Dog owners don't recognise the sound of fear

  • Nearly three quarters of dog owners can’t recognise the sound of a scared canine
  • Only twenty per cent of dog owners can identify a bark of excitement
  • 15 per cent of owners confess to trying to encourage their dog to bark or howl using TV or music

British pet owners don’t speak “dog” and are not as in tune with their pets as they think, reveals new research1 from Direct Line Pet Insurance. Nearly three quarters (71 per cent) are unable to recognise the sound of a dog barking in terror, with 35 per cent mistaking a fearful sound for excitement or playfulness.  One in five (19 per cent) dog owners mistook the sound of a scared dog for one that was bored. 

Committed dog owners were asked to listen to a series of barks selected by an animal behaviourist and identify the emotion conveyed.  When asked to listen to the sound of a bored dog barking, only 41 per cent selected the right emotion, with 37 per cent instead thinking they were listening to a scared dog. A bored bark is typically characterised by an incessant whine, whereas a scared dog will often emit a rapid high-pitched noise2.  

Just 20 per cent of dog owners could correctly tell when a canine was making excited sounds, with the majority (58 per cent) thinking the animal was bored or experiencing separation anxiety. Owners were best at picking up on aural clues for pain and warning. A dog experiencing pain or shock was the easiest emotion to identify accurately, as 86 per cent recognised a yelp of pain.  More than three quarters (78 per cent) could tell that a deep pitch bark was a warning or pack alert. 

Despite the frequent misinterpretations of dog barks, a confident 47 per cent of pet owners boast that it’s easy to identify a dog’s emotion from its bark alone.  If dog owners misinterpret the emotion their pet is trying to express, they may miss valuable signs that the animal is distressed or in need of veterinary attention.  

Prit Powar, head of Pet Insurance at Direct Line, said: “Even the most experienced of dog owners can misinterpret what their pets are trying to tell them. Because animals cannot verbally communicate their feelings to us, it can be easy for pet owners to miss warning signs of distress or pain. This is why owners need to be informed and vigilant. Learning to recognise symptoms of common ailments via an animal’s body language provides valuable cues for pet owners and may save invaluable time if your pet is ill and trying to communicate this to you.”

To make things more confusing, many owners actually encourage their dog to bark or howl, with 18 per cent trying to elicit this behaviour from their animal, meaning that they could be making their communication with their pets even more unclear. Nine per cent admit to filming their dog barking and howling, either for social media or for their own enjoyment. Some also spur their dogs on by teasing them with objects like remote-controlled cars (9 per cent) and 15 per cent put on music and TV programmes they know will elicit a bark.

Table One: Percentage of owners who try to elicit behaviours

Action Percentage of owners who admit to this action

Encourage dog to bark

18 per cent

Put on entertainment to elicit a reaction from dog

15 per cent

Film their dog barking

Nine per cent

Tease dog with objects such as remote-controlled cars

Eight per cent

Dress up dog

Seven per cent



Prit Powar continued: “Dogs can bring joy in many ways, but it’s important that their entertainment value does not trump their welfare. While it might seem funny to spur them to bark by using stimuli like TV programmes and sounds of other dogs, this can be very distressing for a pet if they think it’s a sign of a threat or conflict. Owners need to consider why their pets react in certain contexts and try to limit stressful situations.”

- ENDS -


Notes to Editors

1 Direct Line Pet Insurance partnered up with K9 Magazine, a lifestyle magazine featuring a wide range of dog ownership topics. K9 Magazine issued a survey to its readers, to which 1,012 responded.

2 Sounds sourced and validated by dog behavioural expert


For further information please contact:

Olivia Shalofsky

Direct Line Group

Tel: 01372 839537

Email: [email protected]


Nick Andrews

Citigate Dewe Rogerson

Tel: 0207 282 1050

Email: [email protected]


Direct Line

Started in 1985, Direct Line became the first UK insurance company to use the telephone as its main channel of communication. It provides motor, home, travel and pet insurance cover direct to customers by phone or on-line.

Direct Line general insurance policies are underwritten by U K Insurance Limited, Registered office: The Wharf, Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4AZ. Registered in England and Wales No 1179980. U K Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Direct Line and UK Insurance limited are both part of Direct Line Insurance Group plc.

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