Why Do Dogs Whine?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz July 30, 2020
Our pet dogs use a wide array of vocalizations and body language to express their feelings to us. One of these vocalizations is whining. Dogs may whine towards humans to get our attention. They may whine towards doors to be let outside or towards objects that they want. Dogs may also whine in our absence because they are upset and want us to come back. By reading the context of the situation, we can decipher why our dog is whining so we can help attend to their needs and ensure they remain happy and healthy.
What Are The Noises And Actions That Are Defined As Whining?
Whining is one of the many ways that dogs use to communicate vocally. Whines are high-pitched vocalizations (Parthasarathy and Crowell-Davis, 2006) that are used in short-range communication (Faragó et al., 2014). The frequency, duration, and pitch, along with associated vocalizations and behaviors, will vary depending on the context. For instance, whining accompanied by barking when left home alone may indicate an anxious dog, whereas whining with pawing towards a human may be associated with begging for food. The actions that can be performed along with or in sequence with whining are endless and can help us decipher our dog’s intent.
Why Do Dogs Whine?
In general, whining is a social signal used to provide information about the emotional state of the dog. It is also used as a way to call for attention (Lund and Jørgensen, 1999).
Specific Situations In Which Dogs May Whine
- Comfort/Attention seeking
Puppies will often whine in order to gain comfort from their mother (Panksepp et al., 1978). As adults, dogs will often use whining vocalizations to gain attention from their humans (Fox 1971; Bekoff 1974; Bradshaw, 1995). The acoustic structures of whines are similar to the general pattern of infant distress calls (Lingle et al., 2012). This suggests that the remnants of infant contact calls may be redirected in adult dogs towards their owners when they are experiencing distress or negative emotional states (Pongrácz et al., 2017).
Dogs may beg for either attention or for access to desired food or toys. Behaviors commonly associated with begging include pawing, drooling, nudging, barking, staring, and whining. It is believed that demanding food and the strong need for the owner’s presence may have common roots and thus similar behavioral signs (McGreevy and Masters, 2008).
Studies of the wild African dog found that whining is often heard during appeasement behavior (Estes and Goddard, 1967). Dogs use appeasement behaviors such as yawning, lip licking, tail tucking, and whining to signify that they are non-threatening in stressful or uncomfortable social situations. This helps dogs avoid conflict and aggression. Dogs may use appeasement behaviors around dominant dogs or humans that they feel intimidated by.
In extremely emotional greetings, dogs may exhibit whining (Svartberg and Forkman, 2002). These whines are often accompanied by jumping, tail wagging, and other behavioral signs of excitement.
- Separation Anxiety
Dogs that are upset about being separated from their owner may whine (Mariti et al., 2013). When dogs anticipate that their owner is getting ready to leave, they may whine and whimper. After the owner leaves, this may escalate to whining with barking or howling (Parthasarathy and Crowell-Davis, 2006). Multiple studies have found that it is common for these whines to be intermixed with other vocalizations such as barking or howling (Lund and Jørgensen, 1999; Palestrini et al., 2010). Dogs that are bred for high activity such as hounds, sporting and herding dogs may become more distressed during social isolation and are more likely to whine due to feelings of fear or anxiety (Teal et al., 1991).
Dogs that are experiencing pain from an injury or illness may emit whining vocalizations (Tranquilli et al. 2004). This could be a way to communicate their negative internal state or it may be an attempt to gain comfort from their human companions.
Are All Dog Whines Related To Fear?
It is not unusual for the root cause of whining behavior to be fear based; however, it is important to understand that not all whining is related to fear (Teal et al., 1991). As discussed previously, whining can be used to gain access to something a dog wants. This could be comfort from their mother, attention or food from their owner, or to be let outside. Additionally, whines can be due to feelings of immense excitement when being reunited with someone they care about. Dogs are quick to learn that their whines get a response from us, and they will repeat the behavior if it has benefited them in the past.
Should You Ignore A Whining Dog?
Sometimes ignoring a whining dog is the best way to get them to stop performing the behavior. Dogs that have learned that whining gets them table scraps for instance can quickly become a nuisance at mealtime. Ignoring this sort of behavior can help correct the unwanted behavior. However, if it is not clear that whining is being performed as a learned behavior, then it should not be ignored. Dog parents should try to figure out the underlying reason for the whining because it could be indicative of a dog that is experiencing anxiety, discomfort, or pain. In these cases, work should be done to correct the underlying social or environmental factors leading to the undesirable behavior.
How Can I Stop My Dog from Whining?
The context of when your dog whines will determine the best way to help prevent your dog from whining. Below is a list of contexts of when your dog may whine, and how to prevent it.
- Whining due to excitement
Not all whining needs to be corrected. If your dog is whining when they greet you due to excitement or happiness, then let them! While dog vocalizations can sometimes be unwanted, we cannot forget that they are an important route of communication for dogs in our care. If the whining is due to over excitement, such as during greetings, that is leading to other behavioral problems, then training can help correct the issue. By keeping greetings calm and subtle, you can keep your dog’s arousal level low. If their excitement is under control, they may be less likely to perform unwanted behaviors. Additionally, you can ask your dog to perform other behaviors to redirect their excitement towards less damaging behaviors. For example, asking a dog to sit during greetings can help prevent them from jumping on people.
- Whining to gain attention or food
If you want to stop whining that is occurring because your dog has learned that it will get them something, then the best way to stop it is by ignoring it. Dogs repeat behaviors that worked for them in the past. If whining no longer gets them table scraps, extra attention, or being let out of their kennel, then they will stop performing the behavior. It is important to ensure that the whining is due to this reason and not something that needs to be addressed such as fear or pain. It is also critical that you are consistent in not rewarding whining behavior that you are trying to stop to prevent further frustration from your dog.
- Whining due to fear or anxiety
If your dog’s whining occurs when you’re getting ready to leave the house, after you’ve left, or if you think they are doing it as a form of appeasement, then it is likely a result of feeling fearful, intimidated, or uncomfortable. Steps should be taken to make your dog more comfortable when left home alone. Appeasement behavior can be reduced by building up your dog’s confidence. Dogs that are well exercised, enriched, and confident are less likely to experience negative emotional states that lead to whining.
- Whining due to pain
If your dog seems to be whining due to pain, discomfort, or when touched, then it could be due to pain or illness. A veterinarian should be consulted to rule out anything that requires medical attention.
Whining is an important way for our dogs to communicate with us. By reading the context of a dog whines and other behavioral signs, we can increase our understanding of what our dog needs or how they are feeling. This knowledge can help prevent our dogs from suffering from pain, illness, or anxiety. Lastly, it can help us reduce or redirect the whining if it’s a learned behavior that is unwanted.
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