Barking is for dogs what speaking is for humans. A way of communication just that we don’t (completely) understand what they’re trying to tell us.
Picture this scene in your head: you’re relaxing on the couch with your phone and suddenly your dog starts barking. You can’t find any reason for this behavior and start to think, is my dog barking at nothing? Are there spirits within this room I can’t see but he does?
Let us answer those questions, for the second one, the answer is (probably) no, despite the common belief of dogs being able to see supernatural creatures as ghosts or spirits, there’s no scientific evidence for this, but you’re free to believe it anyway since there isn’t evidence that denies it either.
What it does have evidence and plenty of it is the fact of dogs having more developed senses such as hearing, seeing in the dark, and smell. This leads us to the first question, is my dog barking at nothing? Well, you don't hear, see or smell anything, but your dog does, so the answer is no.
Notwithstanding that we don't sense anything to be aware of, dogs were created firstly to notify us of potential threats we weren’t able to perceive. But to understand how our dogs are able to do this, and what they are meaning to communicate, we need to deep dive a little.
We just said that dogs count with better senses than humans, but how different theirs are from ours? A lot and we’ll try to explain one by one.
Dogs are able to hear high-pitched noises their hearing frequency goes from 20Hz to 50000Hz, to compare humans range is 20Hz to 20000Hz. Which means your dog can hear a whole world you don’t.
This is due to dogs’ hunting past, they needed to hear sounds like a mouse squeaking or very far noises to track their food.
This is quite well suited to humans. While we may think there is a quiet night dogs are able to alert us if they hear something that we cannot.
So the next time you see your dog barking for nothing, consider the possibility that these are inaudible sounds.
What? Night vision? What do you mean? We mean that where you perceive a dark field without a chance of distinguishing anything, your dog can see a lot of figures moving around. Which can be considered as hazards or just get him curious.
This ability is thanks to a reflective layer behind his retina, called tapetum lucidum.
This layer causes the light received by the eye to bounce back again to the retina for a second time. Increasing this way the amount of light the retina gets, even in dark places.
In addition to this, dogs also have far more rods in their retinas, which are cells that detect light and work in low light environments.
This allows dogs to see with only a quarter of the light that we need.
Super Smell Sense
After all the good things we talked about dogs’ sensorial capacities. This one is particular greater since it’s the main way the dogs feel the world around them.
They have more than 220 million olfactive receptors in their noses. We know that this isn’t about comparing, but for helping build the idea, humans have around 5 million olfactive receptive cells.
This is because of their anatomy that gives dogs a place for all those olfactive receptors, but it doesn't end there yet. They also had a larger portion of their brains dedicated to processing the smell.
Finally, they have a special organ called the vomeronasal organ, which detects pheromones, chemicals that some animals use to communicate.
All that smell improvements together are perfect for your dog smelling something you couldn’t even imagine.
Like we said before, dogs communicate through barking, and the longer we share with our dogs, the better we identify and understand this language.
Let us be clear, barking isn't translatable, but the tone of these can give us some advice on what our dogs are trying to say.
This bark will sound authoritative, sharp, and loud, and means that this is his territory. Commonly used when another dog or an intruder is perceived, naturally because dogs are very territorial.
He will bark high-pitched and will be trying to make eye contact with you. This clearly means he wants something from you or needs something that only you can give to him.
Boredom or Frustration Barking
This kind of barking tends to be loud and compulsive. It’s because your dog wants to hear his own voice and is used as a way to relieve energy excess.
When the bark becomes very high-pitched and is accompanied by whining could mean that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. This behavior can also be accompanied by circle walking or pacing.
If your dog is full of joy and starts barking, don't worry dogs socially barks as a way of greeting and should sound happy and musical. It’s a way of saying “I’m having a good time”.
Other Barking Reasons
Some breeds like Beagle, German Shepherd, Chihuahua, New Zealand Huntaway, Shetland Sheepdog, and Parson Russell Terrier were meant to bark.
Some small breeds like Chihuahua, Poodle Toy, Yorkshire, and Miniature Schnauzers barks because they are conscious of their size. As a way to show themselves more intimidating and fierce, they bark aggressively to discourage other beings to mess with them.
Perhaps the most worrying of all reasons for your dog “barking at nothing” could be him suffering from dementia. This can be caused by age if your dog is a senior, or by brain disease, in which case you should make an appointment to the vet to discard this possibility.
Is There Any Way to Stop It When It Becomes Excessive?
Yes! And it’s pretty simple, just need to teach your dog that staying quiet and calm is more rewarding than loud and compulsive barking.
In order to achieve this, you could give him some treats when he’s calm, and if he’s already barking you could implement a firm and concise “quiet”. Once he stops barking reward him in some way until he associates silence with prizes.
Finally, we might add that expecting a dog not to bark at all is not healthy for him. It is like a child never speaking. A healthy dog will communicate with us when it is necessary for him.
And if you need help to stop your dog from barking at night, please check the article linked, it could be useful for you, your neighbors, and your dog!