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How Your Dog's Whining Affects You

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog whining

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study suggests pet parents are very attuned to the crying and whining of dogs
  • Dog whines sound sadder to both dog and cat owners than to people without pets
  • Dogs typically whine for a reason, which can include pain/discomfort, stress/anxiety, frustration, excitement, and appeasement
  • Whining is often stress-related, so it’s important to remove stressors from your dog’s life and take steps to minimize anxiety using a variety of calming tools

According to a study published last year by Aarhus University researchers in Denmark, pet parents are very tuned in to the sounds that dogs make when they're looking for attention.1 According to the university's news release on the study, canine companions communicate distress to humans more effectively than cats, and in fact, "… adults rate dog whines as sounding just as sad as a human baby's cries."2

"Pet ownership is associated with greater sensitivity to pet distress sounds, and it may be part of the reason why we are willing to spend large amounts of time and resources on our domestic companions," says lead study author Christine Parsons, an associate professor based at the Interacting Minds Centre at the Department of Clinical medicine at Aarhus University.

"It might also explain why we find interacting with pets so rewarding, and are emotionally impacted by both positive communication signals, like purring and negative, like meows or whines."3

The study, titled "Pawsitively sad: pet-owners are more sensitive to negative emotion in animal distress vocalizations" was part of a project to build a major database of emotional sounds, the original intent of which was to test the instinctive responses parents have to their children.

Dogs Sound Sadder Than Cats to Both Dog and Cat Owners

For the study, researchers tested more than 500 young adults and found that dog whines sounded sadder to both dog and cat owners compared to people without pets. Cat meows sounded sadder only to cat owners.

"The result suggests that dogs, more effectively than cats, communicate distress to humans and that pet ownership is linked to greater emotional sensitivity to these sounds. For sounds that we need to respond to, like a dog that is utterly dependent on its human host for food and care, it makes sense that we find these sounds emotionally compelling," says Parsons.

Study co-author Katherine Young makes the point that generally speaking, dogs require more dedicated care than cats. For example, dogs need to be walked. In addition, whereas dogs are considered fully domesticated, cats are semi-domesticated and more independent (not to mention more mysterious). They more often prefer to do their own thing.

"This difference in animal dependence may explain why dog whines are rated as more negative than cat meows by all adults, including cat-owners. Dogs may simply have more effective distress signals than cats," says Young.

Dogs Rarely Whine for No Reason

It's important to keep in mind that when your dog communicates with you, she has a purpose in mind and it's your job to figure out what she's trying to tell you. Professional dog trainer Pat Miller, writing for Whole Dog Journal, lists several potential causes for whining, including pain or discomfort, stress or anxiety, frustration, excitement, and appeasement.4

Pain or discomfort whining — The when and where of your dog's whining is important in narrowing down its cause. For example, if she's normally happy in her crate at night but suddenly starts whining in the wee hours, and especially if she also starts soiling or throwing up in her crate, she very likely has a digestive or urinary tract problem that needs attention.

If your older dog whines instead of jumping up onto the couch or into the car as she always has, she may be dealing with arthritis or another condition that is limiting her mobility and causing her discomfort.

A good rule of thumb is that if your dog begins whining in normal, everyday situations and/or at unexpected times of the day or night, a visit to your veterinarian is in order to investigate whether a painful or uncomfortable underlying medical condition is in play.

Stress and anxiety whining — As Miller points out, "Anything that causes [your dog] to be fearful can contribute to … whining, and some breeds even seem to have a genetic predisposition to whining."

If your furry companion whines as you're preparing to leave the house, he may have separation anxiety, which is an increasingly common problem in dogs today. Miller offers the following suggestions for dealing with anxiety-related whining:

"To help him be less anxious so he will whine less, make a list of things that cause your dog fear or stress, and pick two or three to start counter-conditioning, that is, changing how he feels about those things, so they no longer cause him stress or fear.

When you can tick one stressor off your list, pick another to begin working on, until you have addressed enough of them that whining is no longer a problem.

Additionally, anxiety-induced and the other types of whining may improve with the application of the ever-growing list of various tools and protocols we have to help our dogs be calm." (More about those shortly.)

Frustration whining — Miller also calls this "demand whining" because in most cases, dogs become frustrated when their demands aren't being met. The best way to curb frustration whining is to observe when it occurs, and then head it off at the pass by either giving your dog what she's waiting for before she has a chance to whine for it, or by offering a distraction such as a food-dispensing toy before she starts whining.

Now, we're assuming here that what your dog is demanding is legit, such as her morning walk, her afternoon ball-chasing session, or some other fun activity she counts on each day. But if she's whining for your ice cream cone or a sip of your beer, it's a whole different ballgame.

In this case, your dog is frustration-whining because she wants something she shouldn't have. Since presumably she's been conditioned to want it, instead of giving it to her, you'll need to work to extinguish her expectation that she'll get it.

Excited whining — As Miller observes, "… some dogs whine just because they are so happy they can barely contain themselves." This type of whining tends to happen leading up to an adventure, which for your dog can include a car ride, an off-leash hike, or even just a walk around the block. As whining goes, the excited variety is probably something we should accept and even be grateful for!

Appeasement whining — This somewhat uncommon type of whining, according to Miller, generally occurs in social interactions between dogs. "In this case," she writes, "it is a healthy communication, and not one you want to interfere with."

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10 Tips to Help an Anxious Dog

No matter the reason for your dog's vocalizations, most canine companions can benefit from a reduced amount of stress in their lives.

  1. When you must leave your dog at home alone, leave him with an article of clothing or blanket with your scent on it. Also leave a treat-release toy for him to focus on in your absence. Place small treats around the house for him to discover, along with his favorite toys.
  2. Add a flower essence blend like Separation Anxiety from Jackson Galaxy's Solutions to her drinking water. This works wonders for some dogs. And put on some soothing doggy music before you leave. If you've adopted a dog who may have had a rocky start in life, I also highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which is designed to help rescue dogs and adoptive guardians learn to communicate effectively and form a lifelong bond.
  3. Invest in an Adaptil collar or diffuser for your dog. These products release a pheromone that's designed to have a calming effect on dogs.
  4. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise (like an all-out 40-minute run prior to being left alone all day), playtime, mental stimulation and TLC. The fuller her life is when you're around, the calmer she'll be when you're not.
  5. Play calm, soothing music before a possible stressor occurs. This may relax your dog and have the added bonus of drowning out distressing noises.
  6. If your dog seems to respond well to pressure applied to her body, there are wraps available (e.g., Thundershirt, TTouch anxiety wrap) that many pet parents and veterinarians find extremely helpful.
  7. Ttouch is a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets.
  8. Consult your integrative veterinarian about calming nutraceuticals, or look for pet herbal blends that include holy basil, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP and chamomile.
  9. The essential oil of lavender can also reduce your dog's stress response. I recommend placing a few drops on his collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible, or diffuse the oil around your house for an overall calming effect. There are also great oil blends specifically for calming animals.
  10. If your dog's anxiety seems to be getting worse instead of better, consider an individualized approach to managing her stress by allowing her to choose what best soothes her via applied zoopharmacognosy (self-healing techniques offered through a trained professional), blended with fear free behavior modification.