While dogs can’t speak with humans, they’re actually great communicators. Dog sounds – like barking, whining, growling, howling, sighing, and moaning – can give us a pretty clear picture of their emotions. But first, you have to know what the sounds mean!
If you have a dog that barks, whines, or groans, and you have no idea why, then read on. We’ll help you decipher all of the different types of noises your pup makes.
One of the most common dog sounds that dogs make is the bark. Dogs bark to indicate a wide range of emotions, from happiness to anxiety, frustration, and affection.
If a bark can mean so many things, how can you tell what dogs are trying to say? The key is to look at:
Context is key when trying to understand dog sounds and behavior. If your dog barks, wags their tail, and runs to grab their favorite ball when you come home, they’re likely excited. If your pet charges at the fence, growls, and barks when a neighborhood dog walks by, they’re likely feeling territorial.1
Pay attention to the dog’s body language when they bark. Here’s a general idea of what to look for:
Happy, Relaxed Dog
- Wagging tail
- Relaxed ears
- Play bow
- Squinty or blinking eyes2
Aroused, Fearful Dog
- Barks mixed with growls
- Ears pricked forward
- Tail held high, frozen or quickly wagging
- Hard stare with the eyes
- Appeasement signals, like panting, lip licking, and yawning3
The tone of a dog’s bark can help you understand its meaning. Low pitched, deep barks usually mean anger or even aggression. You might hear a low pitched “stranger danger” bark mixed with growling if someone is approaching the house. This is meant to intimidate – and it usually works!
A high pitched bark typically means just the opposite. Dogs usually bark in a higher pitch when they are excited, as a greeting, or as a way to initiate play. They may also use a higher pitch when they are insecure or fearful.4
What About Small Dogs?
Small dogs may not hit the baritone pitch that large dogs can, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear pitch changes. If your small dog is hitting a really high, uncomfortable pitch, or they’re barking too much, you’ll want to call in a trainer who can address their anxiety.5
Dog sounds that are repeated rapidly usually indicate urgency. For example, a dog may bark in a rapid string of three to four barks, and then take a pause. That dog is casually trying to alert “the pack” of a potential intruder or threat.
If that barking picks up speed, the dog is getting more aroused, territorial, or fearful.6
A single bark may be given when a dog is surprised, or annoyed. If a dog barks once, waits a while, and then barks once more, the dog may be feeling separation anxiety or loneliness.7
Whining, whimpering, or “crying” dog sounds can mean a wide variety of things. Your dog may be feeling excited, anxious, thirsty, bored, or frustrated. Most commonly, your dog is whining at you because they want something.8
They may want:
- a door to be opened so they can play or potty
- a toy thrown
- a bite of your dinner
- their human to come home (with separation anxiety)
In these cases, you can usually tell what they want from the context of the situation.
Oops! You May Have Reinforced Whining
If your dog gets what they want every time they whine, you can bet that they’ll do it again and again. This is commonly seen with dogs who whine at the dinner table. If they see success with this tactic – even once! – they will keep it up.
If your dog whines when they want something, like a ball thrown, don’t immediately give them what they want. Take control of the situation, and ask your dog to sit and wait first. If this is a problem in your household, call a positive reinforcement trainer for help.
When a dog growls, you typically think of it as a menacing sign of aggression, right? This is often correct, but it’s more complicated than that. A low, rumbling growl is usually meant as a warning to “back off!” Growls like this are usually caused by fear or anxiety, not pure aggression.9
Beyond fearful growls, dogs may find many other occasions to growl. Here are some common ones:
- Playful growling. Your pup may growl during tug-of-war or other high energy games. This is typically nothing to worry about. Watch their body language to ensure that they’re being playful, not fearful or aggressive.
- Affectionate growling. You might hear your pup growl when you snuggle with them. These dog sounds can be interpreted like a cat’s purr. Nothing to worry about there! Again, watch their body language to make sure they are relaxed. If your pup growls as a way to demand attention, call a trainer.
- Frustration growling. Dogs may growl if they want something, like food, playtime, or to investigate another dog. This can be problematic if another dog misinterprets the growl. Obedience training can help your dog learn how to communicate better.10
Experts don’t fully understand why, but some dogs love to howl. It’s one of the more common dog sounds.
Here are some reasons why you might hear your dog howl:
- For attention
- To alert their owner of something
- To contact other nearby dogs
- Some dogs (like hunting dogs) will howl to alert you to a discovery, like prey.
- To “sing along” with high pitched noises or sounds (There are YouTube videos that encourage your dog to howl along with woodwind instruments, try it!)11,12
Howling is a primal reaction. There’s nothing to worry about, unless your dog is trying to alert you to an underlying issue. Here’s when you should worry:
Separation Anxiety Howling
This dog may also pace around, eliminate in the house, and destroy things. You may not even know that your dog is doing this until an angry neighbor calls you about constant howling. Call a trainer to deal with this right away.13
Howling as a Sign of Injury or Pain
If your canine starts howling suddenly and frequently, call your vet to rule out medical issues.14
Just like in humans, a sigh can be a sign of contentment or one of resigned frustration. In either case, sighing signals the end of an effort or action.15
Your dog may sigh as they settle in and take a nap after a romp around the yard. That sigh signals contentment. You may also hear your dog sigh in response to being ignored while they whine at the dinner table. That’s more of a, “Fine, I’ll give up now” sigh.
Sighs are great to track, especially if you’re trying to break your dog of a bad habit. Does your dog go nuts and jump up when you pick up their leash? Try picking it up and waiting quietly until they settle down.
Once you hear your dog sigh, you know they have truly relaxed. Then you can go on your walk. Congrats, you’ve just reinforced calm behavior!
Like sighing, groaning can signal contentment or frustration. Look at the context of the dog behavior to understand the emotions behind the groan. Are you withholding their favorite toy? That groan may signal frustration.16 Do they often groan while they curl up next to you? They’re probably content!
The occasional groan is no big deal. But groans are one of those dog sounds you shouldn’t ignore if you start hearing them out of the blue. It could signal an underlying medical issue.
Panosteitis, or Puppy Growing Pains
If your pup groans or moans when they lie down, they may be experiencing growing pains. Growing pains happen when a puppy’s leg bones grow faster than they can get used to. This can be painful for your pup!
While this can happen with any breed, it happens more often with large breeds, like German Shepherds. This condition affects puppies and will usually go away on its own when the pup reaches 2 years of age.17
What To Do About Panosteitis
If you think your pup is experiencing growing pains, call your vet. They may want to take x-rays or prescribe pain medication or anti-inflammatory drugs.
It’s important to feed your dog a high quality, all natural diet during this time. You may also consider a supplement that contains omega 3’s and antioxidants – both of which can help this condition.18
Joint Pain in Senior Dogs
If an older dog starts to groan when they lie down, they may be dealing with joint pain. The cartilage around the dog’s joints may be wearing down, making movements painful.19
Call your vet. They may recommend rehab or surgery. For your part, managing your dog’s weight is critical. That means feeding them only high quality food and controlling portions.
Joint health supplements may help. Look for a supplement with collagen, elastin, hyaluronic acid, and glucosamine (all of which occur naturally in healthy joints and tissues and can be supplemented when they start to wear down.)
Ascites, or Fluid in the Abdomen
Ascites, or fluid buildup in the abdomen, is another common medical reason why dogs may groan when they lie down. The trapped fluid may cause pain, and you’ll also notice that your dog is tired, weak, or not eating. When you press lightly on their belly, they may groan.20 Call your vet.
Interpreting Dog Sounds
Next time you’re trying to understand your dog’s behavior, listen up! Dog sounds paired with dog behaviors can usually tell you everything you need to know about your pup’s needs and desires.
Now that you know what to listen for, you may start to think, “Hmm, my dog sure seems fearful!” or “I think my dog has anxiety.”
Take action on your new discoveries and call a trainer or behaviorist. Listening to your dog can also help you know when to call the vet to check out potential medical issues.
Behavior and medical issues aside, dogs make all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds. Listen up and enjoy their quirkiness!