Canine vocalizations-what is your dog trying to "say"?

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

What is your dog trying to “say” with her vocalizations? Animal behaviorists usually group canine vocalizations into barks, growls, whines, whimpers or howls. My observations 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.

If "communication" means an exchange of information between sender and receiver or dog and human, in this case, how well are we able to decipher what our dogs are telling us? A study looking at how successfully humans were able to interpret dog barks found that we do a pretty good job. The study also found that there is no one sort of bark: " barks can communicate both types of basic emotions (aggressiveness versus submissiveness/ friendliness) because humans were able to associate bark sequences with certain acoustic parameters as being either aggressive or submissive." The researchers discuss that mammals will respond to qualities of vocalizations in all animals such as pitch, tone, and intensity as signifiers of emotional content along with the timing between barks, for dogs (or "inter-bark intervals"). Human listeners score low pitched bark sequences as highly aggressive and "high pitched and tonal barks were scored as non-aggressive, but as fearful and desperate." How closely barks are spaced from each other also adds to what they are conveying, the shorter the space in between a bark, the higher the listeners scored them on aggression while " long inter-bark intervals were considered non-aggressive, but as either fearful/desperate, or playful/happy. " (Continue Reading Below)

Dogs also have a lot more to say than their canine relatives. We know that adult 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" in response, before asking for quiet is only fair and gets better results.

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., Miklósi, 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.

Pongracz ,P. Molnar, C., Miklosi, A., (2006). Acoustic parameters of dog barks carry emotional information for human. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100, 228–240

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).

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