If you are a pet parent, chances are that you’ve wished more than once that your dog could talk. Maybe not when they’re “screaming” at the mailman, but surely at other times, like during those two-in-the-morning mystery barks at seemingly nothing.
Sometimes, it sure would be nice if they could just tell us what they want or what they’re feeling. But while your dog can’t talk, they do communicate with you vocally, if you know what to listen for.
Understanding the art of the bark
A dog’s bark might not be as diverse as human language, but there’s a lot of nuance and subtlety in those outbursts, and you can learn a lot by noticing the different barks they use for different situations. That said, different dogs behave differently, and the tones they use for different things they want to “say” may vary. You know your dog best, so it’s up to you to figure out the variations exclusive to your pal.
But here’s a general primer on the types of dog barks and what they might mean.
Low-pitch barks generally indicate threats or warnings. Those slow, chuffing barks can convey all sorts of negative messages, from “Stop doing that!” to “Get away from me!”
High-pitch barks, in contrast, can mean a wide variety of things good and bad. Generally, an actual high-pitched bark means that your dog is excited in a good way. They’re happy to see you and want you to come closer, for instance. But it gets tricky, because a sudden yelp that indicates pain or surprise is also high-pitched. More than one yelp is certainly bad news, indicating tremendous fear or even an injury.
Duration and frequency should also be considered. Psychology Today says that you can read a lot into these details. For instance, a single sustained bark or growl means that the dog has made a conscious decision to say what he or she is saying. So a single, long, low bark means that the dog is definitely and confidently warning something away.
Shorter, more frequent barks indicate excitement or less measured thoughts working their way out. Combined with pitch, these kinds of barks can indicate urgent warnings (low-pitch, rapid-fire) or extreme happiness (high-pitch, rapid-fire, happy-to-see-you barks). Shorter singular or less-frequent barks are usually similar messages but less urgent or excitable.
Both Psychology Today and K9 Magazine have listed common sequences of barks and what they might mean:
- Rapid-fire strings of barks: Call the pack! Something is up!
- Continuous string of barks at mid-pitch with pauses: There’s an intruder!
- One or two barks at mid-pitch: Greetings.
- A long series of solo barks: I am lonely.
- A mid-pitch, solo “RUFF!”: Let’s play!
A dog’s whine isn’t quite as nuanced as its bark, but it can indicate a few different things. More often than not, a whining dog wants something, and it’ll be pretty obvious what that something is. Whining around food means they’re hungry. Whining near the door, well, you get the idea. But whining can also indicate fear or discomfort. A whine almost always expresses a need, and it’s up to you to use other clues to determine that need.
Growls and howls and groans, oh sigh!
We’ve covered growls a bit in conjunction with low-pitch barks, and they are typically not good news. However (there’s always a however!), even growls don’t always lean in the same direction. For instance, you might hear some rather fierce growls when your dog is playing tug. Happy growls! The good thing about growls is that they’re pretty easy to decipher, at least according to this study that shows that humans are great at “successfully recognizing the context of dog growls.” So go with your gut; it’s usually right.
As for howling, most dogs don’t really howl. But those who do may be trying some long-distance communication, like wolves talking to their pack across a frozen tundra. Maybe your dog feels left behind or just wants their widespread “pack” to hear what they have to say.
Groans and sighs, like whines, rely largely on context. When your dog groans while receiving good scratches, it’s a sign of extreme pleasure. A deep sigh when they finally lie down after spinning in circles for 10 minutes is similar to the sigh you might make when you hit the sheets after a long day. But those sighs and groans can also be expressing disappointment or frustration, like when their begging doesn’t pay off and you’ve eaten the entire cheeseburger yourself. Regardless of context, chances are that satisfaction or disappointment are being expressed when your dog groans or sighs.
Your dog, your interpretations
Every dog is different, and as we’ve said over and over, context really matters. There’s simply no one-to-one translation of your dog’s vocalizations, and every sound needs to be interpreted in conjunction with the immediate environment, body language and your own knowledge of your dog’s personality and habits. We wish it was easier to understand what your dog is saying, but then again, if you know your dog, it’s not really that hard.
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