Dogs do have a lot to say. Whether it’s wagging their tail or rapid-fire, ‘roo-roo’ barks, they’re not quiet creatures. Thing is, they’re not unintelligent creatures, either, which is why humans have made them the number one animal companion (cat lovers care to weigh in?) Dogs generally add value to any conversation …. if you know how to translate their sounds. Here’s a guide to what different dog sounds mean.
First, get to grips with pooch ‘punctuation
Dog sounds come with tone, last a certain time, and enjoy (ahem) several repetitions. Understanding these will help you make sense of the finer emotions and communications in a sound or a set of sounds.
- Check the tone
“Low pitched sounds usually indicate threats, anger and the possibility of aggression,” says Psychology Today. So, a growl can be a warning (stay away), and a whine a kind of enquiry. And because big animals have deeper voices, and smaller ones have higher ones, it’s one hundred percent relative to the dog’s own tonal range. If you don’t know a dog and it growls, rather give it space…
- Duration = intention
The longer a dog holds a sound, the more likely it is direct communication. Anybody who’s been woken by ‘get me breakfast’ sounds knows just how persistent they can be. Shorter sounds are less conscious, likely an automatic reaction to a situation, sensation, or mood e.g. with their human, but surprised and maybe a little frightened by a new landscape.
- Frequency = interest/urgency
The closer together the sounds are, the more urgency/excitement is involved. A sporadic bark every 3 minutes is a mild sign of attention, a dog just saying, “ICYMI, there’s a thing there, but not a very interesting thing”.
Now that you’ve got these 3, let’s get to the actual sounds.
Dog sounds decoded
While we know them to be a warning, growls are used in play in a very innocent way. Imagine a toddler yelling, ‘I’m gonna get you!” Pitch is important here. A medium-pitched growl is probably for fun, not a threat. It’s good to get to know the different growls your dog makes. “When researchers played different types of recorded growls over a speaker in front of a desirable bone,” American Kennel Club explains, “dogs avoided the bone in the presence of warning growls but grabbed it in the presence of play-growls.”
Howling = a whole range
Howls have a whole lot of meanings. They can be a shout out to friends they can’t see, a song of lament that you are not home (and will you please come home already?), a warning that ‘this is my territory’ (to would-be intruders including humans but usually more directed at other dogs). It generally invites others to join in (you do, right?) as it is a strong sign of affiliation. But a dog can definitely be confused by unnatural sounds like the ambulance siren and answer that strange metal dog with his own. A howl can also mean, ‘I’m hurt, human’ or simply, ‘I’m lonely/bored’, so it’s important not to simply attribute it to the moon…
Panting = nervous/excited
You picked up the leash and…? Suddenly Petal is panting. She’s excited. She’s saying, ‘yay, yeah, we are on our way, walkies again, I love it’.
Usually, a solo sound, or limited to a few, a grunt is a sign of serenity and peace. Puppies are big on grunting and do it (probably because they’re still growing into their vocal cords and airways and don’t have complete control). If grunting is excessive, check it out at the vet.
Not usually a sign of emotion, it’s similar to “honking” in terms of excitement. If it persists, however, it may indicate a health issue that your vet can diagnose and treat.
A mix of a snort and a growl, or a reverse sneeze, this spasmodic sound doesn’t necessarily show a direct emotion but may happen as a result of excitement. It can also be caused by mites, drinking too fast, self-asphyxiation (pulling on the leash very hard) and is usually over quickly.
Whining – a wide range of messages and emotions.
The whine is a go-to for a range of feelings and messages that a dog might have for you. It could mean your hound is excited, unsure, asking, needs attention, or stressed. Check the tone, frequency, and duration as well as the other body language to get to know your mutt’s thin expressions of agitation. Whining can even be positive, like when a pup wants to show you, he did his business in the right place. However, “if your dog is whining with no subtle cues that he is happy or needs to go outside,” warns Hills Pets, “there might be an underlying health concern for you to address.” In this case, a quick visit to the vet is best.