People communicate with vocal sounds - talking - and physical cues; dogs communicate by vocalizing - barking, growling, howling and whining - combined with physical posture. We talk to our dogs, they bark back. And at other people. And at other dogs.
Barking is often immediately interpreted as aggressive, but the combination of physical cues and tone of barking gives a more accurate interpretation of what our dogs are telling us.
With the right combination of talent, South Florida dog parks are full of barking dogs. Watch a group of dogs. You'll see the physical cues that help you understand the many types of barking. Barking can be used to threaten, to warn, in defense and to show dominance. It can also be used in play.
Threatening barks are accompanied with a stiff legged posture and stare. Growling and a stone-still stance are an indication of aggressive intent. A dog that exhibits these gestures should be interrupted, distracted and removed from the situation. Breaking a dog's stare before aggression escalates is the first move of a vigilant handler.
Play barking is an entirely different type of communication. Young dogs, more often than older dogs, bark insistently when excited or trying to egg on a playmate. Happy tail, play bowing, moving about, racing in circles and excited jumping accompany barking that is playful and inviting. With all of these cues, your dog is saying to other dogs, "Come play, let's be friends." Depending upon the breed, barking can even be a predominant component of play. Most herding dogs have been bred for centuries to "rabble rouse," stirring up activity and engaging the herd with high sharp barks.
For condo dwellers and Miami-style city living, dog parks may be the only time our dogs can just be "dogs." Like young children, dogs need an opportunity to expend energy and be a little wild. Dog barking is normal, and when allowed in the dog-friendly situations, its an important way for your dog to express themselves. Dogs that are not able to exercise and vocalize may become nuisance barkers, yapping when bored, for attention or when lonely.
It is important to know your dog, and to be aware of the physical cues that indicate barking is leading somewhere other than a good, playful rumble. Any sign that aggression is boiling, which many times does not involve any barking at all, merits a time out.