Dog Whimpering: Why a Dog’s Whimper Affects Us
To pet parents, a whimpering dog sounds as sad as a crying baby. Here’s why.
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Dog whimpering can have a handful of meanings, but it basically chalks up to one purpose: communication. Dogs whimper to communicate with each other and with humans. “A large majority of canine communication is through manipulation of the body,” says Renee Rhoades, an applied animal behaviorist and founder of R+Dogs, a virtual canine behavior practice. Sometimes vocalizations, like whimpering, serve as a more direct and urgent way for dogs to convey their needs.
The sound of a dog whimpering is both attention-grabbing and heart-wrenching, and that’s exactly the point. In short, researchers found that a whimpering dog sounds as sad as a crying baby to some pup parents, even suggesting that dogs have evolved effective distress signals due to their dependence on humans.
If your dog is whimpering for attention, they’re counting on you to hone in on their body language and other cues to figure out why. If you’ve considered all the reasons why your dog is whimpering and are still unsure of the cause, err on the side of caution and take your dog to the vet. They’ll rule out any medical problems.
Why are pet owners affected by a dog’s whimpering?
Humans and dogs share a similar emotional reaction to high-pitched sounds, and it isn't just a coincidence. Higher-frequency noises in humans and non-human species often indicate danger, so we’ve developed an innate reaction to respond as a protective mechanism.
What’s more is that research has shown that pet parents, in particular, are more attuned to distress sounds from their furry friends. A study involving over 500 young adults found that dog whines evoke a stronger negative response from pet parents compared to those without pets. We could assume this heightened sensitivity deepens the emotional connection between humans and their pets.
However, Rhoades points out that we can also become conditioned to associate whining or whimpering with negative behaviors. This can lead us to feel annoyed rather than empathetic when a dog whines or whimpers. “Please do not discount your dog's whimpering and whining as negative or ‘bad’ behavior and disregard it or try to punish it,” she counters.
Are humans more receptive to dog whines than cat meows?
That same study involving more than 500 young adults found that cat parents had a less significant response to cat meows than dog parents had to dog whining. Katherine Young, a collaborator on the study, suggests that dogs may have more effective distress signals due to their greater dependence on humans. After all, she considers cats to be semi-domesticated, requiring less general care than dogs.
“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,” she told Neuroscience News.
Why Is My Dog Whimpering?
Dogs whimper to get attention, and they’re very good at it. But Rhoades warns that we shouldn’t shrug off our dogs’ whimpering. Instead, she says to practice patience and compassion, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs have important stuff to say.
They need to use the bathroom.
Other signs that your dog needs to use the bathroom include pacing and door monitoring. Remember that while every dog's schedule can vary, a good rule of thumb is to let your dog out at least every six hours. Puppies need potty breaks every one to three hours, depending on their age.
They’re seeking affection or play.
If your dog is extra vocal, it may be a sign they simply want more of your time. “In situations like this, I run through the list of options somewhat like a baby,” Rhoades says. “I think about what my dog has done during that day and if I have been able to meet all of their needs.”
They’re asking for food or to have another treat.
If you’re sticking to a regular feeding schedule—most vets recommend it—you shouldn’t need to feed your dog between meals. On top of the risk of weight gain, rewarding whimpering with food could encourage your pup to do it more often.
Fear, anxiety, or stress
"Loud noises, new atmospheres, and car rides are common stressors in dogs," says Dr. Tara Hansen, DVM, a veterinarian at Chewy. Some dogs may hide, pant, or refuse food when stressed, anxious, or scared. Others become more vocal, such as whimpering or barking, restless, or agitated.
Frustration or confusion
Dogs often whine when they are frustrated or confused. This can happen when they’re restrained, such as by a leash or fence, or when they are unsure about a situation or the intentions of another animal or person.
Dogs whine when they are happy or excited, and you can usually tell by context and their body language. For instance, if your dog runs to you, is willing to put on their harness, and then runs to the door whining, they’re excited, Rhoades says.
Pain or discomfort
If you notice your dog whining, especially if there are other changes in behaviors such as restlessness, pacing, or licking a particular area, take them to the vet to rule out any medical problems.
A health condition
Unfortunately, your dog may be whimpering due to a health problem. If your dog is whining excessively, it’s important to rule out any medical problems with your veterinarian. Once you have done this, you can seek professional help from a trainer to address any behavioral issues that may be contributing to the whining.
“Any qualified ethical dog professional will encourage you to have your dog physically examined before doing any behavior work, as this is the golden standard,” Rhoades says.
Is it common for dogs to whimper?
It’s common for dogs to whimper when they are excited, hungry, frightened, confused, in pain, or uncomfortable. It’s important to never ignore your dog's whimpering, as it may be a sign of a problem or an unfulfilled need.
How do you calm a whimpering dog?
According to Rhoades, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to calming a whimpering dog. The best way to reduce whining is to ensure that you are meeting your dog's needs, providing a routine, and using positive reinforcement training. Hansen offers the following solutions for specific situations:
Attention-seeking whining: Wait until your dog is calm before engaging with them, responding to attention-seeking whimpers only reinforces the behavior. If all other needs seem to be met, try to find an enrichment activity to keep your dog occupied, such as puzzles, interactive games, exercise, or sniff walks.
Stress-related whining: Try to identify and modify or remove the stressor while comforting your dog. For example, if your dog whines when you leave for work in the morning, try leaving them with a Kong filled with peanut butter or other treats to keep them occupied. If your dog has persistent stress or anxious behaviors, especially if they seem generalized, they may need to be addressed by a veterinarian or behaviorist. The same is true for pups who repeatedly whine, cry, or show other signs of distress when kenneled.
Excitement-related whining: Some vocalizing is normal dog behavior and doesn’t need discouraging or remedied, and whimpering out of excitement is one example. However, if the excitement is undesirable, speak to your dog calmly and try to redirect their attention to something else using positive reinforcement techniques.
Pain-related whining: “Make a vet appointment right away. Dogs tend to be stoic and quiet when they are uncomfortable, so vocalization due to pain is a sign that veterinary attention is needed promptly,” Hansen says.
If your dog keeps whimpering for no reason (Rhoades and Hansen say there is always a reason!), first, see your veterinarian, then consider working with a certified dog trainer.
FAQs (People also asked):
Is it bad if my dog is whimpering?
Whimpering is a natural form of canine communication, so it’s not inherently bad. “Do not discount your dog's whimpering and whining as negative or “bad” behavior and disregard it or try to punish it,” Rhoades says. However, if your dog is whimpering excessively, it is important to assess the situation and determine whether the behavior is normal or requires professional intervention.
When should I go to the vet if my dog is whimpering
If you can’t figure out why your dog is whimpering, take them to the vet. In fact, Rhoades says, behaviorists will typically recommend a veterinary checkup before working with a dog that is whimpering excessively. “If you see signs of illness like lack of appetite, lethargy, limping, or intense licking at an area, discomfort might be a logical explanation,” Hansen says, and your dog should see their vet.
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Janelle Leeson is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer. Her work has been featured in magazines such as Inside Your Dog’s Mind, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, and Paw Print, as well online at Insider Reviews, NBC Select, Shop Today, PetMD, and Daily Paws. She has two adventure cats, a flock of urban chickens, and a soon-to-be-husband who doesn’t mind housing the occasional foster cat — or five.