After living with your dog for a long enough time, you probably feel like you’ve got your communication with them down to a perfect science. You see and recognize their body language, you feel their changing energy, understand what they’re trying to tell you when they bark, yip, growl, and so on.
But do you, really? Do any of us actually understand what dogs are ever trying to communicate vocally? To most, deciphering a dog’s body language is probably a more dependable skill set. But this post is about what dogs are saying to us through sound, and that’s an entirely unique way of communication that can vary by each dog and each breed. Some breeds tend to have certain distinct sounds, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). Rottweilers "purr," Siberian Huskies "talk," Shiba Inus "scream" and Basenjis "yodel" instead of barking, the organization says. Often, the first step in understanding what each of these sounds means is to ask why they make that sound. In turn, this will help us see what need they are expressing or sharing.
So what does each familiar “dog sound” typically communicate?
Dogs go “bark.” This is one of the first things every one of us learns before entering preschool, associating cartoon photos of pups with their most ubiquitous sound. Some breeds certainly bark more than others, with a different energy, aggression, and even meanings behind their bark.
Like almost anything else on this list, why they bark and what they’re trying to communicate relies heavily on the circumstances. They can be expressing joy, fear, frustration, alertness, awareness, they could be alerting you to a need of theirs, asking for attention, or even just sharing that they’re angry about something.
Within all those variables, we also must consider and note the tone of our dog’s bark when deciphering its meaning. A high-pitched bark, bordering on a yelp, even, may be a sign of anxiety. Especially when the bark is repetitive, we can start to imagine that bark is communicating a bit of panic and some anxious feelings. And alarming bark is one that will probably also be higher in pitch and tone, but sharp and even staccato enough that you can assume your pup’s intent is to bring your awareness to something. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re all familiar with a bark born from boredom, often deeper or monotone, repeated over and over and over. The simple repetition of this type of bark is an indicator that your dog is simply bored and needs to be preoccupied.
Dogs sigh and groan for a number of reasons, just like us. Ever sit down at the end of a long day, let out a deep breath, and realize how relieved and relaxed you suddenly are? This isn’t very far off from what dogs are doing when they plop on the ground and let out a big sigh. Are they content or are they bothered? Again, just like us, the sigh could communicate either. And also just like us, the answer to what that sigh or groan signifies (from an outsider’s perspective) lies in finding out what that sound is in response to. Just finished a long walk? They’re probably plopping on the ground and sighing from a place of exhausted content. Are they trying to get you to play or wrestle with them but you consistently shove them aside? That sigh is likely one of disappointment.
Howling’s for wolves and hounds, right? Every breed of dog certainly doesn’t howl, which you may not have even considered until reading this statement and imagining some small, puffy breeds howling into the night sky.
When you do hear a bit of howling, though, you know you’re probably going to start hearing other dogs jump in on the fun. Researchers believe howling is simply a form of communication dogs use amongst their pack, with distinctive tones and pitches. According to the American Kennel Club, this means your dog howling alone in your backyard is just an attempt to reach out to you, their owner, after having left them behind.
The growl is often an easy signal to interpret: it’s probably a warning. Whether they’re telling you, another person, or another animal to back off, the growl is fairly universal. As their caretakers, it’s important not to punish a dog who lets out a genuine growl, instead doing our best to comfort him or her and relieve their feelings (not punish them). Since the growl is meant to communicate a warning, your scolding communicates to them that they’re being punished for the warning itself. Over time this may be teaching them not to give off warnings at all, instead just lashing out when they see something they don’t like.
What about that low, soft growl we all hear when dogs play? Your instinct that these play growls are just that, playful, are right. Researchers have determined that aggressive warning growls tend to be longer than play growls, which have shorter pauses in between each sound.
A dog’s whine isn’t far off from that of a child’s. Odds are this is how they feel they can get something they want. At least what they’re telling you with a whine is that they want something; food, to be let out, attention, you name it.
It can, however, also communicate they’re afraid of something and are experiencing anxiety. Again, this is usually deciphered through the given circumstances. Does your dog hate going to the vet? Do they recognize the telltale signs of a soon-to-be visit to that clinic? Their whining is probably a sure sign that they’re feeling anxiety over the impending experience.
This is often a sign your dog is in pain. Getting hurt while playing leads to yelping quite often, which doesn’t have to be as alarming of a sign as you might think. It’s simply how they express distress to others.