HOW TO SPEAK DOG! (Or at least how to understand dog....)
Canine sound communication, as with other land and air based species, is governed by some general rules regarding pitch, duration and frequency – these variables are all factors that help to distinguish the meaning of a sound.
Pitch; Pitch tells us about mood. A low pitched sound usually indicates anger, threat or aggression and generally a high pitched sound means the opposite – an invitation or a request for invitation, or it indicates need/want. These communications through sound can be manipulated by individual dogs to convey a message, for example a small dog that wishes to avoid aggression may growl as a means of sounding large and fierce in order to avoid a confrontation.
Duration; duration of a sound helps to determine the intensity. Shorter sound duration is associated with higher intensity such as need, fear and pain and is often a reflexive sound. A sound of longer duration indicates less urgency and is intended as a more conscious and purposeful message. For example a dog that growls in short bursts with periods of silence between is probably exhibiting some level of fear or uncertainty along with the threat and does not really want the situation to escalate. Whereas a dog that holds a sustained low pitch is offering a serious warning, he communicates that he is not worried and is fully prepared to follow through if the threat is ignored.
Frequency; the repetition rate of a sound is related to excitement. A high frequency repetitive sound pattern indicates high excitement and urgency whereas a more relaxed state of mind- or mild interest- is indicated by sounds that are less frequent and more spaced out.
Pitch, duration and frequency of sounds combine to create an extremely complex language with many subtleties. When these generalisations are further combined with the type of sound then understanding the dog’s vocalisations becomes easier.
As defined by Bruce Fogle there are five basic sounds that dogs make;
These are among the highest pitched sounds made by the dog. They show fear or submission. They are also made by the young to signify need and want - adult dogs sometimes mimic these infantile sounds in order to signify that they offer no threat, or as a learned human-reinforced behaviour. They can also suggest need and dependency. The more frequent and the louder the sound is, the more intense the feeling behind the communication. This group of sounds is unique in that the nature of the sound makes it difficult to locate but easily heard at a distance – in this way the puppies distress calls will not draw the attention of predators to the location of the litter - but as the sounds can be easily heard and distinguished from other sounds they will alert the mother immediately – she knows where she left her puppies so she doesn’t need any directional information relating to the distress calls. When intense these sounds usually rise in pitch towards the end of the sound and can be quite high frequency. This makes them similar to a baby’s hunger/pain cry and is almost impossible to ignore.
Warning sounds are generally of low pitch and, depending on the seriousness of the threat, sustained. Barking and Growling are not exclusively used as a warning though, both barking and growling can be used to elicit play. Barking is also often intended to summon the pack-much like a howl. This is where it is important to pay special attention to pitch, duration and frequency. The bark can serve as a warning, an alarm call, a challenge, an alert, an indication of loneliness, a greeting and a sound to accompany the discipline of others. It can also indicate surprise or playfulness. The growl is less ambiguous and is usually a threat, either genuine or bluffed. However, apart from being threatening, growling can be heard frequently during play - this type of growling is all for show though and sounds different; it is higher in pitch and ‘rumbly’, it is usually accompanied by friendly tail wags just to prevent any misunderstandings.
Whatever the dogs specific sound-one of my dogs tries to copy the Husky ‘woo’ and it comes out as a sort of growl/woo- the purpose of howling is the same. Although the reasons are various it is always an attempt to assemble the pack; either to reinforce pack identity, to celebrate, in response to a howl from another dog or pack, a declaration of place; ‘ I’m here!’, or as an expression of isolation. A lonely dog will howl in an attempt to call the absent pack members if locked away; ‘Hey, you’ve left me behind, where are you? I might need some help here.’ And a happy excited dog may howl to invite the pack to play; ‘come on! Come and chase me!’ So a howl is generally a call to other pack members in order to gather them together. Not in order to hunt as in the case of the wolf, but for back up, in order to celebrate, for companionship or play. The additional body language is relevant as is the context.
This type of sound indicates fear or pain. In extreme cases where panic is present the yelp becomes a ‘scream’. These sounds are often directed towards other pack members as a cry for help. This type of communication can be a mistake however when made in the presence of an unfamiliar dog as the sound can elicit a prey drive response in some dogs. This is most common in dogs that have had their grab-bite reflex reinforced through experience or genetic manipulation. An example of this is where a small dog yelps during excited play with a larger dog; this can cause the larger playmate to shift to a predatory state. This has been coined ‘predatory drift’ by Dr Ian Dunbar and accurately describes the slip or ‘drift’ of play into predation.
The ‘moan’ indicates pleasure and contentment, usually accompanied by half shut eyes and sometimes followed by a sigh. The moan can be heard during grooming and petting or when the dog is enjoying another activity-usually including touch.
Other vocalisations that are unintentional include panting and sighing. These sounds are not intended as a communication but can still be helpful in determining what the dog is thinking and feeling. Although panting is a basic physiological need utilised to control body temperature, it can be seen in an at rest dog due to stress – as in humans, a dog’s body temperature is raised during stressful situations. Sighs can indicate one of two things dependant on accompanying facial expressions; contentment or disappointment. Sighs usually follow the dog lying down. A content dog will sigh with closed eyes-perhaps after a large meal. A disappointed dog will be more alert with eyes wide open during the sigh.