Does your dog often bark, howl or growl when there’s nothing there? Don’t worry – he’s probably not going crazy. In this article, we’ll go through some of the main reasons why dogs bark at nothing, before giving you some simple tips to reduce it.
The simple reason is that dogs can hear things we can’t. Dogs hear frequencies in the ultrasonic range that humans can’t detect, so it’s not surprising they often react to what we perceive as “nothing.”
It’s not just sound though. A dogs sense of smell is vastly superior to humans, with up to 40 times more nose olfactory receptors. If there’s a fox or another wild animal nearby, you pet is likely to know about it. This can lead to barking out of frustration or warning.
Now we know why your dog barks and growls at nothing, here are the most common causes:
In reality, there are almost endless potential reasons why a dog barks. Each dog is different and can be triggered to bark by varying stimulus. Some dogs also have a more instinctive need to “guard” their territory by barking at strange noises or smells.
If you want to know why dogs might bark from an evolutionary view, check out this video:
Barking at nothing can be a difficult problem to solve, as by definition you don’t know the true cause. Here are a few tips for reducing problem barking though:
If your pup often has fits of barking and growling that seem to be at nothing, you’ve probably wondered “is he seeing something I can’t!?” Even if you’re not the type of person to believe in the supernatural, sometimes a dog’s behaviour can be difficult to explain.
Believe it or not, there has been research into whether dogs genuinely have an extra “sixth” sense. While this can’t be conclusively ruled out, scientists believes the “ghost barking” effect is probably caused by dogs having a better senses. With a sense of smell that’s up to 10,000 times more sensitive than humans, and the ability to hear things up to four times further away, it’s quite possible that a dog is just sensing something you can’t. Dogs even have a greater ability to see small movements than humans.
So when your dog is standing barking at a blank wall, he’s probably hearing something behind it – or even within it (such as mice).
Still, there are plenty of stories of dogs (and other pets) behaving strangely or seeming to be in touch with someone who has “passed to the other side.” This is one mystery that will probably never be solved.
If your dog is barking at nothing, it probably isn’t because he’s seen a ghost or going crazy. A dog’s senses are much more sensitive than ours, so this behaviour is usually triggered by something we can’t see or smell. Barking is a dog’s way of communicating, so it’s often a natural reaction.
While it’s tempting to see dog barking as an annoyance – and it certainly can be – your dog may also be trying to tell you something. If he often barks later in the day, he might be bored or frustrated from not getting enough exercise. Barking can even be a sign of pain. So don’t immediately dismiss your dog’s barking as “bad behaviour” – try to work out what’s really causing it before you take action.
Richard is a journalist who specialises in dog behavior. He's written hundreds of articles and books related to dogs, including for the Continental Kennel Club, Dog Fest (the UK's biggest dog festival) and various veterinary surgeries. When he's not spending time with Jess and Rudy (his beloved Labrador and Golden Retrievers), he enjoys reading, hiking and watching sports.