “fast-track” learning. In previous years, scientists thought that only humans and great apes possessed this capability. While a famous border collie named Rico can remember over 200 spoken words, he is likely unable to consciously understand a word’s meaning and communicate it through his barks. 

Do Dogs Speak Their Mind?

Dogs, like humans, respond to experiences on an instinctual level. Imagine that someone tells you a funny joke. Instead of pausing to think whether the joke is funny, you burst out laughing. Your primal sense instantly recognized humor, and your body responded reflexively. When humans laugh or cry, we do not think about the words behind the sound. Dogs similarly move instinctively from emotion to verbal response.

Dogs express feelings rather than thoughts

Since dogs think in images rather than words, they express emotions rather than thoughts. Humans do this as well, but we are also able to analyze a situation rather than simply reacting to it.

This means that a dog does not actively think about what joy means when he sees you. As Emory University researcher Dr. Gregory Berns discovered, a dog’s instincts tell him that his owner equals happiness. Barking when greeting his owner is a dog’s way of expressing feelings of joy. 

What is Your Dog Actually Thinking? 

Dogs live in the present. According to psychological experts, dogs can feel basic emotions such as love, pain, excitement, fear, anger, or satisfaction. Dogs can communicate feelings such as love to their owners or exhibit rage towards a trespasser.

 A dog’s subconscious mind prompts him to verbalize his reaction to the visual world around him by barking. Dogs also react on a gut level to hunger, their owner’s face, or a predator’s presence. 

Different types of barks mean different things

Dogs use different kinds of barks for different emotions and situations.

Psychological studies indicate that the only time that a dog may think in words is when he barks while dreaming. Your dog may also be accessing and responding to stored images. A dreaming dog might let out a sleepy woof while a quick, sharp, and high-pitched bark signal an intruder alert. Short, breathless, and eager barks demonstrate excitement. Howling can communicate pain and distress or call pack members together.

If a dog’s barking communicated their thoughts, then they would bark only in situations where someone could hear them. Since dogs can bark for hours without a human in sight, this indicates that the dog is involuntarily expressing his emotional state rather than communicating a message.

 Researchers determined that dogs can regulate their barks by recording how a bark sounds different when a dog is alone than when a stranger approaches them.

Dogs may be smarter than we think 

Although dogs cannot rationalize like people or think in barks, they have the intelligence to navigate the human world at a basic level through their ability to learn words and answer commands.

In Animals in Translation, author Temple Grandon theorizes that dogs experience raw, pictorial thought, just as many humans think visually. Dogs are capable of calculating a situation, analyzing an enemy, or manipulating their owners’ emotions in adorable ways. It is possible that dogs are capable of more abstract cognitive processing than previously thought.

On a primal level, dogs and humans may not perceive the world so differently after all. Whether dogs possess a theory of mind that gives them the ability to recognize different emotions in others on more than an instinctive level is up to scientists to decide.