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Dog Barks at Nothing? Here’s Why He’s Really Barking

Positive reinforcement training for barking can be hard when you’re not sure why your pet is barking in the first place! If you’re wondering why your dog barks at nothing, then this article is for you.

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.

Why do Dogs Bark at Nothing?

Dogs often bark at "nothing" in the backyard

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:

  • Frustration. A common cause of barking is if your dog wants to get to something but can’t. This could be a territorial bark, to warn a nearby animal to stay away, or an excited bark because there’s a person he wants to greet. The cause of this barking often isn’t noticeable to human ears or smells, but could seem close to a dog’s enhanced senses.
  • Attention. A dog barking at nothing isn’t always a reaction to a distant sound or smell. Barking is one of the most effective ways for a dog to get attention, even if the result is being shouted at. Attention barking is often obvious, because your dog will be looking at you rather than into the distance. He may also be barking as a warning to the rest of the family that someone is approaching the door.
  • Boredom. Barking can be a “reward” in itself. If your dog isn’t getting enough mental and physical stimulation throughout the day, he may bark in an attempt to relieve stress and pent up frustration.
  • Social Barking. Dogs are social animals, so if they hear or smell another canine nearby they might bark as a greeting. If your yard backs onto a path or road, your dog could smell dogs that walk past.
  • Wild Animals. Dogs are experts at picking up on quiet noises, as in the wild it would be essential for their survival. If there are wild animals near your garden or home, your dog might whine or bark. Even small animals such as rats, mice or spiders within the home can cause a dog to bark in surprise or frustration.
  • Canine Dementia or Other Health Problems. Dogs with canine dementia may display strange behaviours, such as pacing the home or barking at nothing. Pain can also sometimes cause barking.

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:

4 Ways to Reduce Unexplained Barking

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:

  1. White Noise. If your dog barks at nothing at night, he’s probably hearing faint noises that are only audible in quiet environments. During the day these aren’t a problem, but once everyone is asleep he can hear them. One of the best ways to prevent this is white noise. Just turning on a fan on a low setting can be enough to cover up faint noises and allow you dog to relax.
  2. Ignore Attention Barking. If your dog stares into your eyes when barking, he’s probably trying to get attention. This could be caused by boredom, hunger or just wanting to go outside. When your dog barks at you, make sure you don’t make eye contact as he might consider this a form of attention. Even scolding him might be worse than just ignoring the barking until it stops.
  3. Eliminate Potential Triggers. If your dog barks at nothing in the backyard, he’s probably hearing distant animals or people. Keeping your dog inside during the day is one of the easiest ways to prevent this, as dogs love to spend time with humans.
  4. Increase Exercise and Mental Stimulus. Dogs that are frustrated are much more likely to bark. If your dog often barks at the slightest trigger, are you providing enough stimulus and exercise? Even a short extra walk or play session each day could reduce barking.

Finally…Can Dogs Sense Ghosts?

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 Cross

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.
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