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Surprising Science

You Can Tell a Lot About Your Dog Just by Listening

The tonal qualities of a dog’s bark can reveal age, gender, breed, and more.    

Anyone who’s ever owned a dog knows that inevitable moment when, out for a walk, you’re stopped by a stranger who wants to make friends with your pet. “What breed is it?” they ask. “How old? Boy or girl?” A new study suggests that true dog lovers might be able to skip this question-and-answer process altogether if they just keep their ears open. The tonal qualities of a dog’s bark provide evidence of its age, gender, breed, and more, just like human voices make it easy to picture that stranger we’re talking to over the phone.

Computer-science researchers have collaborated with veterinary students to determine whether various characteristics of a dog can be reliably identified through its bark. Eight dogs of different breeds were placed in different situations while their “speech” was analyzed. The dogs were studied while placed in the following scenarios: tied to a tree, playing with a ball, defending their master from simulated aggression, receiving food, meeting a stranger, and preparing to go outside with their master. 

Using the collected data, researchers were able to correctly identify a dog’s gender over 85 percent of the time, and age (classified into the categories young, adult, and old) over 80 percent of the time. Other characteristics were tougher to pin down; researchers identified the breed correctly just 67 percent of the time, and selected the correct scenario with just 55 percent accuracy.

While this may seem like nothing more than frivolous fun, it has important applications for those who study animal behavior. Similar techniques could be used to measure levels of aggression and emotion in dogs. While it seems like a bit much for prospective dog owners to put their potential adoptees through this type of analysis (as enjoyable as it might be for the humans involved), this technology could help us determine which dogs are ideal for roles in service and therapy. Additionally, there are many disputes and misconceptions about whether certain dogs are too aggressive to be kept as pets. These questions could be addressed through further research and analysis.

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