Features August 2011 Issue

Understanding Your Dog's Vocal Communications

Barks, growls, howls, whines, and whimpers - your dog is talking to you, and he's got a lot to say!

[Updated June 7, 2016]

Your Dog's Vocal Communications

This baying hound is speaking his mind; hes seen another dog in the distance and is expressing a challenge. Hes also a tad frustrated at not being able to go greet the dog.

Barking

Dogs bark for many reasons, including alert (there’s something out there!), alarm (there’s something bad out there) boredom, demand, fear, suspicion, distress, and pleasure (play). (For more about dealing with barking, see “Modifying Barking Behavior,” WDJ July 2007.)

The bark of a distressed dog, such as a dog who suffers from isolation or separation distress or anxiety, is high-pitched and repetitive; getting higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. Boredom barking tends to be more of a repetitive monotone. Alert bark is likely to be a sharp, staccato sound; alarm barking adds a note of intensity to the alert.

Demand barks are sharp and persistent, and directed at the human who could/should ostensibly provide whatever the dog demands. At least, the dog thinks so. Suspicious barks are usually low in tone, and slow, while fearful barking is often low but faster. Play barking just sounds . . . playful. If you have any doubt – look to see what the dog is doing. If he’s playing, it’s probably play barking.

Baying

Baying is deep-throated, prolonged barking, most often heard when a dog is in pursuit of prey, but also sometimes offered by a dog who is challenging an intruder. The scent hounds are notorious for their melodic baying voices.

Growling

Growls are most often a warning that serious aggression may ensue if you persist in whatever you’re doing, or what-ever is going on around him. Rather than taking offense at your dog’s growl, heed his warning, and figure out how to make him more comfortable with the situation. (See “5 Steps to Deal with Dog Growling,” WDJ October 2009.)

Dogs also growl in play. It’s common for a dog to growl while playing tug – and that’s perfectly appropriate as long as the rest of his body language says he’s playing. If there’s any doubt in your mind, take a break from play to let him calm down. Some dogs also growl in pleasure. Rottweilers are notorious for “grumbling” when being petted and playing, and absent any signs of stress, this is interpreted as a “feels good” happy sound.

Howling

Howling is often triggered by a high-pitched sound; many dogs howl at the sound of fire and police sirens. (Two of my own dogs howl when our donkey brays). Some dog owners have taught their dogs to howl on cue, such as the owner howling.

Howling is generally considered to be communication between pack members: perhaps to locate another pack member, or to call the pack for hunting. Some dogs howl when they are significantly distressed – again, a common symptom of isolation and separation distress.

Whimpering/Yelping

A whimper or a yelp is often an indication that a dog is in pain. This may happen when dogs play, if one dog bites the other dog too hard. The whimper or yelp is used to communicate the dog’s distress to a pack member (or human) when they are friendly. The other dog or human is expected to react positively to the communication. Whimpers can also indicate strong excitement such as when an owner returns at the end of a long workday. Excitement whimpering is often accompanied by licking, jumping, and barking. Whimpering is softer and less intense than whining.

Whining

Whining is a high-pitched vocalization, often produced nasally with the mouth closed. A dog may whine when it wants something, needs or wants to go outside, feels frustrated by leash restraint, is separated from a valued companion (human or otherwise), or just wants attention. It is usually an indication of some increased level of stress for the dog.

Speaking Words?

Some dogs are capable of replicating human speech sounds. When these sounds are selectively reinforced, dogs can appear to be speaking human words, sometimes even sentences. It is most likely that the dogs have no concept of the meaning behind the words they are “speaking” – although as we learn more about canine cognition, one can’t ever be too sure. (See “What Does the Dog Think?,” WDJ July 2011.)

It’s interesting to note that one of the phrases most frequently taught to dogs by their owners is some version of, “I love you…” Youtube provides some entertaining footage of talking dogs, like this one.

Comments (28)

For the past ten years my wife and I have shared our home with a number of NAIDs (Native American Indian Dogs). They're charming, challenging, endlessly fascinating animals, whose recent ancestors probably interbred with wild wolves. Perhaps as a result, they grow up not knowing how to bark, although they can learn to do it; but howling is their preferred method of communicating, especially over distance. They howl, when they're lonely and when they're sad, angry, or frightened, but they also howl when they're happy - and each of these is different. They howl to say, "Where are you?" to absent pack members, as well as other things we never figured out. Most affecting of all, however, were their "evening howls". Often after a busy, exciting, or noteworthy day, as they loafed around before sundown, the pack leader (it was always the pack leader for these howls) would sit up, put his nose in the air, and begin howling. It was low at first, but grew louder as the others joined in, each contributing his or her own characteristic voice. The result was deep, soulful, almost musical. You could hear it for miles, rising and falling, echoing from the hillsides. They never did it for long - five minutes at most - but, while it lasted it was one of the most memorable sounds I've ever heard - brought tears to my eyes.

Posted by: raindancer | September 5, 2016 12:40 AM    Report this comment

My husband taught our mini poodle to say Mama. So cute!

Posted by: harbormaster | August 29, 2016 1:40 PM    Report this comment

My chihuahua mix (10 lbs.) is with me 24/7. We talk to each other all day. He tells me when it's time to go to the park, when he wants to eat, go out, go upstairs to bed at night, or which dog is being walked by the house. During my long life (89 yrs), I have had nine dogs, including German Shepherd, Doberman, Visla, Collie, Dachshunds (3). My little one is without a doubt my smartest and most communicative.

Posted by: glorybee27 | August 29, 2016 1:04 PM    Report this comment

My springers all did the "woo woo," which meant any number of things. My mini poodle, now 3 yrs, can be very grumbly and chatty. Grumble, grumble, nyung, nyung, nyung, awr, awr, awr, etc. - usually when she's outdoors with us at our RV site, taking in the ever changing scenery - new campers, dogs, and the like. Very quiet in the rig (we are fulltime RVers).
My maltese loved her voice, and barked at everything that went by her window. Her other big reason was demand - pick me up! pick me up!
l love reading all these comments about our wonderful animals.

Posted by: Specie | August 29, 2016 8:47 AM    Report this comment

I just lost a Westie/Cairn mix to a brain tumor and I'm going to miss her very unique way of communicating. Her enthusiastic greetings sounded like, "roo, roo, roo!"

Posted by: NJ resident | August 29, 2016 5:18 AM    Report this comment

I have a Pug/ Jack Russell mix that was a Humane Society rescue. He came to live with me at age 4. He is a very quiet dog, only barking when someone comes to the door, when he is in the yard barking at birds, or when he sees another dog. He does have one habit that is different from other dogs I have lived with, he makes a woof woof sound while he is kicking up grass, etc. after doing his business. He also never licks me, quite different from dogs I have known.

Posted by: idahorosie1@yahoo.com | August 28, 2016 10:14 PM    Report this comment

I just got a Rothewiller pup two weeks ago and she does not bark or makes any noises. She is 2 months old. She is well behaved for a pup. I thought that maybe she was deaf but she now knows her name, and understands stay. This is very unusual to me that have had dogs all of my life ! What does this mean ?

Posted by: Thistle | August 28, 2016 8:08 PM    Report this comment

My sheltie/shepherd/? mix is very vocal. She groans when she wants to get my attention inside. If she is outside she has different "barks" for "there's a deer in the yard!" or "I want in" or "Is anyone out there--want a conversation?" Even inside she has different groans or other vocalizations for when she wants to go out of wants a snack or just wants my attention. Dogs really do have a language--you just have to listen for it...

Posted by: PJKutscher | August 28, 2016 6:07 PM    Report this comment

My Newf howls in her sleep! Sometimes it's just one long howl but sometimes it goes on and then starts again. Doesn't sound like a typical howl, more like a high pitched moo. I've had 4 Newfs and she's the 3rd to do this but does it a lot more than the others.

Posted by: ktzndgs | August 28, 2016 4:55 PM    Report this comment

My Newf howls in her sleep! Sometimes it's just one long howl but sometimes it goes on and then starts again. Doesn't sound like a typical howl, more like a high pitched moo. I've had 4 Newfs and she's the 3rd to do this but does it a lot more than the others.

Posted by: ktzndgs | August 28, 2016 4:54 PM    Report this comment

Have 3 white shepherds n 1 husky/pyrennes mix. All rescues. They ALL complain bark when I've been gone too long or neglected to take at least one with me for a ride (too hot in FL summer, even w car a/c). Marshmellow is the most vocal complainer if I go too long without touching him, also the loudest "purr-er" When contentedly lying in our midst. Mikri is just a love of a girl with a healing heart for abused spirits, be they human, canine, or anything other than avian. She trained herself to open doors, lights, automatic windows.. all with a soft woof to emphasize her actions. She murmurs when snuggling up to tired spirits at hospice, politely staying and chatting as long as wanted. Spotsy Wotsy is a big goof when husky growls ("Mr growlypants") to nudge me awake if he needs to go out, or is hungry, or wants his share of attention from anyone and everyone, esp small kids. And Sugar Plum Fairy, Plummie, dances while barking happily, chatting everyone up, walking the chickens out in a.m., and teasing Spotsy into the water for a swim... not quite a quiet houseful, but definitely one filled with loving laughter and wiggly hugs!!

Posted by: Sasquatchpuppies | August 28, 2016 2:31 PM    Report this comment

Our doxie, Morgan, sits on the deck, in his own chair, with me and Pops. If we talk to each other for very long, Morgan starts talking, too. He directs most of his conversation at Pops, who has a deep voice. But Morgan will often look at me to "reinforce" whatever point he's trying to make. It really does sound like he is copying human speech - I'm just concerned that he might be talking about politics!

Posted by: Caps Mommy | August 28, 2016 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Since the day we brought our golden retriever home from the breeder, she always greets us at the door with what sounds like joyful crying. Ever see that video of the golden seeing his/her soldier returning home for the first time? That is the joyful cry! Whether we are gone for 20 minutes or on vacation for a week, she joyfully greets us at the door with a toy and excited crying. It never gets old!!!

Posted by: FurMom | August 28, 2016 8:33 AM    Report this comment

I have a 7 year-old Aussie who whines when I come home and begs to be petted she is a rescue from spa who for a long time spent many years in a 6x6 kennel with her litter mate

Posted by: Tammieayres | July 28, 2016 11:36 PM    Report this comment

We have a 10-year-old Bichon Frise we have trained to say "I love you"! He is a howler, has had separation anxiety, especially after we lost our other fur boy to toxic dog food almost 2 1/2 years ago - and Bo has missed him. He started howling more after Barney went to Heaven...then we found Mishka videos online of the husky dogs who talk and it unleashed a whole vocabulary in Bo -he is soooooo cute!!!!!!!!!!! lands on a chair near Daddy and goes "IIIIII wuuuuuv uuuuuu"

Posted by: Mousie | October 17, 2015 2:31 PM    Report this comment

My first dog used to love to have a chat. Sally was a very intelligent Bluey (Australian cattle dog). She used to hear 'Oh hello, Love!' all the time and I believe she at least understood this as us saying to her 'I'm so happy to see you' and so did her best to replicate it when she was very excited to see us.

She also used to walk around a pot plant, come back to the door and then 'chat' with us. Kind of an 'ohrohrohroh' noise, alternating between low and high pitch. Then she'd do another lap of the pot plant and come back for another chat. I think she developed this behaviour from watching us wander in and out of rooms to speak to each other in the living room.

Another dog of mine used to make what can only be described as 'Wookie noises'... Bella made that sound so often we called her 'Chewblacka' (she was a black Labrador).

Then there was Kellie, a medium sized mix of breeds I was never quite sure of beyond being part dingo and red cattle dog (who actually learnt the Wookie noises from Bella and ceased to make them when Bella passed away).
She had a couple of vocal things about her. If she got super excited or a combination of excited and anxious on one of her beloved car drives, she would make a gurgling noise.


When she was young, especially as a little pup, she learnt that she could groan and so did it as often and as LONG as possible. It was adorable when she was at that clumsy puppy stage where falling over was enough to make her 'murrrhhhh' for literally 5 seconds. Everything was a good excuse; Lying down, getting up... Having to move a couple of inches to get a treat. She was beyond lazy and loved to complain. If she wanted to sleep near you but the light was on, there was only so long she would put up with it before giving a good groan to let you know you could turn the bloody thing off. She was also the smelliest dog ever, but if -you- had particularly rotten gas, she would tell you to cut it out. To be fair, she seemed pretty ashamed of her own farts.
I miss all my dogs that have passed on and perhaps it's awful to say that I miss her most but she was just the craziest, sweetest, most hilarious fur-person.

My current doggy baby, Bailey the Border (Collie) Kelpie is perhaps the most vocal of them all! He just uses his voice all the time and pairs it with his body language to communicate so many things. I could type as much again about the various sounds he makes but I'd be here all night :) He's an extremely intelligent and expressive dog which makes for an endlessly entertaining combination.

Posted by: Twarg | October 6, 2015 10:02 AM    Report this comment

My nine year old greyhound grumbles whenever his sleep pattern is disturbed. He makes me feel so guilty for getting up before 6am or not going to bed before 10pm the latter is sometimes accompanied with annoyed displacements of his bed sheets.
He also has a contented low purr for when he receives cuddles. We have a conversation, I will softly say Mmmm and he will respond will Brrrrh well that's my best estimate of the sound.

Posted by: GailH | June 3, 2015 11:14 PM    Report this comment

I have a rescue Great Dane who is 5 years old now. I got him when he was 4ish, and loved him ever since. In the beginning when we didn't have a morning/ schedule, when he wanted to go out, he would just stand on me while I was sleeping and if I didn't wake up he would cry. Also, when he's asleep and I accidentally wake him up he'll just make an 'uuuugggghhhhh' sound. Like 'stop mom' I'm trying to sleep

Posted by: Eren Philip | October 15, 2014 9:17 PM    Report this comment

I have three rescue pitbulls. They are 6 months apart in age from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years old. One dog(not alpha but wants to be) sits on the couch and growls and shakes, if our alpha dog tries to get on the couch with him. In turn the alpha dog looks at me and barks continuously like "do something about this". I have tried every which way to solve this. I don't know whether to calm the growling dog or calm the barking dog. I can't win. Any suggestions?

Posted by: meganj | September 26, 2014 8:58 PM    Report this comment

I have three rescue pitbulls. They are 6 months apart in age from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years old. One dog(not alpha but wants to be) sits on the couch and growls and shakes, if our alpha dog tries to get on the couch with him. In turn the alpha dog looks at me and barks continuously like "do something about this". I have tried every which way to solve this. I don't know whether to calm the growling dog or calm the barking dog. I can't win. Any suggestions?

Posted by: meganj | September 26, 2014 8:57 PM    Report this comment

My shih tzu x toy poodle isn't too vocal unless we leave home/come home he sees us in the window and the only time i ever hear him howl is when he sees his reflection through the window at night, otherwise he's very quite in most situations. Isn't always a good thing in case he gets stuck in a room you can hear him quietly whimper so it makes it much harder to find where he's hidden!

Posted by: anitaaye | July 17, 2014 8:17 AM    Report this comment

My rescue pit bull doesn't like it when I talk to him in a high pitch voice. He gets a strange stance and raises his hair up then growls. He also growls at us when we're sleeping or when my teenage son is on the couch. I hope it's just playful but it doesn't seem to be.

Posted by: carolee | June 24, 2014 6:52 PM    Report this comment

My girl did not bark or howl when I first got her...she was rescued in So Va...I adopted her about 4+ yrs ago...about a year ago she started to howl/bark at me in the morning to wake me to let her out to do her business...I've never had a dog that didn't bark or howl...when she does this it makes me so happy...I think one morning she woke me with her howl/bark because I wasn't breathing right, she didn't want to go out nor have food...I value her messages more then ever!
She's a foxhound, her name is Allie and she is so sweet...very different from my previous furry friends. A true blessing!

Posted by: GrannyBumble | January 13, 2014 6:09 AM    Report this comment

Our males howl when the females are in heat when they can't get to them because they are kept in separate rooms.

Posted by: k9baron | January 12, 2014 4:56 PM    Report this comment

Our Boston\Yorkie mix is quite vocal. She makes this kind of growling\howling\grumbley noise when she want your attention. Sometime she even makes a sound like a cat meowing.

Posted by: Kana | August 7, 2013 7:46 PM    Report this comment

My lab makes a growling/rumbling type noise when he wants my attention. Like when another of my dogs is blocking his way and he wants me to move them so he can pass, or he might sit down in front of me when I'm on the sofa and do it so I know he wants me to pet him.

Posted by: Cathie M | August 7, 2013 2:40 PM    Report this comment

My 3 year old rescue English Springer Spaniel boy *loves* to roll in the grass/sand/dirt and let out a howling/screaming sound. It is clearly an expression of ecstasy. Previous Springers often made the "woo-woo" sound, common among the breed. It could mean, "Hey everyone, I'm here, Yipee,let's play, Oh boy! Dinner time!" or a number of other assertions.

Posted by: 2SpringerBoyz | August 7, 2013 1:11 PM    Report this comment

I have a dobe that uses a growling sound that is what my sister in law has called purring. I call it talking. She usually does it at night when we are snuggling, she will sometimes do it with other people she knows. It is definitely a growl but their is a very slight difference in tone and cadence in it and she is telling you something and I am sure that it is a positive communication. This is my third dobe and the first one that has done this. My vet seemed familiar with it.

Posted by: CarolynAnn | February 14, 2013 12:15 PM    Report this comment

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