A small white dog is barking. What is the meaning of the sound she's making?

Dogs are members of the canidae family, which also includes wolves, coyotes, foxes, jackals and hyenas. Just as their wild counterparts, dogs communicate with other animals and with us through the sounds they make. 

Most dogs have a variety of vocalizations that are associated with what they want and how they are feeling – from happy to fearful, content or excited, annoyed or agitated.

The meaning of a dog’s sounds are varied and sometimes curious. The team at Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center is here to decipher some of these barks, growls, mumbles, and yips into a discernible dictionary for us humans.

Dogs Make An Assortment of Sounds

Far from the standard “ruff, ruff”, dogs sound off in a variety of ways. Each of these sounds correspond to something your dog is communicating. Let’s explore some of these familiar canine calls.

  1. Barking – A dog may bark as a warning, an invitation, a call of distress, or just because it’s happy. There are many reasons for the bark, but it always means your dog is communicating something. If your dog is distressed or fearful, it may sound off in a repetitive high-pitched tone. Your usual “gruff” and “ruff” sounds generally coincide with happiness or playtime.

    A low-toned bark that sounds like rumbles or growls means that whatever is bothering your dog should back off. A growl can precede a bite and should be taken seriously. If your dog wants something (such as a treat), the bark is sharp and repetitive. Alert barking, as when your dog sees something of concern in the distance, has a high-pitched staccato rhythm. 

    Ironically, wild canids rarely bark, but do whine, howl, rumble and growl. A bark by a wild canid is solely a ‘danger alert’ behavior and a call for backup.
  1. Howls – When your dog howls, is it channeling its inner wolf? Probably not. Howling doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is seeking to join other canids. Many dogs howl at passing sirens, other alarm sounds, bells, and even at us when we howl for fun. In some cases, howling is a form of locating others, including you. It may also be a call for attention when a dog feels ignored, stressed or anxious. 

  2. Whining – Whining is often anxiety based, as in anticipation or worry. It is commonly used as a form of begging to get food, table scraps, or treats. Whining can also be a sign of pain or distress, so follow up with our veterinarian if this is a new or especially pronounced behavior. 
  1. Snorts and low mumbles – Whether it’s to get your attention, be allowed on the bed or given dinner, dog snorts, mumbles, or grumbles can mean that your dog wants you to do something. Some dogs have a very expressive number of muffled sounds when they want something from us. These sounds can also be an expression of excitement, as when greeting someone or when the leash comes out and the dog knows it’s going on a walk. 

  2. Growling – Growling is mostly seen in dogs when they are fearful, behaving aggressively, or if something in their environment is perceived as a threat.  If your dog displays aggression, these sounds should be your cue to get your dog away from the situation, strangers, or other pets. Ongoing growling should be addressed with our veterinarian or our Pet Behavior Specialist during a behavior consult.

Occasionally, growling can be a sign of playfulness, especially if your pet is doing something fun or roughhousing with other friendly dogs. Puppies will often play-growl at their peers out of excitement or to get them to play. 

Although a growl is a warning, it is a normal part of dog to dog behavior. Older dogs will often growl at puppies to tell them to behave.

Pitch, Tone, and Duration

The pitch (high, medium or low), frequency (rapid barking vs slow), and duration (time spent barking) all play an important role in what a dog is expressing. 

The more you listen to your dog’s bark and observe your dog’s behavior while barking, the better equipped you will be to understand your dog. It will also help you be more sensitive to what it needs and wants in its relationship with you.  

Seek The Meaning 

Dog sounds are interesting, indeed, and more involved than one may think. They signal what a dog is feeling and thinking, and offer a fascinating domain to explore with our canine companions! Seeking to better understand what our dogs are communicating enriches the special relationship we share with them!

If you would like more information on how to decode your dog’s bark, or to schedule an exam or behavioral consult for your dog, please call us. We are here to help your dog have a great life with you!