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Why Your Dog's Whining Is Like a Dagger to the Heart

Research shows a whimpering dog sounds as sad as a crying baby to pet parents. Here's why.

by Claudia Kawczynska
June 10, 2021
A cute dog sitting on a couch
Photo: Marija Anicic / Stocksy

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Our dog Lola has recently entered a new phase of her life. At the golden age of 14, she is definitely a senior dog, and she seems to have a spot of dementia that's making her noisier than usual. Ever since we adopted her back when she was a spunky 10-month-old, she’s been mostly a silent companion, not given to barking or whining much.

But now she's definitely found her voice, expressing it the loudest in the backseat of the car when she is being taken (along with her other two canine housemates) to the park. She likes to rest her head up near the back of the driver’s head and loudly whimper straight into our ear. Also, in the early afternoons, she’ll whine again to tell us that she simply can’t wait until her evening dinner and must be fed right away.

Her loud barking and whimpering seem to bounce off the walls and straight into my heart. Seeing that she is a very old dog, we give into her. And yes, I know that in “rewarding” her for crying, we might be “spoiling” her, but honestly, asking for human's attention at her age is something we are and should be grateful for.

Lola’s whimpering reminds me of a research paper I came across recently about why a dog’s whimpering is the sound that’s particularly evocative and sad to both cat and dog parents. In short, researchers found that a whimpering dog sounds as sad as a crying baby to us animal lovers. According to lead investigator Christine Powers, “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. 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 ones, like meows or whines.”

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The research was undertaken to collect a major database of emotional sounds — originally developed to test the instinctive responses that parents have to their children. More than 500 young adults were tested, and researchers found that dog whines sounded 'more negative' to pet parents compared to people with no pets, whereas cat meows sounded sadder only to cat owners.

Another interesting finding was that dog whines sounded saddest of all — sadder than cat meows. Katherine Young, a collaborator on the study, hypothesized that because dogs are more dependent on their human than cats, “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.”

Either way, I can attest to the effectiveness of my old girl’s whining. I will do anything to appease her. After all, Lola has been a loving and quiet companion for nearly 14 years, and if now it is her time to “ask” for more, she well deserves it. Or as this research shows, it's just the natural order of how our human-dog relationship goes.

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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.