Why Do Dogs Bark at Nothing?

Phantom woofing, explained.
Barking at nothing is a popular dog pastime.
Barking at nothing is a popular dog pastime. / Scaramanga Photography/DigitalVision via Getty Images

A dog can be a person’s best friend, or so the theory goes. But that relationship can be tested when a dog begins barking at an empty corner of a room, at a door, or anywhere where there doesn’t appear to be any activity at all taking place. Is the dog hallucinating? Is it communicating with interdimensional beings? Or does it simply want to drive its owner to the brink of sanity?

According to the American Kennel Club, the most common explanation for unprompted woofing is that it’s not really unprompted at all. Instead, it’s likely that humans are simply unable to perceive whatever visual, aural, or olfactory cues the dog is sensing.

Dogs are, obviously, equipped with superior hearing, including the ability to detect sounds that are higher in pitch. In theory, a dog could be reacting to a noise that a person nearby wouldn’t be able to hear—possibly a far-off vehicle siren.

If a dog barks seemingly unprovoked at night, it might be because ambient noise is lessened and they’re more attuned to the various howling and barking of other dogs. Because dogs are territorial, one dog barking can turn into many.

Dogs are also able to see better in the dark than humans thanks to their ability to get more light into their retinas. If a dog is reacting to what looks to you like an empty backyard at night, it’s possible that something has caught their attention, be it a wild animal, a leaf, or a serial killer.

That’s not to say that dogs only bark when their canine senses are triggered. Some dogs might bark spontaneously out of boredom, in which case more exercise or playtime is probably needed. They might also be trying to get their owner’s attention.

The AKC recommends that owners avoid scolding their dogs for barking, since they’re simply trying to remain vigilant. Instead, you can try reassuring the dog to let them know you’re aware of their concern. If they tend to bark while gazing out a window, you can also try to manage their vantage point with curtains. If you suspect the source is an audio cue, some white noise, like a television or radio, can help.

Less often, chronic barking might be a sign of cognitive issues. If barking is persistent and no fugitive is hiding out in your bushes, then you might consider a trip to the vet.

[h/t American Kennel Club]

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