Vocal Communication: Interpreting Dog 'Speak'

PetMD Editorial
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PetMD Editorial
Published: April 13, 2011
Vocal Communication: Interpreting Dog 'Speak'

Communication can be defined as the conveying of information from one living organism to the next. For canines, communication involves all of the senses, primarily sight, hearing and smell. The dog, just as the wolf, vocalizes in more ways than one, depending on the body posture that communicates the mood and circumstance. Whimpering, growling, whining, yelping, barking and howling can be communicated in all forms and tones.

Puppies have inherited reflexes, also known as basic instincts, which are exhibited as natural behavior patterns that can be easily understood by their parents. In a pup’s young life, it is limited in its physical and behavioral abilities to express itself. Puppies’ first vocals reflect a need, such as for food or warmth. Puppies begin by making high-pitched squeaks and mewling noises to get their mother’s attention. Over time those sounds change to characteristic whines, which are used to express their greeting, desire or submission. As the puppy’s brain develops further with group interaction with parents and siblings, it increases in its capability to express more moods and emotions. These developments continue into adulthood.


Whining tends to be more characteristic of dogs than of wolves. Where wolves whine only when they are being submissive, dogs will whine to get attention. This behavior is the byproduct of humans’ uninten­tional reinforcement. Young puppies will quickly pick up on the human response to their whining, as the typical human response to a whining puppy is to comfort and try to quiet it. For example, a young pup whines on his first night away from his dog family, as he adjusts to a new home. Many owners will pick the puppy up and take it to sleep on the (human) bed, as guilt asserts itself in the guise of compassion and empathy. The pup has learned that its whining can communicate a need that effects a desired response, and will use whining in general to meet different desires.


Growling, on the other hand, often communicates a threatening and antagonistic attitude. Young puppies growl during play with their parents and siblings, of course, and in the process will learn the proper canine etiquette to use with other dogs. A growl can be combined with a snarl (like showing of teeth) to send a warning message that further approach will be met with a possible attack. As they mature, this type of continued aggressive behavior can become a reflection of something more serious. Wolves use growls a bit differently from dogs, from a dominant threatening type to a subordinate type that is used to elicit submission from another wolf.

Some dogs will also use growls to elicit submission from each other. The trouble is when the growl is directed at its owner. This is a signal that the dog is trying to exert its dominance over the human. It may begin when the owner gets too close while the pup is eating. A low growl from the puppy conveys the message, "stay away!" If the owner retreats, the pup learns that this behavior is acceptable and can be applied to other situations when it needs to challenge the owner’s dominance. This can quickly become an ungovernable situation that merits professional training.


Barking is also more common in domestic dogs than in their canine wolf cousins. This is particularly true for dogs that are the result of selective breeding, where the barking trait was promoted by those who wished to use their dogs as alarms and guards.

Domestic dogs usually make short, sharp barking sounds whenever they are excited. The tone of the bark conveys a meaning: High barks are for greetings, as when welcoming your return home; prolonged and frantic yelps often convey pain and distress; deep barks are intended to warn and to alert you to a threat; and deeper barks are indicative of aggression and threat. It becomes a clearer message when growling is woven into the deeper barks.

Wolves, on the other hand, generally do not bark to communicate with each other. Being hunters themselves, wolves bark only when necessary, such as when warning their pack members or pups of the approach of a threat. Even then, it is a last resort, as the wolf does not wish to bring attention to its location. The bark is typically a one time short and quiet "woof".


One of the more obvious sounds that wolves have held onto over time is the howl. Wolves howl much more than dogs and every wolf has a distinct howl, which suggests that wolves can be distinguished from other wolves by their howls – much in the way humans recognize each other by voice. A wolf’s howl is a long lasting tone of 2-11 seconds, with possible fluctuation over some notes. Wolves have been observed to use their howls for several reasons: when reassembling after dispersal, confirming territory, and in celebration, amongst other reasons. They may howl alone or in chorus with other wolves.

While most dogs do not howl as much as wolves, there are some northern breeds, such as huskies, malamutes and hounds that still do. Some have observed that huskies and malamutes will tend to howl after being left alone by their owners. Perhaps they are using it as a way of expressing their loneliness. Some breeds appear to want to “sing” along, howling when they hear certain sounds or when they hear their humans singing. For as far removed our domestic companions may be from the wolf cousins, the joy of creating and joining a chorus has not left many of them.

Image: hernan.mojaro / via Flickr

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