“Wouldn’t it be great if our dogs could talk?” says Amanda Nascimento, head of Integrative Veterinary Medicine and Research at NHV Natural Pet. “If you listen closely, they can.”
Dogs don’t just bark to communicate. There are lots of different dog sounds our pups use to express how they feel, and some breeds vocalize differently. Sometimes, owners double as detectives in attempts to decipher the different sounds dogs make. Are they barking because they’re happy or are they alerting you to danger? And are they whining because they want you to play or is it because they don’t feel well?
It’s not as complicated as you might think. Some dogs vocalize more than others, and many can express several interesting sounds. Common ones we all know include barking, growling, whining, or crying. Determining when dog sounds are communicating pleasure, pain, excitement, or anger is something owners can work to accomplish.
We’ve all known a dog who loves to bark. Some bark more than others. Some have deep, rumbling barks, while others have yappy, high-pitched barks. Your dog may bark when they hear a noise or see something outside the window. They may also bark when the doorbell rings, someone comes home, or even to get your attention to indicate that they want to eat, play, or come in from outside.
As most dogs bark to communicate, this is likely among the common dog sounds your pup makes. “Many dogs have different barks that their people learn to differentiate over time,” says Nascimento.
Once you’re used to your dog’s distinctive bark, it’s easier to understand what they mean. But clues like pitch, body language, and tail behavior can help. High-pitched barks may be welcoming, while deep barks may be your dog issuing an alert. A bark accompanied by a wagging tail often spells joy, while a crouched, angry bark with hackles up can indicate your dog is feeling fear or aggression.
Whining or crying is another way dogs, especially puppies, express their needs. A dog might whine for you to take them outside, feed them, or play fetch. The high-pitched cry is often your dog’s way of expressing what they want or letting you know they’re unhappy. Dogs may whine when they’re scared (for example, during a thunderstorm), or if they have separation anxiety and are left alone.
Dogs may also whine when in pain. Think of a dog who steps on a burr and whines when they put their foot down. “Ow, that hurts,” the cry says. Conversely, some dogs can whine in excitement, such as when they are greeting you after a long day.
Look for clues that can help you decipher what your dog’s whine might mean. Is it dinnertime or do they need to go outside? Are they in pain or just unhappy being left alone?
Their body language, like crouching with their head or ears down, could mean pain. Some dogs whine in anticipation while you prepare their food or a treat. When you hear a whine, ask yourself, ‘”What is my dog wishing for right now?” Look to body language to help figure it out.
Some breeds enjoy a good howl, while others don’t often make these deep-throated dog sounds. The behavior is likely an evolutionary holdover from wolves. Howling is a way wolves communicate with their pack (for example, by guiding another wolf back to safety). Dogs are just trying to communicate, too.
Just like how your dog pees on or marks every branch they pass to let others know they were there, howling may be a way to claim territory. The howl can communicate things to other dogs, such as “I am here” or “This yard is mine.”
Dogs can also howl to get attention. Or your dog might be triggered to howl by hearing other dogs in the neighborhood, a siren going by, or even music.
Look at what your dog is doing when they howl. Is it a greeting? Have they found something? Or are they just announcing that they are rulers of their domain? Some dogs may have pent-up energy they need to release — the same way a good scream can be cathartic for humans.
Think cats have the leg up on purring? Not so fast. Dogs sometimes purr, too. This throaty, “brrr” sound is often called a “rumble” by trainers and usually signals happiness. These dog sounds are usually a cross between a low rumble, a loud purr, and a grumbly growl.
The best clue to distinguish what the purr means is to see when your dog does it. For most, it’s either an excited or happy noise, like when they’re about to go for a car ride. For others, it’s a noise that spells their total and utter contentment, such as when they’re lying next to you being petted.
Most of us instinctively know some of what the unpleasant sound of a dog growling indicates. Your dog can be afraid, angry, aggressive, possessive, or in pain and is warning you or someone else of their mood. Again, they’re communicating to you that something has them riled up. Some dogs also “play growl” — a lower, softer, rumbling growl that indicates they’re engaged with you or another dog in play.
Growling can be one of the more concerning dog sounds. Since it can quickly escalate to snapping or biting, handling a growl takes finesse and may require the help of an experienced trainer.
Your dog gives off body language clues in their ears, tail, stance, and tone during a growl that can help you figure out whether the threat is serious or playful. In a study where humans listened to various types of growls, researchers found people are actually quite good at discerning when a growl is serious versus when it’s playful.
Some vocal dogs try to sing along by howling to music or sounds on television. If a noise has the right pitch, like an operatic aria, your singing dog may belt out a chorus. Many owners with singers find it an endless amusement. But if you need to curb the behavior — for instance, if it bothers the neighbors — training can help.
One way trainers accomplish this is by exposing the dog to soft music that doesn’t trigger singing. But if you want to encourage singing, dogs can be taught to croon on command, rewarded with treats for singing, or played their favorite trigger music to engage in song.
We may never know why dogs sing, but experts think it’s an instinctual reaction left over from their wild canine cousins, the wolves. Dogs aren’t in pain or hearing something in a frequency that hurts their ears — most who engage in singing enjoy it, and so do their owners.
Many dogs learn that these noises get them certain results and continue to use them to talk to their owners. Dogs learn from repetition and use the noises that work best to get the results they want.
Nascimento describes how French Bulldogs can make sounds that resemble a scream. “In this way, they are teaching their humans to ‘speak dog’ to be able to communicate their wants and needs better.”