The way dogs woof and whine helps them establish and maintain their canine social position within the family group. That includes other dogs, other pets and of course, their human companions. In fact, dogs seem to be much better at understanding other species’ languages than people are. Some of these vocalizations are used to decrease the distance between individuals while warning sounds increase this distance. Vocalizations are only one part of canine communication, so you’ll also have to “listen” to doggy tail talk and other body language to get the whole picture. Here’s how to learn the basics to translate doggy dialect and dog behavior into people-speak.
Dog Behavior Woofs & Whines
WOOFS, WHINES AND WHIMPERS
Dog vocalizations have nearly as much range as human vocalizations, with inflection, tone, and context able to change the meaning. There is also variation between dogs or even groups of dogs that learn each other’s “regional accents,” for example. The sounds dogs make also may be influenced by their heritage and breed.
BARKS are the ultimate in “conflicted” behavior. Barking can mean, “I like you, but I’m not sure,” or “I want to play…but I shouldn’t.” Barking also can be a canine fire alarm to tell the rest of the family that “something” needs attention. Alarm barks tend to be sharp, intense, continuous and staccato in tempo. When colored by suspicion, the barks often are lower in tone and slower with three or four barks broken by a pause, and then another three or four barks. Fearful barking is similar, but the tempo is faster.
Dogs also use barks to demand attention or a service—open the door, fill the bowl, pet me. These are sharp, persistent, and become more demanding as the request is ignored.
An anxious bark is high-pitched, repeated, and gets higher the greater the distress. Barks colored by anxiety often are mixed with whines and yelps.
Barks also accompany play, and can be identified as playful behavior by the context—if he’s barking while batting around a ball or playing tag with the other dog, it’s likely play barking. Some dogs use a kind of “stutter bark” sound as an invitation to play. A bark that changes in pitch from low to high also is typical of play barks.
Bored and lonely dogs bark in a monotonous repetitive monotone rhythm with strings of many barks followed by a long pause, and then more barks in a string.
HOWLS & BAYS
Howls express emotion and plead for missing family members to join the lonely dog. Huskies and Malamutes howl with a “woo-woo” happy conversational tone typical of the Northern breeds. Dogs respond with more sustained howls in response to sirens, or groups of coyotes or wolves announcing they “own” a particular territory.
A joyful variation includes baying, and some hunting dog breeds have been developed to enhance this behavior. Baying is midway between a howl and sustained bark that announces the dog is in pursuit of prey. Occasionally a dog will bay as a challenge toward a stranger.
GROWLS & SNARLS
Dogs growl with their lips closed. Snarls are the same sound but with teeth bared. Snarls are an escalation from growls and much more serious. Both indicate unease, fear or aggression, and often are used as a warning or threat that may increase to an aggressive attack if ignored.
But some dog breeds such as Chesapeake Bay Retrievers use growls to “talk” about everything and the sounds may not be threatening at all. Rottweilers are “pleasure grumblers” during petting or play and their growls instead are a happy-dog sound. Be sure to ask your breeder about your dog’s heritage so you won’t be taken by surprise.
Growls also are used to solicit play. Dogs often growl during play, especially in contests of tug or wrestling with other dogs or the owner. Check out what the rest of his body “says” to be sure he’s really in a happy playful mood and the growls are appropriate.
WHINES, WHIMPERS & YELPS
Whining, whimpering and yelping communicate submission, fear, pain and sometimes frustration. Such vocalizations also solicit attention or food from humans. Whining is high pitched with the mouth closed in a longer, sustained tone.
A whimper is the same tone but in a more staccato, repeated cadence. It’s used to express distress to other dogs or humans, typically as a solicitation toward friends to relieve the dog’s distress. Dogs also whimper from excitement or anticipation of something good—a special treat, for example, or being reunited with an absent friend.
A yelp is a sharp, high pitched abrupt vocalization often produced as a result of pain or surprise. It is the equivalent of a human gasp or scream prompted by strong emotion, and real or perceived danger or injury.
Remember, too, that people can say words (“Get out of here!”) that mean the opposite, depending on the emotion, inflection and circumstances when spoken. “Get out of here!” might instead mean, “You’re so funny!” or instead be an angry command or fearful requests. Dogs are no different. Any woof or whimper should always be “read” in context of the situation.