The language of dogs: a ruff guide
If we could talk to the animals, what would they tell us? We may not all be Dr Doolittle, but studies are finding more and more about the language of dogs - from their body language and tail wagging, to the way they read scents and the noises they make.
While scent is by far a dog's main form of communication and, often times, a dog's body language will tell us the finer details, in the first of our pet communication articles we look at how dogs 'talk' to us through vocalisation.
Whether a bark, a whine or a whimper, dogs use a wide range of sounds to express their intentions and immediate desires. Among us humans, a bark is often thought to be an alarm call, while growling is usually interpreted as a warning yet both growling and barking can be used as an invitation to play so it is important for us as pet owners to understand 'Doglish':
Short sharp bark, high to mid pitch
"Hey! Hello there!"
This is a typical greeting when the dog sees someone or another dog that they know.
Short sharp bark, low to mid pitch
Often a single warning bark to show annoyance, for example if another dog gets too close for comfort. You may hear this from a dog if he is being pestered by a puppy or child.
Rapid repetitive bark, mid pitch
"Call the pack! Someone is in our territory!"
The basic warning bark - the dog is alert but not anxious and is merely informing his (human) pack of a stranger or unforeseen event.
Slow continuous bark, low pitch
"Danger is close, beware!"
This is a more worried form of the warning bark, where the dog senses an imminent threat.
Soft rumbling bark/growl, low pitch (eg. "grrr-ruff!")
"Back off! Go away!"
A warning to other dogs or humans that he is not happy to be so close and to move away. This bark is usually given by a confident dog who is not afraid to fight. It's also used to ask for help from the pack, so your dog may be alerting you to something that needs dealing with.
Soft bark/growl, higher pitch
"I'm frightened, but I will defend myself if I have to!"
Usually given by a less dominant dog than above, this is a worried threat but still a threat nonetheless. The dog may well back away but also may rise to aggression out of fear. Either way, it's best to move away if the bark is directed at you.
Repetitive single bark, long pauses or the 'Yap-Howl'
"Is there anyone there?"
This bark is usually heard from a lonely dog left on his own - he is asking for company. It can also be heard as a "yap-yap-hooooowl".
Single short yelp, high pitch
A yelp of pain or surprise made when a dog unexpectedly feels pain, is hurt or surprised, but where the pain immediately disappears. You may have heard this if you've accidentally stepped on your dog's tail!
Repeated short yelps, high pitch
"It hurts! It hurts! Make it better!"
A series of short, high-pitched yelps that indicate the dog is in serious and continuous pain. This dog is really hurting and needs immediate attention.
"I'm hurting. I'm frightened."
A sound made by adult dogs and puppies indicating pain, discomfort and/or fear. This sound is not as urgent as repeated yelps, but may still require attention or comforting.
Single deliberate bark, mid pitch
A learned bark, used as a call for attention such as to be let in/out.
Stutter bark, mid pitch (eg. "ar-ruff!")
"Play with me!"
Often given in a 'play bow' - a friendly, playful stance where the dog's front legs are down and his bottom is in the air. This bark is usually heard if your dog is waiting for you to throw a ball, play with a toy or as an invitation to another dog to play with them.
Rising bark, mid to high pitch
"This is fun! Yaaaaaay!"
An unmistakable series of barks, rising in volume and pitch that is used as a play bark, often during games of 'rough and tumble', and which shows excitement, happiness and enjoyment in play.
Short bark, high to mid pitch
"Come here! Look what I've found!"
Sounding similar to a yelp but repeated a few times, this is a bark your dog may make if he wants you to come to him and look at something interesting he's found.
Yowl/yodel (eg. "yowel-owel-wowel!")
"Come on, come one! Let's do this!"
An excited noise in anticipation of something fun and pleasurable. This dog sound can be as individual as the dog himself!
Whine, drops in pitch at the end
"Please give it to me!"
Often used in excited anticipation - for example, when waiting for a toy or food. The louder and more frequent the whine is, the stronger is the dog's desire for whatever it is he wants.
"Ah, that's nice! That's comfy!"
A simple sound given at the end of an action - usually to signal contentment and comfort, but also sometimes indicating a sense of resignation and given up on an effort.
"I'm ready! This is brilliant!"
Though not necessarily a sound (depending on how excited your dog is), this is a simple noise that indicates excitement or anticipation. However, it can also signal tense anticipation or stress where your dog is asking you "Is everything OK?"
The Bark, Dog Speak: The sounds of dogs
Cesar Milan, What your dog's bark is telling you
For Dummies, Interpreting your dog's barking
K9 Magazine, Why do dogs bark?
Labrador Training HQ, What do different dog barks mean?
Psychology Today - Canine Corner, What are dogs trying to say when they bark?
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