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Dogs And Verbal Communication

Parent Category: Dog Talk
Created: 30 September 2013

What Is Your Dog Really Saying To You?

Would you like to understand your dog and their behaviour better?

While dogs may understand what we are communicating to them, no matter how much we kid ourselves they certainly don’t ‘know’ what the words mean. What dogs understand is our emotion, energy, tone of voice and the associations we have ‘trained’ (whether consciously or unconsciously) them to understand by certain sounds or words.

Dogs communicate vocally in a number of ways, such as yelping, whimpering, whining, growling, barking and howling. However, it’s fair to say that most owners really have no idea what their dog is saying.

Knowing your dog and their body language combined with any vocalisation is the key to understanding…

Just like humans, individual dogs have different personalities and temperaments, so there is no generalising here. Some dogs are not very vocal, others are quite ‘talkative’.

We need to learn to read our individual dog’s behaviour and understand the context when they are attempting to communicate with us ‘verbally’ before we can begin to process what it might mean. It is always useful to look and see what the dog is doing, then react accordingly.

Let’s start with something we can probably all identify, yelping.

Yelping is an easy one! We all know the yelp accompanying a clumsy step onto our dog’s tail or paw; this means they are fearful or are experiencing stress or pain.

We can also identify the yelp, often from a puppy, when another dog nips them a little too hard. Even the quietest of dogs will yelp if they are suddenly hurt like this.

What a dog is saying with a yelp is “ouch” or “help” and they want a positive response from another party – to stop the action causing the pain.

Whimpering or Whining can also mean that a dog is in some form of distress and may have a need we are not fulfilling! It is advisable to understand that this may be the case and investigate accordingly.

For a particularly vocal dog, whimpering or whining may mean that they want something especially if they are also wagging their tail — although wagging tails is a whole other topic! It is wise to check whether they need something essential like water, a toilet break or simply to go out ‘to play’, play with you or physical attention.

A whimper may escalate into a bark if the request goes unheeded. What a dog wants here is for you to understand their need and meet it. It is for you to use your judgement as to whether the request is related to well-​being or for another kind of attention, in which case it may be useful to wait until your dog is calm and then look to provide it on your terms.

Whimpering can also indicate a high level of excitement, such as when you return after a long absence and it may also be accompanied by jumping, licking and barking – not such desirable behaviours!

Growling can be defensive or aggressive and so is most often a warning and, if avoiding action is not taken, aggression may ensue and even escalate to attack! However, dogs can also growl when playing. Rather than always seeing a growl as bad, it is best to work out what, if anything, needs to change to make your dog more comfortable, which when not during play, could be as simple as backing off or taking a break.

Dogs often growl playfully, especially in a game of tug. However, bear in mind that tug is not always a ‘game’ to a dog, when winning can prove or reinforce dominance. Here it is important to ensure your dog’s other body language says they are playful and if you are unsure, stop the play for a little while and wait until your dog is calm before resuming play. Where two dogs are playing together and growling it is a good idea to enforce a break once in a while if they do not do this themselves.

There are some dogs who also growl or grumble in pleasure while being petted. Again, it is most important that you know your own dog, their habits and idiosyncrasies.

Grunting is usually a sign of contentment and often heard between two dogs when greeting or playing.

Barking can be for many reasons, including as an alert to potential danger, through boredom, when they want something, if they are frightened, suspicious, in distress and of course in play. 

When a dog is distressed (fearful or anxious) their bark will be more high-​pitched and repetitive, getting higher in pitch the more upset they become. When we humans are afraid or anxious we usually make it known, at least by telling someone or by withdrawing into ourselves, at most by screaming, shouting or crying out loud! Our dogs can only bark.

We may not always be able to see or hear whatever it is that is making them react, their hearing is far better than ours. Sometimes it may be that there is something in ‘their world’ that is new and unfamiliar. Our young puppy regularly barks at things that appear in the room she spends her time in… I recently changed the lampshade and it took me a while to realise that this was the subject of her barking and hiding in her bed.

Some people advise removing the thing that is making them anxious and “comforting them with treats and cuddles”. This is not really a good thing to do as it will reward the anxiousness or fear. What we really need to do is let them know we are aware of what is upsetting them and then acting as if nothing is wrong. Rather than comfort the fear, distract it by perhaps playing with a favourite toy or doing a spot of training and treating in the presence of whatever it is, so that they come to accept it as nothing to worry about.

Of course this can be easier said than done, but dogs are not human and we should not assume that treating them as we would treat a child will have the desired effect.

When a dog is bored the bark is more likely to be repetitive but monotone.

If the bark is an alarm there will be higher intensity and sharpness. It is perfectly natural for a dog to bark an alarm, it is their way of drawing attention to possible danger and your role is to be the one they are reporting this to! What we need to do is to acknowledge what our dog is alerting us to and to reward and praise them for doing this; that way we encourage them to tell us of anything suspicious and allow them to relax as we take on the job of dealing with any potential threat. If you have dealt with the ‘potential threat’ and your dog continues to bark, there is a gentle method to stop your dog from barking described here: “How To Quiet A Barking Dog”.

A ‘demand’ bark is likely to be directed at you, asking you to provide what they want and is likely to be high-​pitched but at longer intervals.

Low pitched barks at short intervals will normally signify aggression — for example when a dog is ‘defending’ their territory; for example when someone passes the house or garden, or comes to the door. If you want to learn more, check out “How To Deal With Territorial Behaviour”.

Howling or Baying is often triggered by hearing a strange or high-​pitched noise – for example, in response to someone singing or the sirens on emergency vehicles. Baying on the other hand is deep-​throated and prolonged, like the sound we have come to associate with dogs on a hunt in pursuit of prey or searching for someone lost.

Here dogs can be calling to keep in touch with other pack members, so it can also be a sign of distress when your dog is isolated or separated from you, for example if they are left alone all day at home.

This can of course be a source of particular annoyance for your neighbours — and could result in an unwelcome visit from the authorities!

If you want to change your dog’s behaviour and eliminate any separation anxiety, then see “How To Cure Separation Anxiety”.


Be Safe With Your Dogs!