The function of canine vocal communication is to send a signal to other dogs such as from a new born pup to its mother, or as a communication to their human or humans e.g. barking for joy when reunited. Canine vocal communication needs to be understood in the context of other communication both visual and, would you believe it, olfactory at the time and the specific situation when it occurs.
Crying and Whining
Crying and whining usually directed at humans as pups can become a learned response if it gets rewarded with attention. Lawrence the Labrador whines, grunts and ‘chatters’ makes a wide range of strange vocalisations which are, I believe, him copying me talking to him and trying to talk back to get and keep my attention, which it does. Yelping however is clear pain or distress.
Barking provides information for owners/caregivers about the inner state of the dog. Barks may be isolated or one of a sequence. Variability in barking between breed showing 2 to 12 subtypes. Guarding breeds defensive exaggerated barking, terriers bark frequently to alert to position, gun dogs stay silent, scent hounds call out with baying sounds. The function of barking is to send an alert or to get attention.
My eldest dog will only ever bark single barks when immediate and urgent attention is needed e.g. midnight toilet run with an upset tummy. My youngest dog is a trigger happy barker – happy to see you, someone at the door, excited to get out the car. In generally the lower pitch, the more aggressive the intent, a rare sound for my younger dog but once when in his crate with a kong and a visiting puppy went right up to sniff him.
Like whining some barking can be learned as it may elicit a specific response from a human. It’s interesting that barking is rarely used to communicate between dogs.
Growling on the other hand is often a clear warning to dogs and humans alike, although here again the exact situation and other communications are important. Consider my older lab happily growling on cue for a treat – all smiles and wagging tale compared to a dog with a dead straight back from nose to tail walking with a fixed stare towards you, hackles raised. I was staggered when a local vet told one of my customers that the dogs growling was put on as the owners were ‘rewarding’ the growling with attention and the best thing to do was ignore it. I’ve taught one of my dogs to growl on cue, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met a dog use growling intentionally to get attention.
Howling is a clear ‘shout out’ which functions to elicit communication from anyone in the dogs social group usually if they are out of sight. Lawrence the lab howls if I go out with the other dogs and without him and without putting him in his crate. He is literally calling out to us as we are too far for other forms of communication to reach. I’ve wondered if a mobile phone call could be set up, and I’ve heard from other owners that certain ‘nanny cams’ allow you to speak back to and comfort your dog over an intercom. I’ve had numerous clients tell me that their dog recognises my voice on video demonstrations or voice notes, so the voice alone must be recognizable to dogs. I’ve even asked a client’s dog for a ‘sit’ over a zoom call which he successfully delivered and found that it works!
Noises in play
Adult dogs may also use vocalisations in play e.g. play growls when playing tuggy or little backward sneezes when wrestling.
Whatever sounds your dog makes one thing is certain, the sounds mean something and shouldn’t just be ignored. If you need help with interpretation take some video footage and try watching it back at a quarter normal speed so that you can see the other non-verbal communication that your dog is using.
I’d also heartily recommend “Barking, the sound of a language” by Turid Rugaas for ideas as to how to interpret what your dog is saying to you. And of course, feel free to book a behaviour consultation with me and I’d be delighted to help interpret your dog’s vocal communications.