Vocalization in dogs is a natural behavior, and a cornerstone of their ability to communicate. There are many different types of vocalization in dogs, including barking, growling, yelping, whining and howling. All of these have a basis in the background of the species as a whole, and to understand what your dog is trying to communicate, we must look each of these sounds as they occur in nature.
As puppies, whining is an instinctive, natural response by the body whenever it is cold, hungry, or has other needs. Because this wining alerts the mother that some attention is needed, the puppy is rewarded for its instinctual cry by having its needs met. Quickly the puppy is conditioned to know that whining will achieve its purpose.
As the puppy ages, and becomes part of a new home, the puppy is faced with the fact that although it is whining, there is no mom to come and help them. Upset over not having their needs instantly attended to, puppies will begin to experiment with other vocalization, such as whimpering, howling, barking and crying to try and elicit a response. Your response to the puppy will help dictate their vocal behavior for the whole of their life. If their wining continues to elicit the desired response of getting attention or a response, the puppy will continue to whine and vocalize whenever they feel they are being neglected in any way.
Barking is one of the most common, as well as commonly annoying, vocalization methods of dogs. Wolves in the wild are believed to bark for only two reasons; as an alarm system to warn other pack members of a danger, and as a threat to ward off intruders. Unfortunately, domesticated dogs bark for a variety of other reasons as well, some of which are not always apparent to us.
Contrary to popular and long standing opinion that barking is merely a response to boredom, current research shows that it is instead a specific form of communication used among dogs, along with body language and olfactory (smell) messages. In daily life with humans, careful attention to your dogs barking may yield subtle differences in the tone and timbre of the sounds, each with a different message inside.
Warning barks are the most common type of barking, and often most people encourage and accept this type of barking. These barks are meant to alert others of potential danger or o a suspicious person. As a person approaches, warning barks may become more rapid and strong. Aggressive barks are similar to warning barks, but tend to be lower in pitch and accompanied by growling.
A dog stuck outside will commonly voice his concern at the situation with isolation barks. Isolation barks are usually higher pitched than warning barks, and often occur as single barks in an increasingly insistent tone, calling attention to their plight, like; “Remember me? I’m Out HERE!”
In addition, dogs have different types of barks for play, boredom, fear and anxiety. Although this barking is all part of normal behavior, some dogs are more frequent and excessive barkers than others, and this barking can often become a serious training issue.
While growling is commonly associated as a threat or a sign of aggression, it can also be used at play and in other situations. It is important to be familiar with the body language of your dog in order to interpret the meaning of his growls. Dogs growling aggressively will stare or snarl their upper lip, remain still and may back into a corner. In contrast, dogs that are play-growling will be wagging their tail, and often jump around and crouch down on their front feet in order to show there are ready to play.
Another vocalization that has its history in the undomesticated life of dogs is howling. Used in the wild as a long-range communication, wolves howl to communicate the boundaries of their pack, locate missing or lost pack members and to attract mates. Domesticated dogs typically howl primarily in a response to boredom, however many dogs will howl in reaction to similar sounds such as ambulance sirens. Certain breeds of dogs are more likely to be habitual howlers, such as Beagles and Husky breeds.
Yelps and grunts are common vocalizations used to communicate opposite issues. A yelp may be heard when a dog is surprised or as a pain reaction, such as having their tail stepped on. But because dogs do not tend to vocalize when mildly uncomfortable, continued yelping may indicate severe pain, and your veterinarian should be consulted. In contrast, grunts in dogs typically show pleasure or happiness, such as when being rubbed or petted. Dogs may also grunt when greeting each other.
Once considered merely a nuisance habit, careful attention to the types of vocalization in dogs clearly shows meaning and communication. Although there are some dogs that vocalize excessively, many of the everyday sounds made by your dog are part of their natural method of communication.