Just like amongst humans, vocalizations and sounds in dogs are a way of interaction and communicating. What makes things complicated is that very different dog vocalizations may sound very similar, if not totally identical, to us humans, yet might mean opposite things. Dog sounds are emitted by a pet to be understood. Such dog vocalizations can be made to scare an unwelcome visitor, for example, or to display amusement during playtime.
If we are greeting someone for the first time, depending on the situation, there are a variety of responses and tones we will possibly use. Most often, unconsciously. If your dog feels intimidated or outshone, or threatened in some way by this new individual (dog or human), its response may underline apprehension, shyness, fear or aggression and hostility.
Understanding Dog Sounds
Historically, dogs were used for guard purposes but in modern society this need is reduced and with it, the ability for humans to understand as easily the message a dog is trying to convey when it expresses itself through vocalization.
By working toward an understanding of why a dog makes a certain sound, it is possible to process their communication on an almost human level. It takes a lot of time, and what was learned with one dog will differ with another, but the day you understand what your dog’s sounds mean, you will be fulfilled.
It is the ability of the human ear to perceive changes in tone and process them, but it’s easier for us to do it with fellow humans than with dogs. We do not really know what is a dog’s vocabulary or what would be the equivalent to a word. Often, when people hear dog sounds, the tone or underlying context is lost, we simply focus on the sound. And we should not!
Negative behavior and dog sounds seem to be a feedback about a dog’s needs or emotions at the time; they generally require a response, verbal or behavioral. Obviously it is not possible to communicate directly with a dog, you cannot ask if it is hungry and expect an answer. A canine can, of course, be trained to recognize verbal commands and react, sit or stay for example. However, this is purely reaction and recognition, it is not a two-way verbal communication.
Some dogs simply will not sit or obey commands and by addressing the breakdown of communication and pack leadership, it is possible to overcome these hurdles. Therefore, establishing and understanding two-way communication with your dog is the first step to tackling poor behavior or simply understanding exactly what your canine companion is trying to tell you. After all, until you understand, the one way communication will undoubtedly continue.
Body language, whether in your dog or displayed by yourself, matters. A dog sound during a play session will mean very different things than the same dog sound with a visibly frightened dog. Dogs use a rich variety of body language methods alongside vocalization to convey a message. By understanding this body language and reciprocating your communication using an appropriate body language, it is possible to communicate (in some cases, far more effectively) with a dog. Dogs are paying a lot more attention to non-verbal communication (volume, tone, gestures, facial expressions) than the actual words pronounced.
When giving commands such as sit or stay, you will often ignore your own body language. However, when asked to consider their body language by experts, dog owners find they are able to relay a command to their dog, even silently, and it is immediately obeyed. Consider the two factors of body language and tonality when commanding your dog to stop barking, sit, or stay.
If you say commands calmly, clearly and with determination, whilst remaining calm visually (body language), your dog is far more likely to obey commands. Conversely, if the pack leader is excited, gasping for breath after running after their dog or their body language suggests play, the dog is less likely to respond favorably to the command. When angrily chasing your dog, you may think that your dog is obviously understanding your anger, but to your dog, you are engaging in play, not in a punishment. Put yourself in your dog’s shoes.
Different Types of Dog Sounds
Dog sounds come in different tones and types, from the well-known and dreaded bark to the playful growling, without forgetting the whining and baying. This section explains what are the various meanings attached to these each dog vocalization, and how to decipher the situation at hand to try and extract the exact message conveyed by your dog.
Vocalization is the most common method of animal interaction, allowing us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to one another. Humans use it with humans, dogs use it with dogs, humans use their voice with their dogs, and dogs use their sounds with humans.
In Common Dog Behaviors Explained, Cesar Millan explains in great detail how to interpret your dog’s communication and explores common reasons for barking. They are manifold and there is no scoop so far:
- Being spoiled
- Experiencing boredom
- Suffering separation anxiety
- Feeling confusion and fear
- As a method of alert
To the untrained ear this bark is an annoyance and without purpose. By understanding the context as explained in the previous section, it is possible to narrow down the potential reasons for the bark, and then eliminate each reason, one by one. Once you know why your dog was barking, you may react accordingly and work towards solving the issue at hand. If the bark is positive, you should obviously handle it differently: either by letting it happen, or by using positive reinforcement to stop it.
The importance of structure in the canine life has been addressed by many commentators and specialists. In the wild, a natural order is established. There is a leader of the pack or alpha male rising above the other dogs within the pack, sometimes through intimidation or combat. Without this leader figure, the structure of the pack falls apart and it is possible to view a fallout effect, where dogs within the pack exhibit signs of anxiety, stress and confusion. Barking, whining or any of the other noises a dog can make are all methods of reaction and communication for canines.
In the modern domestic world where humans and animals cohabit, where does this structure come from? There is no pack that we can see, a person might have ownership over one dog or ten, but one common factor highlighted by dog experts remains, it is the job of the pack leader, in this case the human, to keep structure and order within his or her pack. If this structure of order is disrupted the members of the pack will likely exhibit several of the signs indicated above.
Owners are often confused about their dogs’ language, often mistakenly perceiving a threat when the message from the dog is simply playful and harmless. The growl is perhaps as diverse in meaning as the bark. As a dog sound, growling is often more worrying that barking; this is because generally in most dog attacks, the actual bite or jump is preceded by a growling. But worry not, growling can convey so many emotions and feelings that we’ll break it down for you.
Playful and Pleasure
When children play, do they do so in silence? Anyone who has children knows this is often not the case so why should we expect dogs, for whom play is a significant part of life and development, to be any different. How often does a person describe their dog as a fur baby after all. When a dog is growling it is important to listen closely and as always, observe the body language.
If your dog is hunched low it is easy to jump to the conclusion that aggression is the thought at the forefront of their mind. However, by taking the time to listen to the tonality of the growl and address the surrounding environment, it is possible to accurately judge the purpose of the growl. Growling is very common during play time in dogs and it should not be punished. It is totally normal and dogs do it between themselves all the time. Such growling is void of any bad intention or threatening message.
Many people report their dog trying to express a form of comfort when they express sorrow. Equally, however, your dog can portray signs of frustration, such as growling, after witnessing human frustration. When a couple with a dog have an argument, your behavior, whilst indirect toward the canine, can have long-term adverse consequences including changes in behavior which may encompass frustration growling. Of course there are many reasons a canine might growl through frustration. Perhaps a lack of discipline has led to a structure breakdown and your dog does not understand the reason you have removed a toy, or the reason you keep going out for extended periods.
Confusion when entering or leaving the home environment on your part can lead to dogs becoming confused and suffering from separation anxiety. Walking to expel energy is a great way of addressing behavioral issues in dogs, however if you are charging out the door immediately after returning home from a walk without a sufficient ‘rest’ period, your dog may be confused. It is important to remember “I will be home soon,” does not directly translate to the dog. As previously mentioned with body language, you are stating an action (returning home) whilst hurrying out the door again. Because your vocalization and body language are in contradiction, it is easy to understand why your dog may exhibit signs of confusion and anxiety and begin growling as a means of expression.
Unknown Animal or Person
When your dog is growling, is there a new person present, which could be an unknown factor? Indeed, a new person present could be processed by your dog as a threat, especially with rescue dogs who have suffered a traumatic past. In this instance the initial growl does not necessarily indicate imminent attack or threat.
In this situation, ask the person to step out of the room or possibly the house, as a temporary measure to identify if the dog settles. Of course, a dog could view this newcomer as a friend and potential playmate or simply be identifying smells lingering on the stranger. By also addressing the tonality and continuing to assess body language, it is possible to identify the dogs’ reason for growling.
By also changing your actions or body language, and that of the stranger, it may be possible to calm an anxious or aggressive dog, or settle a playful dog if at that time play is not the desired reaction.
Threat and Aggression
Dogs, amongst other animals, have extremely heightened senses, vastly superior in many cases to human senses. When your dog is growling and the reason has been identified as threat or aggression, consider the potential threat. Taking into account the heightened sense of a canine, it is not uncommon for a dog to use it’s sixth sense to detect potential danger and threats. Scientifically, this sixth sense is little more than your dog’s other senses being far more acute than those of its human counterpart. If the tone of your dog’s growl suggests hostility or warning, you should consider if it is a repeated occurrence. If this behavior is displayed infrequently, you might be well advised to take heed of your dog and avoid the ‘trigger’ of their growl.
If this aggressive growling is more common, toward every stranger you encounter or toward every moving vehicle, it is possible to establish a pattern occurring and recognize the behavior of the dog is unwarranted or at least in certain circumstances, undesirable.
In some cases, owners might slap their dog or use other physical discipline methods to prevent undesired behavior. However, this is teaching the dog violence and aggression and also leads the dog to believe the activity itself is bad. For example, by smacking a dog for growling, the dog can potentially receive the message growling is bad, don’t growl. As with any behavior, it is rarely undesirable at all times. Physical discipline often fails to teach the canine when the behavior is undesirable.
Often, fight growling can escalate from a seemingly innocent play. Inexperienced dog owners often struggle to determine the difference between the two and when this escalation occurs to a potentially dangerous level. Growling is also a method of threat promotion. If a dog growls before biting, it is fair to say a warning was given, with the action being warranted or not.
In an article, Finnegan says that dog growls are often used aggressively to avoid an altercation. A good aggressive growl may intimidate the other dog and defuse any potential fight. If the dog’s intention was violence or direct aggression, it could just attack without warning. When fighting, Fazio suggests that if a fatality is the intended outcome for either dog, it will be quickly delivered, in less than fifteen seconds in many cases.
Looking at the pack mentality of dogs, specifically wild dogs and historically, it can be surmised that growling during a fight is a method of diffusion utilizing intimidation and fear tactics as one canine tried to make their opponent back down and submit to the authority of the alpha, or pack leader.
Whimpering and Whining
Whimpering and whining may occur when in physical pain or intense emotional distress. And by now, we know there is a huge array of reasons for dog vocalizations to be made so it is crucial to rule out pain or emotional distress being the motive(s) behind a dog’s whining or whimpering, especially if the behavior suddenly appears and persists.
Physical pain and distress are most certainly not the most common triggers of a whimpering and whining dog. Examining pack mentality, when one dog submits, they will usually whine whilst changing their body posture. Hunching and lowering the head and tail whilst whining would indicate an act of submission.
Persistent barking often stems from whining that was not corrected or addressed. For example during crate training, a dog will generally start by whining and then escalate to barking. Submitting to a whining dog may possibly seem harmless, it might just be one treat after all but this is a disaster that so many dog owner make: rewarding the whining. Whining is designed to sound alarming, and we instinctively want to stop it, but doing so rewards and encourages the dog to emit such whining sounds whenever they want our attention. It is counter-intuitive.
As dog owner, you are responsible for maintaining organization and structure within your dog’s world, so it is vital to take the time to explore the reasons behind the whine. If your dog is standing by the door whining, they could be trying to communicate the need to relieve themselves, in which case ignoring the sound would lead to undesired behavior. Again, context matters hugely!
Baying and Howling
There is general confusion about baying, barking and howling. Baying is common to hounds as opposed to all canines. When compared, howling can be described as a single distinctive pitch, fading at its end, whereas baying consists of more variety; short bursts and variations within the tone. The howl of a wolf is mournful and haunting whereas the bay of a hound is brighter and more enthusiastic (watch the short video below to hear a baying Coonhound).
The baying of hounds is described as an invitation, generally to alert the owner. The howl of a wolf is generally used to signal to fellow members of the pack that a foe has been encountered and help is required, or that a hunt has begun and the prey is in retreat.