what is your dog
trying to "say"?
Expanding our definitions of canine vocalizations (c) 2011-2018
Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
What is your dog trying to “say” with her vocalizations? Animal behaviorists typically
limit canine vocalizations to barks, growls, whines, whimpers or howls. My
observational work with these signals show that dogs employ them to communicate a
request (or solicitation) an alert, a demand or an alarm or some sort of declaration.
What signal is used depends on the context of the situation, for example, a whimper or
whine is often used to express an intense desire for closeness or something significant
while a bark, growl or howl is often used for attention, alert, alarm or emphasis.
And they have a lot more to say than their canine relatives. We know that wolves
typically confine vocalizations such as barks to specific aggressive situations. Our
domestication of dogs has selected for barking in a wide range of scenarios from positive
to playful to dangerous. We've asked them to do it a way, valuing dogs for their
guarding and alerting abilities and interacting vocally with them. Which is one of the
reasons that acknowledging a bark with a “thank you" or "I heard it" initially, before
asking for quiet is only fair.
There can be little doubt that dogs are well aware exactly what they are "saying" with
whatever vocalization they use with each other. To get a better understanding of this,
scientists tested the responses of dogs approaching an attractive bone set next to a
covered dog cage containing speakers which would play one of three separate growls, a
play growl, a food guarding growl and a growl expressed in the presence of a stranger.
They found the quickest reaction from the dogs was in response to the food guarding
growl as opposed to the stranger growl.
For how well humans understand similar dog growls in threatening and playful
contexts, a separate study tested human reactions. The study also looked at whether or
not being a dog owner and a woman improved the chances of being correct. Humans
were able to identify the play growls 81% of the time. The threatening contexts were
more difficult for us. Food guarding was classified 60% of the time and threatening
stranger 50% of the time. Dog owners and women did better at the test than non dog
owners and men.
Play vocalizations or affiliative vocalizations that dogs use with us and each other are
easily misinterpreted by humans if we continue to label them as “growls” or “barks”
for instance, with all the aggressive connotations of the words. Remembering that
barking and growling are also used in play or to alert us to notice something is helpful
to respond and notice what our dogs are asking of us. Qualifying the vocalization in
context is helpful—“play growl” for that growl in play or “talky growl” for that friendly
growling your dog may do in a social context around you.
Of even greater value would be expanding the terminology to be more accurate. I
propose “dog talk” to define that low affable growl used socially. Behaviorists
acknowledge that breathing during play is different, labeling "panting in short bursts"
as "huffing." But why not acknowledge those sounds as being salient and
communicative as well? “Dog laugh” has already been coined and documented. Dr.
Patricia Simonet defined a “dog laugh” as a “breathy forced exhalation” that a dog
offers before and during play. Dr. Simonet’s work included using recordings of dog
laughs to soothe dogs in shelter environments, which worked no doubt because the dogs
understood the significance of the sound.
Looking at a larger vocabulary for our canine companions allows them a greater voice
in our lives.
Faragó, T., Pongrácz, P., Range, F., Virány, Z., Miklósia, A. (2010). "The bone is mine": affective and
referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour, 79(4) 917-925
Faragó, T., Takács, N., Miklósi, Á., & Pongrácz, P. (2017). Dog growls express various contextual and
affective content for human listeners. Royal Society Open Science, 4(5), 170134. http://doi.org/10.
Simonet, P., Versteeg, D., & Storie, D. (2005). Dog-laughter: Recorded playback reduces stress related
behavior in shelter dogs. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Environmental
Enrichment (Vol. 2005).
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"Play vocalizations or affiliative
vocalizations that dogs use with us
and each other are easily
misinterpreted by humans.
Especially, if we continue to label
them as “growls” or “barks” for
instance, with all the aggressive
connotations of the words."
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