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Why Is My Dog Whining? Understanding the Causes and How to Respond

In this article, we'll explore different types of whines, the most common reasons for what they mean, and how to effectively respond to those, sometimes ear-piercing, expressions of various emotions. 

Why Is My Dog Whining? Understanding the Causes and How to Respond

In this article, we'll explore different types of whines, the most common reasons for what they mean, and how to effectively respond to those, sometimes ear-piercing, expressions of various emotions. 

By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Professional

Picture those big brown puppy eyes with unwavering eye contact, a soft whimper, and fluffy tail thumps. Is this pup anticipating a shared snack or indicating a need to take an extra potty break? A German Shepherd releases high-pitched squeals between pants while enjoying backyard time. Is she building up tension while waiting for a ball throw, or is she experiencing acute pain in one of her front limbs?  

Whining is a high-pitched vocalization that comes in multiple tones and cadences. What these vocalizations represent may vary from dog to dog. Whining can stem from pain, excitement, anticipation, frustration, anxiety, and even fear. Deciphering your dog's different whines is essential to the communication puzzle and gives you a leg up on canine communication.

In this article, we'll explore different types of whines, the most common reasons for what they mean, and how to effectively respond to those, sometimes ear-piercing, expressions of various emotions. 

Why Do Dogs Whine?

In simple terms, whining can be viewed as a communication or an expression. It is communication because the dog has a need or a want they are trying to meet. It is an expression in that it is a response driven by an emotion or physical sensation.

While communication typically has an end goal (such as getting you out of bed so they can go potty), expressions do not typically have a known outcome. For example, your dog may whine when feeling discomfort, but they do not know what will cause it to stop.

Whining as Communication

A whine or series of whines can be your dog's way of saying any of the following: 

  • I'm hungry, or I'm thirsty
  • I need attention
  • I need to go potty
  • Please stop making that noise
  • Please pet me
  • Please share some of that delicious-looking thing you're eating with me
  • It's past my regular mealtime or walk time - let's do it
  • I want to play with friends
  • I want out of my kennel
  • I want on the couch with you 
  • Please throw my ball
  • I need reassurance
  • Let's not fight

When high emotions are not involved, your dog's whines may be quieter and less continuous. They may display body language that shows excitement, such as a loose tail wag, a soft facial expression, tapping their front paws, or looking back and forth between you and the object or area they want access to. 

Dogs may also use whining to communicate with one another. Soft whining with a submissive posture can indicate "I mean no harm" or "Please engage with me." Puppies typically whine more than adults as they learn what types of communication work and what doesn't.

Whining as Expression

A dog can outwardly express their emotional or physical discomfort through whining. Expressive whines can manifest as exacerbated and repetitive whimpers or blend in and out of long cries or howling based on severity. Typically, the louder and longer the whining, the more distress the dog is experiencing.

Deciphering excessive whining can be more complicated than communication. Sometimes, there is an apparent direct correlation, such as whining that follows pressing on a sore tummy. However, a dog whining, panting, and drooling with no evident trigger may require more clues to deduce its expression of emotional discomfort.

To help solve the whining puzzle, we look to body language and situational behavior. Body language plays a significant role in discovering the context of whining. Clues we can use include the degree of tension in the body and face, the presence or absence of trembling, hypervigilance, biting objects or air-snapping, pacing, the position of the tail, and even the subtle lift of a front paw.

Whining from High-Arousal Anticipation and Frustration

If you've ever been around high-drive working dogs such as police or protection dogs, you may have heard a dog "leaking." Leaking is a form of intense whining while a dog is in a high-arousal state. This is similar to when a person lets out a scream on a rollercoaster — they are having fun. They are excited, and the body lets out (or leaks) a sound in response to that high level of excitement. 

Leaking can also occur in a high-arousal state when a dog gets agitated or frustrated. An example would be a dog with a really high prey drive losing patience to be released to chase a lure during a lure-coursing event. Leaking is sometimes accompanied by chattering, where the teeth clank together rapidly.

Whining from Emotional Distress and Anxiety

Severe emotional distress and anxiety can mimic the whining and frantic behaviors of frustration and high-arousal anticipation. While they may look the same, what is happening inside the brain and the dog's body are very different. 

When a dog is distressed, there are negative consequences to their brain and body — especially if this occurs long-term. A dog in distress does not act out of frustration or high-arousal anticipation but rather fear or anxiety. 

The degree of the whining and body language accompanying the vocals indicates how much negative stress the dog may be experiencing. When the driver is emotionally charged, the louder, more continuous, and repetitive the whining, the more distressed the dog is. 

Whining that stems from mild fears and situational anxiety, such as visiting a new vet's office, can produce softer, continuous, or repetitive vocalizations. If the trigger is not eliminated, these behaviors will continue to escalate.

Situational anxiety, such as separation anxiety, is often accompanied by panting and even drooling in between whine breaks until the dog is either exhausted, works themselves up into a panic state, or the cause for the anxiety is alleviated.

Whining from Physical Discomfort and Pain

Identifying signs of pain or discomfort in dogs can be challenging since many dogs are naturally prone to being stoic when it comes to pain. This old survival mechanism still surfaces in our canine companions and sometimes masks an underlying medical condition

When whining is a response to physical pain, look for additional signs such as panting when not overly exerted or hot, limping or favoring an area of the body, wincing when touched, growling or baring teeth at another animal or person getting close when they usually would not, a hunched posture, and inappetence.

These are all signs that your dog needs medical attention and may have a physical injury or illness. Often, the underlying cause of discomfort is worse than it appears outwardly, which is why it's so important to promptly get your pup to their veterinarian for evaluation and treatment. 

Discomfort From Anesthesia

Long, drawn-out whines and other whining patterns are typical in dogs that are waking up or have recently woken up from an anesthetic procedure such as surgery or dental cleaning. Anesthesia can lead to some disorientation, restlessness, and discomfort may be present from the procedure itself. 

The best thing you can do for your dog if they are whining after an anesthetic procedure is to make your dog feel as comfortable as possible. Talk with your veterinarian about pain or anti-inflammatory medications post-procedure if needed. Keep your veterinarian posted if whining doesn't resolve after the first day or your dog seems painful. 

How to Respond to a Whining Dog

If your dog is whining, you must identify the cause and do what you can to alleviate the source of their distress. If your dog is in physical pain, seek veterinary attention immediately. If they are emotionally distressed, remove your dog from the triggering environment and provide comfort or distractions.

Identify the Root Cause

With so many reasons for whining, discovering the root cause of the vocalization is critical to know you are taking appropriate action. Like any communication from our dogs, what we do with the information we receive can improve the situation. 

Remember to consider the full context of the situation when the whining occurs. What does the dog's body language tell you? How severe is the whining regarding volume, frequency, and tone? Could pain or discomfort be a contributor? 

All of these questions can help you decipher this type of doggie language so that you can best provide for the needs of your furry best friend. When in doubt, call your veterinarian or behavior professional to help you solve the why behind the whine. 

Address the Physical Discomfort

If you suspect physical discomfort may be the culprit, schedule a vet visit for a physical examination as soon as possible. The faster they can pinpoint the pain, the faster they can help provide comfort and relief. 

Keep your pup current on their annual physical exams so that brewing problems such as joint pain from inflammation that may not be outwardly obvious can be detected early before becoming painful.

If your dog is over seven, they are considered a senior and should receive a twice-yearly physical exam. Semi-annual exams for older dogs are due to how fast the aging process happens in dogs, meaning that age-related changes like arthritis or cognitive dysfunction can go from bad to worse without intervention before you realize it. 

Address Emotional Discomfort

When whining is from emotional distress — panicking, fearful, or highly anxious — the best thing you can do is get your pup out of the situation causing the distress. The goal is to provide comfort as quickly as possible. 

When your dog is experiencing negative stress where fear or anxiety may be present but not to a level of panic, comfort is still the goal in the short term. However, you should eventually revisit the situation that caused the fear or anxiety with a more tolerable approach. 

If your pup experiences emotional distress at home, create a comfortable environment where they can easily avoid the source of negative stress. 

Emotional distress related to being separated, whether from a specific person or dog or being isolated, is a more severe condition that requires more in-depth behavior modification to solve. For separation anxiety or a separation-related problem, enlist the help of a veterinary behaviorist or a behavior consultant for an individualized step-by-step treatment plan to help your pup feel independently comfortable.

Do Dogs Whine for Attention?

You bet they do! Our dogs love interactions with us and sometimes so much so that they will use techniques they learn work to spark our engagement with them. When in play mode, it doesn't take long for a dog to figure out that whining at us will garner a response. Asking them to hush or be quiet or even motioning to shoo them away so your co-worker can't hear their vocal drama is giving them attention.

For pet parents, this is a negative interaction, so why would dogs want that? When your dog's attention need isn't being met, it doesn't necessarily matter that the engagement they receive is less than desirable — they'll settle for whatever they can get.

How to Manage Attention-Seeking Behaviors

Here are some tips for managing attention-seeking behaviors your dog may exhibit:

  • Narrow down the area/s of need they may be lacking and fill that bucket as part of their daily routine, such as one-on-one time, physical activity, brain stimulation, enrichment, or adequate sleep. 
  • Reinforce alternative behaviors that get your attention, such as offering affection when they place their head on your lap before any whining begins.
  • Ignore the whining by not responding verbally and redirect attention-seeking behavior at the moment with an independent, fun activity such as a frozen Kong or snuffle mat.
  • Establish a consistent routine that encompasses your dog's basic daily needs so that they can predict when it is time to engage with you and when it is not. Be consistent with your boundaries around your schedule so your pup learns to follow those daily guidelines. 
  • Make independent play with a favorite toy and mental stimulation a part of their daily routine. This can help your pup be less dependent on you for constant entertainment as long as their needs are generally met. 
  • Use reward-based dog training with your dog to help promote mental well-being and comfort in the relationship.  
  • Combat boredom with enrichment, such as giving them a long-lasting Native Pet Yak Chew when you need to avoid interruption. 

How Not to Respond to Dog Whining

No matter the reason for the whining, what does not work is scolding or punishing your dog for this behavior. If your dog is whining from discomfort and you punish them, they will be even more uncomfortable. They may even begin to suppress behaviors for fear of punishment. This can lead to trust issues and exacerbate the problem. You cannot fix fear with fear. 

If whining is an attention-seeking behavior, scolding or punishing a dog can increase the likelihood of even more frustrating behavior problems, such as mouthing and jumping. Avoid "rewarding" your dog with attention when they display these behaviors to discourage repetition.

How to Interpret Your Dog's Whines

Whining is a form of communication that can be frustrating for dog owners. Repetitive high-pitched sounds can hurt human ears, and whines that blend into cries can cause great concern for the well-being of our beloved four-legged friends. The good news about these specific vocalizations is that they are another piece of the communication puzzle that can bring us closer to our pups when we are willing to crack the whining code. 

Remember that dogs whine for various reasons, many of which can be tied to emotional or physical discomfort. You can help your dog overcome the root cause of their discomforts with patience and empathy. When you are unsure what the specific cause may be or how to help your dog, remember you have a team of professionals ready and willing to assist, such as your veterinarian, dog trainers, veterinary behaviorists, and dog behavior professionals. 

As a responsible pet parent, recognizing our doggie dependents' needs and fulfilling them is a surefire way to a happier and healthier relationship. By tending to a pup whining productively, you can stave off health issues related to pain, discomfort, or chronic anxiety. As a bonus, you can have a well-mannered pup that knows what you like to get what they like in return; a total whine win.

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