Why Do Dogs Bark At Nothing?

Fun fact: the only breed of dog that can’t bark is the Basenji, an ancient breed that “yodels” instead. But for the rest of dogs, barking is common place. Sometimes the reason is obvious (squirrel!) and sometimes… it seems they’re barking at nothing.

Since barking is a major form of communication for dogs, they rarely are barking at nothing. Instead, dogs bark for a variety of reasons: separation anxiety, establishing and maintaining a claim over their territory, illness or injury, a form of alarm, frustration or attention seeking, greeting, or other social interaction.

With this high-level overview, let’s explore further and learn about why your dog might be “barking at nothing.”

Separation Anxiety

Some dogs are more prone to separation anxiety than others, due to their personal history, temperament, and other factors. When dogs who suffer from separation anxiety are left alone, they may bark and pace around. These barks will sound high-pitched.

Attention-seeking or frustration barking might happen while you are present, too. This is often reinforced over time by loving dog parents who dote on their animals and give them attention after barking, which is to say, reward them for that behavior. If this is the case for your dog, you will need to retrain them to not bark.

Territorial Aggression

While all dogs can have territorial instincts, some are more assertive about it than others. This includes barking if a stranger enters “their” territory. This sort of bark will sound authoritative, loud and sharp.

Dogs have better senses than we do, including smelling and hearing. Since they can hear in ranges we cannot, and can smell 40x better than us, they might have picked up on a potential threat before you become aware of it.

Injury or Illness

Dogs might use barking to alert their humans to an acute injury, such as a twisted paw, a cut, or something in their eye. If it seems like they are trying to get your attention, this might be why they’re barking. If they are having a medical issue, it might not be easily visible (for example, bee stings).

Barking from illness can also include dementia in senior dogs. Dogs who suffer from dementia may be confused or fearful and this can cause them to bark excessively and without reason.

Socializing And Playtime

Socially, dogs bark in response to each other, as a form of greeting, or a call and respond form of communication similar to wolves howling in the wilderness.

They will also bark out of excitement and playfulness while playing with you, another dog, or in anticipation of something fun like going for a car ride or walk. This type of bark will sound happy.

Since barking is a social signal, dogs might bark if they hear other dogs barking. This might require you to bring the dog away from the source of barking so they don’t feel the need to answer back.

Teaching a Dog to Bark Less

If your dog barks out of attention seeking, this is likely the result of long-term behavioral reinforcement. Dogs will always take any type of attention as encouragement of a behavior, even if you are not intending to enforce the undesired behavior. 

Simply venting or shouting at your dog often only motivates them to bark more as they think you are just joining in. You need to speak firmly and quietly, not yell. They do not know what you mean when you yell “quiet!”

You can train your dog to “be quiet” by rewarding them for not barking. Over time, they will no longer associate barking with getting the attention they want, but instead receive attention for being quiet.

You can also train them out of other barking behaviors by giving them good alternatives. If they bark because they want to play, train them to bring you a toy. If they bark because they need to go outside, you can install a dog door or another way for them to alert you.

Other Considerations And Potential Solutions

There are products on the market for discouraging or controlling barking. These include bark collars that either spray citronella or bark collars that shock the dog.

While these might seem like welcome relief to frustrated dog owners, clever dogs might learn to empty out a citronella collar, or may become aggressive due to a bark collar. In either case, the underlying behavioral issues are not being addressed, only suppressed.

Good” Barking

Not all types of barking are bad. Like we said earlier, barking is one of the main ways that your dog can communicate with you. They might be alerting you to an empty water bowl, or maybe they need to go outside.

Try not to discourage them from this “good” type of barking, as it will help you take better care of their needs. Consistency is key; so do not punish barking in some situations and not in others. 

The Breeds That Bark the Most (and the Least)

Some breeds have a reputation for barking more than others, including:

  • Beagles
  • German Shepherds
  • Chihuahuas
  • Miniature Schnauzers 
  • Shetland Sheepdogs
  • Parson Russell Terriers 
  • Yorkshire Terriers
  • Cairn Terriers
  • Fox Terriers

On the other hand, some dogs are known for being quieter. These include:

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Italian Greyhounds
  • Salukis
  • Basenji
  • Whippets
  • Borzois
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

Final Thoughts

As we said earlier, dogs rely on barking as a major form of communication. This means that there’s often a reason for their barking (even if it’s not rational to us).

This might include social reasons, attention-seeking, the ability to smell or hear something we can’t, illness, dementia, or anxiety.

Dogs bark from an innate need to communicate. They are telling you they are anxious, hungry, bored, happy, protective, or hurting. Often you can tell what your dog is trying to tell you by the volume, pitch, and speed of their bark.

You can discourage unwanted forms of barking, such as those for attention-seeking or compulsive barking by refusing to give your dog attention for this behavior.

Just be careful to not ignore their needs, such as wanting to go outside, draw attention to a problem, or other communications. This “good” form of barking is useful and shouldn’t be discouraged.

Don’t punish your dog for their barks but instead pay attention to the tone and style of barking to determine the likeliest root cause.

PuppyLists is written by J., who has owned, trained, volunteered with, and loved dogs for nearly three decades. When she isn't writing or researching, she's out adventuring with her 14 year old Lab mix.