Janice’s puppies are now about six weeks old, and I’m just loving the adorable little sounds that they make! There’s nothing that adult dogs do that quite compares – in the puppy voices, I hear sounds that clearly indicate they find the world they’ve been born into so exciting. I think the cutest sound I hear is sort of a chirpy little “Whirrrrr???” that seems to say “Oh, wow, what is that?” Then there are all the little yips and yaps that aren’t quite full-on barks yet, and probably only mean something in the context of how they communicate with their littermates.
As dogs grow and learn to communicate, sometimes you might think that your particular dog is making weird noises, and perhaps he is. Or, it could just be ordinary canine communication. So, what do those barks, howls, whimpers and whines mean?
Let’s talk about how dogs communicate. Your dog could be making weird noises that need to be investigated, or he could just be offering up comments, opinion and more.
It’s pretty much a given that all dogs bark. Even so-called “barkless” dogs, like the Basenji, will vocalize to some extent. So what is your dog trying to say when he barks?
Dogs can bark for any number of reasons. Your dog might be making weird noises when he barks because he’s trying to alert you a potential threat, or because he’s afraid, bored, or wants something. Dogs will also bark when they want to tell you that they’d like you to play with them. Any time that a dog barks, you can bet that something important is going on, even if it’s just in his own mind.
Of course you don’t want your dog to annoy the snot out of the neighbors, so if he seems to be a habitual barker who just does it for no reason other than he loves the sound of his own voice, you might want to work a bit on bark inhibition. Otherwise, listen to what he’s trying to tell you.
If your dog is upset about something, he’ll probably bark. This type of bark is going to be repetitive and high-pitched, and it’s going to increase in level and intensity. If your dog is barking out of boredom, it’s just going to go on and on and on, at roughly the same level and intensity. If your dog is trying to tell you that he thinks something bad might be going on, you’ll hear a staccato bark that sounds very intense. If he’s just a bit anxious, you’ll hear a slow, low bark. If he’s afraid, the barking will sound about the same, but you’ll notice that there’s less time between barks. If he wants something, the bark will be persistent, sharp, and very much directed at you, the person who can give him what he wants.
Baying is prolonged, deep-throated barking. If you’re not sure how to identify baying as opposed to ordinary barking, try this exercise – open up your throat, and clench your abdomen. Then, as loud as you can, bringing your voice up from down low, shout out “Barooooo!” That’s baying.
Hounds are among the dogs most likely to vocalize in this way, but I’ve also heard it in other types of dogs. My friend Neila’s Rottweiler, Dallas, is a masterful “bayer.” When he bays, it almost sounds as if he’s moaning.
Baying is usually a response to seeing another animal – perhaps another dog that your dog sees as invading his territory, or a smaller animal that he sees as prey. Baying can also be a sign of frustration.
Dallas does this, too. In fact, pretty much all of Neila’s Rottweilers growl. Does that mean that they’re angry or ready to attack?
No, not for a minute.
When I visit Neila, in addition to our conversation, there’s always a lot of growling going on. She usually has several Rotts at a time, and although I was a bit nervous when I first met Neila and her dogs, I quickly came to understand that when a Rottweiler growls, it usually means that he’s pretty happy about something, and wants you to know.
Dallas growls when I pet his ears, rub his tummy and tickle him under the chin. Neila’s other Rotts do pretty much the same thing. It’s “Rott-speak” for “That feels good; do it some more!”
Neila tells me that you probably have to worry more about a Rottweiler if he’s not growling. If he’s standing tall with his hair up and his ears down, but not making a sound, you’d best back off – he won’t give you a warning growl before biting.
Most dogs, though, will growl before becoming aggressive. The key here is to know what the growl means – are you just dealing with a “talkative” dog like Dallas, or are you in danger? Don’t just listen – look at the body language as well, because that’s what will give you the best indication as to whether a dog is “speaking” to you or telling you to get out of his space and away from his person.
Of course dogs also frequently growl when they’re playing – if you’re engaging in a vigorous game of tug-of-war, and your dog is vocalizing, you don’t have to worry. He’s just telling you that he loves the game, and it’s just “play aggression.”
I seem to be talking a lot about Dallas in this post, but that’s because he’s a very vocal dog, and he’s quite good at expressing his feelings. He doesn’t howl a whole lot, but when an ambulance or police car goes by, he does tend to let loose. I think he’s just mimicking the sound of the sirens. He doesn’t seem agitated when he does this, just reactive.
When a dog howls without any apparent trigger, though, it could be that he’s distressed. Some animal behaviorists theorize that this is “pack behavior,” and that dogs will make weird noises if they feel that there are no other dogs around with whom to communicate – in other words, they’re howling to find other dogs. Howling can also be related to separation anxiety – if you leave your dog unattended in a vehicle, for instance, he might howl to try to call you back to him.
Whimpering and Yelping
When your dog makes weird noises like yelping and whimpering, it could be an indication that he’s in pain. You’ve probably heard these sounds if you’ve ever accidentally stepped back, only to discover that your dog was lying on the floor behind you – you brought a foot solidly down on a paw, and he let loose with a high-pitched bark. It’s simply a way of communicating his distress to the pack member (in this case, you) who hurt him. Once the pain begins to ease, the dog might whimper a bit. Whimpering is much less intense than yelping.
Dogs might also whimper out of excitement – you’ve been away for hours, and now you’re finally home, and your dog is so happy to see you that he whines and whimpers, and maybe jumps on you as well. These happy whimpers are fine, but if they go on and on, they could indicate pain. If whimpering escalates into yelping, it’s almost always a sign of pain, and an indication that you should take your dog to the veterinarian.
Whining is beyond annoying – it’s high-pitched, and nasal. Dogs can whine when they want something (a trip outside to go potty, perhaps) or when they feel frustrated. It can also be a call for attention. I hesitate to say that you should ignore whining, since there usually is a reason, but honestly, some dogs are just habitual whiners, and if that seems to be the case, the only way of correcting the problem is to ignore it until it stops. If the dog doesn’t get what he wants by whining, chances are he’ll stop the behavior eventually.
Yes, talking. Now, I have to tell you that this type of vocalization doesn’t come naturally. No dog is ever born, or raised naturally, knowing how to say “I love you” to his human. And yet we hear stories all the time about dogs who do just that sort of thing. Does the dog know what it means, though, or is he just “parroting”?
Let me tell you about my grandmother’s Rat Terrier, Nicky. I mentioned him in 25 Longest Lived Dog Breeds. Nicky had quite the vocabulary, and yes, “I love you” was among the phrases that he would offer in his doggie voice. That, in and of itself, wasn’t all that amazing.
What was remarkable, though, was that Nicky could say, in syllables that were easily understandable to anyone listening, “I want cheese.”
So you say “Okay, fine, he learned a more complex phrase.” Here’s the really amazing thing, though – Nicky would go over and sit down in front of the refrigerator, where the cheese was kept, and say, fully unprompted by Gran, “I want cheese.”
He knew where the cheese was kept. He knew what he wanted. And he knew how to ask for it.
I have no idea how Gran trained Nicky to talk, but I do know that when he talked, he understood context. He was communicating, in English – in a language that he and my Gran shared. He had a pretty bad accent, I suppose, but still, he was speaking English! Some animal behaviorists will tell you that dogs can “speak” but not understand the meaning behind what they’re saying, but I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong – Nicky knew!
As an interesting footnote, when people choose to teach their dogs to speak, the most common thing they try to do is get an answer to the question, “Whose boy/girl are you?” The answer, of course, is something that a dog’s mouth is actually well equipped to do, since it really only involves opening the mouth wide and then closing it – “Mama.” The second most popular phrase is “I love you,” which involves movements approximating a growl, and is also not all that hard for a dog to do.
I’m still not all that sure how people manage to teach their dogs these phrases, though – perhaps it’s a topic for another post.
If your dog is making weird noises that sound like he’s having trouble breathing, that could be cause for concern. The condition is called “reverse sneezing,” and it can sound pretty scary.
If your dog is making weird noises due to reverse sneezing, it will sound almost like honking. Sometimes, when people hear this sound, their first reaction is to bundle their dog into their car and speed off to the vet. Then, the dog socializes with all his human friends at the animal hospital, and leaves without having to be treated.
Usually, reverse sneezing episodes don’t last long, and the dog’s owner ends up in the examining room saying, “Doctor, I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it sounded something like this! Snerf, snorf, choke!
So, what causes reverse sneezing?
Most of the time, reverse sneezing occurs when the soft palate is irritated, and that makes it hard for the dog to inhale. The trachea becomes narrower, and it becomes difficult for the dog to get enough air into his lungs. Then, the dog starts honking and scaring the living daylights out of his human.
Reverse sneezing can also be caused by excitement, drinking or eating too quickly, vigorous exercise, pulling on the leash, and irritants like pollen.
Most of the time, reverse sneezing doesn’t need treatment, and the cause can’t be easily identified. Eventually, the reverse sneezing will stop. Some dogs are constantly prone to reverse sneezing, but there are very seldom any adverse effects from the condition.
If you have a brachycephalic dog (i.e. one with a short nose, like a Boxer or a Pug), you might find that he’s prone to reverse sneezing. Dogs with shallow throats, like Yorkies and Beagles, can also be prone to the condition.
As a footnote here, if you have a multi-species household (meaning that you have cats as well as dogs), you probably won’t have to worry much about reverse sneezing in your dogs, but cats are a bit different. If your dog is making weird noises due to reverse sneezing, chances are that it’s not a big deal. Cats, though, are very seldom prone to reverse sneezing, and if you think it’s happening with your cat, a visit to the vet is in order.
Your dog might not speak English. He might never tell you that he wants cheese, or use spoken words to let you know that he loves you. One thing, though, is certain – if you love your dog, you’ll know how he communicates. You’ll communicate in ways that don’t require spoken English, because you’ll have the common language of the heart. You will know, from your dog’s body language, what he is trying to tell you. And he will know, every time you touch him or speak softly to him, that he means more to you than words could ever express.
In the final analysis, that’s all that’s needed. If your dog is making weird sounds, don’t panic. Just try to figure out why he’s doing it, and proceed accordingly.