Do you understand what your dog’s barking means? Is Buster determined to annoy the neighbors or is he angry about something? Should you assume that her growling indicates that Lady’s about to tear an arm off your mailman? Do all dogs start howling the minute they hear a siren or see a full moon?

In fact, dogs use vocalizations such as barking, growling and howling to express themselves. Other vocalizations include whining, yelping and even sharp cries.

Dog Barking

As you get to know your dog, you become good at interpreting the meaning of his barking. For instance, the bark that signals the approach of a stranger differs from the bark that requests playtime.

You can usually trust that your dog’s bark is a signal that he’s trying to alert you to potential danger. For instance, if there’s a knock at the door and your dog is outside barking in an array of snarls and growls, you can be sure that it’s not your mother-in-law popping round for an impromptu visit . . . unless you’ve trained him that way, of course.

Incessant barking in the back yard in the middle of the night is unacceptable. Neighbors are likely to complain and the police may show up at your door. Some dogs bark continuously simply because they’re bored. If you can’t find a solution to this problem, you should plan to keep him indoors and out of trouble.


Howling is as instinctive as barking for most dogs. Wolves and coyotes, your dog’s ancestors, howl to communicate with the pack. This type of communication is necessary for their survival. Unfortunately, many domestic dogs retain the instinct to howl.

Dogs typically howl in response to a trigger such as a siren or another dog’s howling. The secret is to notice your dog’s triggers and check him when they occur. If he starts, stop him, then praise him. If he ignores them altogether, praise him all the more.

If you’re not at home to stop him and he’s prone to the odd singsong, you may have to live with the fact that your neighbors are going to hate you.


Most people assume that growling is a sign of aggression in a dog. This isn’t always the case, but should always get your attention.

Most dogs have an entire repertoire of throaty vocalizations that cover their many moods: happiness, sadness, anxiety, fear, pain or protest. The idea is to understand the message your dog is trying to convey and respond accordingly. For example, if the two of you are involved in a tug-of-war game over a desired toy and your dog growls in mock ferocity, as long as it is just a game, he’s unlikely to suddenly start gnashing through your right arm.

On the other hand, if your dog growls at the presence of another dog, give him a quick tap on the snout and a sharp word that confirms your authority. Of course, if he growls before lunging forward and devouring the approaching dog, you may have to adjust your processing of the signs he’s giving you.

Sometimes submissive pets growl when approached. This requires some confidence training from you to show them what does and does not deserve this behavior.

Yelping and Other Vocalizations

Your dog may utter a quick yelp if you step on his tail or a bee bites his nose. Typically, yelping is a pain reaction. Continued yelping may indicate that your dog is in pain. Call your veterinarian immediately.

Some dogs whine more than others. This is a holdover from puppyhood. When puppies fear that they’ve been separated from their mothers, they use the whine as a vocal signal so they can be reunited with the family.

Habitual whining may be an indication that your dog has trained you to respond to his wishes: “I’d like to get out of this crate now,” or “Please feed me.” Any positive response is likely to reinforce the whining.

To extinguish excessive whining, command your dog to stop whining and praise him when he does. Respond to his request to go out or play only when the whining stops.

Depending on their breed, some dogs tend to cry, whimper or vocalize in a variety of ways. I once had a Labrador Retriever who held entire conversations in a sort of throaty moan whenever she got special attention. This was clearly an expression of joy that could be a prelude to happy barking. She also developed an insistent whine accompanied by urgent pawing when our other dog was having a seizure.

If you observe your dog’s behavior carefully, you’ll eventually be able to correctly interpret her vocalizations and the urgency of her requests.