As far as dogs go, Percy was as rude as they come. He spoke in a language of faux pas.
Polite pups approach unfamiliar dogs from the tail end, sniffing at the scent glands in the rear before moving closer to the end where all the teeth are. Percy, he went straight for the face, invading the stranger’s personal space to get a good whiff. Polite pups don’t look the dog they’re approaching directly in the eye—that would be a threat. But not Percy. Whether out of excitement, uncertainty, ignorance, or a combination of all three, he’d lock eyes with a dog from afar and stay that way until the encounter was over.
Percy’s worst crime in the canine manners department, though, was his deep, staccato bark, the one he’d unleash just inches from the face of others. Whatever he was trying to communicate, it was clear what other dogs thought he was saying: “If you think you can mess with me, you better think again. If you want to rumble, I won’t back down.”
Some backed away immediately out of concern for their safety, speaking to Percy with calming body language like lip licking, yawning, looking away or sniffing at the ground. Others replied by rushing at him, growling or snapping. And when, one day, a fluffy white dog firmly planted his teeth in Percy’s neck, no one was surprised.
If you’ve seen videos of the viral TikTok prank where humans suddenly bark in the face of their dog, you’ve seen just how jarring, confusing, and scary Percy’s behavior can be for an unsuspecting pet. There they are just minding their own business when suddenly, out of the blue, their human is rudely, aggressively confronting them.
Some dogs turn away or their eyes expand into saucers so large it shows their whites (a fear-based behavior called whale eye). Others freeze and stare hard back at their owner. We don’t know how many dogs have responded with a bite. Those videos have yet to be uploaded.
Why is barking at your dog a TikTok trend?
How did this dumb, highly dangerous prank start? Like most viral trends involving pets, it evolved and caught fire because people think provoking fear or uncertainty in their pet is funny. Remember the cucumbers-and-cat prank from a few years ago? The one where you put a cucumber behind a cat while they’re engaged in another activity like eating so that, when they turn around and discover an unexpected potential “predator” at their back, they panic?
Sure it was good for a laugh but think about the cats in those videos who were frightened so badly they were forced into fight or flight mode, who may have hurt themselves while scrambling away in blind fear, who now may be too stressed out to return to that location or worry that engaging in the activity that first brought on the scary “predator” will cause it to come back. Is a good video worth leaving your cat with a lifetime of neuroses?
Barking at your dog has a similar trajectory. People do it because their dog’s reaction, whether it’s confused, fearful or confrontational, makes us laugh. But from your dog’s perspective, there’s nothing funny about it.
What’s going on in the minds of those TikTok dogs?
While we can’t know exactly what a dog in a barking prank video is thinking, their body language gives us a lot of clues. Most are initially confused or uncertain about what’s going on. They know it’s a human—their human, no less—that’s barking at them but they also know that if a dog did the same thing, it would likely be a challenge or threat.
Different individual dogs respond differently to this behavior. Some are lovers, not fighters. In a confrontation, they are most likely to try to diffuse the situation. They may attempt to get some space from the barker to show that they are not a threat or turn their attention elsewhere so that the barker doesn’t think they’re up for a fight. The calming signals they display can also include lip licking, yawning and stretching.
Other dogs do not appreciate being challenged and will hold their ground, even if that means getting into a fight. They may growl but many will communicate using more subtle body language instead. These dogs are likely to suddenly stiffen, tense up, and flatten their ears. Their hackles, the fur on their shoulder blades and spine, may stand up and they may stare intensely into the eyes of the barker. These dogs are on the cusp of snapping or biting.
But while the latter type of dog may be more likely to bite than the former, it’s important to know that dogs of either type can and will bite if the situation isn’t immediately diffused. A dog who would prefer to back away and send calming signals to the barker may not feel like they have a choice but to bite if they aren’t able to get the space they need or if the barker keeps coming at them.
Why you should skip barking at your dog
Finding pleasure in a dog’s confusion, fear or surprise isn’t just cruel, it’s dangerous. Dogs are emotional, sentient beings. Our actions can have real negative consequences to their mental health and beyond. If your startled dog responds to your—or someone else’s—barking in their face with a severe bite, it won’t just send you to the hospital, you may be forced to put them down.
Show your dog some compassion: skip the TikTok trend. And the next time a startle-your-pet-and-see-what-happens video goes viral, consider things from their perspective before you set your camera to record.