Why do dogs use their voices, how they use their voices, and tips to reduce excessive vocalisations
WHY DO DOGS VOCALISE?
VOCALISING TO COMMUNICATE WITH MEMBERS OF THEIR SOCIAL GROUP
Dogs evolved to use their voices in a myriad of ways, their vocal repertoire is vast and complex. In combination with their vocal skills, they are highly attuned to deciphering the vocalisations of their species, with 39% of the area responsible for deciphering sounds in their brains dedicated to understanding the vocalisations of their canine kin. A further 48% is dedicated to non-canine/human sounds in their environments, with the remaining 13% dedicated to understanding human vocalisations.
The range of vocalisations dogs can produce is likely due to their selective evolution, a result of our picking-and-choosing which dogs will pass on their genes in order to improve their usefulness to us. This is exemplified by the lack of vocal variation in wolves and foxes, further supported by how quickly foxes will develop more complex vocalisations if we breed them for tameness.
However, with increasing urbanisation and a changing attitude towards dogs as vocal animals, the acceptance of dogs using their voices has decreased.
Like most behaviour, there is MOTIVATION underlying it – this is key to our understanding, and therefore approach, of minimisation of excessive vocalisation. In order to support harmonious living and relationships between dogs and the wider community, as well as improve our dogs’ mental health, it is important that guardians of dogs learn how to teach our canine companions to reduce such excessive behaviour.
Many dogs use vocalisations to communicate with others, following a cause-and-effect pattern. First, we will quickly look at the scientific process before discussing an example that will put it into context of our companions at home.
Studies on the visual Canine Communication Cycle have revealed the following pattern, which we can likely generalise within reason to vocalisations:
- The sender (dog) will produce a signal (vocalisation);
- Simultaneously, they will be attempting to detect whether the receiver (other dog or human counterpart) is available to accept the signal – this is called attention detection.
- If the receiver is available to accept the signal, the dog is encouraged to send even more signals (in this instance, more vocalisations).
- The dog decides whether or not the receiver has accepted the signal, signifying either a successful or failed transmission of their signal.
- A successful transmission of their signal produces activity in the receiver.
That’s a bit confusing for most of us, so let’s put that process into an example. While this model can explain whimpering, growling, whining, and more-worrisome barking vocalisations, we are going to focus on a common scenario many of us experience during the puppyhood phase of our dogs’ development:
- Ralph barks at his dad because he wants to play a game of tug;
- Ralph watches his dad while he barks, seeing if he will look towards him to acknowledge his barking;
- Ralph's dad looks at him, signalling to Ralph that he is able to give Ralph attention for his barking, encouraging Ralph to bark even more;
- Ralph's dad focuses on Ralph, seemingly willing to engage with him – Ralph decides that his barking was successful in getting his dad's attention;
- Ralph's dad picks up his tug toy and commences a game OR Ralph's dad leaves the room. In both instances, Ralph's barking produced a behaviour in his dad, showing him that his barking can change his environment and the behaviour of a member of his social group.
Ralph is not naughty for barking at his dad – he is simply trying to figure out what works, and what doesn’t. That means Ralph's dad needs to set Ralph up for success by pre-empting phase one of the communication cycle! If Ralph's dad wishes for Ralph not bark at him to initiate an interaction, he will have to teach Ralph what he should do to get his dad's attention, such as sit by his feet facing his dad for instance. Perhaps Ralph’s dad is happy for him to bark once, then Ralph’s dad can signal to him through clear cues whether or not he wants to play a game. He will also need to teach Ralph that he is not always available to give him attention and set realistic expectations that he is not available when he is busy with another activity, such as reading a book or working at his desk.
WHY DO SOME DOGS VOCALISE MORE THAN OTHERS?
Young dogs often vocalise more than older dogs, with many young puppies exploring their voices to the dismay of their guardians. They are determining how to use their vocalisations to influence their environment; whether it’s initiating a game of tug or gaining other kinds of attention, learning how to engage and manipulate their environment is a crucial part of learning. Young puppies will often initiate ‘barking games’ with their peers, older dogs, and their human counterparts. If a dog has been consistently rewarded with attention or other wanted things throughout their life for vocalising, they are more likely to vocalise frequently. Our job as carers is to teach our dogs when it is appropriate to use their voices, and when it is undesirable.
Breed can also affect the rate, and kind, of vocalisations dogs exhibit. Dogs bred for herding are often selected for their prowess at using their voices to control other animals; dogs bred for human companionship may vocalise more for human attention, being more prone to sensitivities regarding separation; highly intelligent dogs may be more likely to become bored when deprived of adequate enrichment; dogs bred to have erect ears usually have superior hearing to floppy-eared dogs, increasing their sensitivities to noises in their environments; and the list goes on. In each instance, it is important for us to recognise the cause of excessive vocalisations and what motivates them.
Common reasons dogs vocalise in the home environment are to communicate with other members of their social group. Let's have a look at different reasons with their different purposes and different emotional states:
Dogs often bark or whine when they are encountering a frustrating situation. Barking while pulling on the leash, in the car, or at a cat out the window can all be signs that your dog is frustrated because they don’t have access to what they want. They are facing a seemingly unsolvable problem. For example, being on a leash often means that our dogs can’t move freely to explore as they wish; being in the car often exposes our dogs to lots of stimulating things going past that they can’t get to, such as a park or other dogs walking; being able to see out the window at home exposes our dogs to exciting things that they can’t access. Importantly, dogs can also vocalise from frustration when their general needs aren’t being met.
Over-arousal (too many things)
Over-arousal occurs when your dog has been bombarded with too many triggers or activities, including excessive physical or mental exercise, or too many new things. Over-arousal can cause numerous undesirable behaviours, from excessive vocalisations to serious bites. Continuous exposure to a state of over-arousal can cause long term issues in canine mental health, including an inability to rest properly, affecting overall health. Canine day-cares are often sites of over-arousal.
Under-arousal is easiest referred to as ‘boredom’, where your dog’s needs aren’t being met. Unless your dog has learned that nothing they can possibly do will relieve this stress (an incredibly unfortunate state called ‘learned helplessness’), they will try to fulfil their own needs or request their fulfilment by engaging in escalating behaviours, from excessive vocalisations, to physical demands, to desperate escapes.
Pain in the simplest terms is discomfort ranging from mild to severe due to illness or injury. Pain should always be addressed as soon as it is identified.
Fear is a direct result from something in the environment. This fear may be completely justified, such as fear of something that can cause one harm (including loud sounds hurting the ears, a physical or emotional threat etc.) or something simply not understood. Most animals, including humans, are to some degree or another ‘neophobic’ – this means fear (phobic) of new things (neo). While fear-inducing triggers from justifiably dangerous things should always be avoided, teaching your puppy to trust you using positive reinforcement at their pace and providing a ‘safe haven’ from perceived possible threats will increase their confidence, reducing the likelihood of excessive neophobia.
When we talk about anxiety, we are talking about an unsettled or fearful state that isn’t triggered by anything in the current environment. Anxiety can be the product of exposure to lots of scary things over time, causing your dog to be in a perpetual state of unease. Anxiety can also be triggered by something that causes fear, but your dog is unable to resume calmness after an appropriate amount of time similar to the way other animals can. Anxiety can often be treated by a fear-free trainer, but sometimes requires the assistance from your vet/veterinary behaviourist.
Dogs use very clear signals and vocalisations to indicate the initiation of an aggressive sequence, unless they have been punished for displaying warning signals in the past (never punish the growl!). Aggressive displays can be triggered for reasons specific to the individual, and are often the result of the ‘fight’ mechanism in the fight-or-flight response. Aggressive displays are often linked to fear, anxiety, or underlying health issues. Aggressive vocalisations generally mean ‘get away or I will hurt you!’.
WHAT DO DIFFERENT KINDS OF VOCALISATIONS MEAN?
Dogs communicate vocally using whining, whimpering, growling, and barking. Not only are there different kinds of vocalisations our dogs can make, but the pitch, volume, and rate of their vocalisations can also tell us a lot about their emotional state and intentions. In general, low pitches of vocalisations signify the receiver (listener) to withdraw, while high-pitched vocalisations invite the listener to approach. When a dog is barking quickly, it is more likely to be an unwelcoming signal compared to when they are barking at slower rates.
Understanding the different kinds of vocalisations and their variations will provide you with insight as to the underlying causes of your dog’s vocalisations. You can use this understanding to accurately document the sequence of events occurring during undesirable vocalizations using the ABC method discussed later in this article.
A high pitched, loud and consistent vocalisation of long duration, with a short break between each successive vocalisation. Whining often signifies dismay at separation and loneliness, anxiety, and/or frustration due to being unable to gain access to something desirable.
Short, quiet, high-pitched successive vocalisations, often signifying fear, anxiety, pain, or a general feeling of being unwell.
A low-pitched rumble, often increasing in volume and mostly used for close-quarters communication.
- On-and-off growling of alternating pitch which is absent of any aggression signals during play with other dogs or their human counterpart.
- Low persistent growling in relation to a resource or need to gain space, presenting with other signals present on the canine aggression ladder (e.g. lip licking, teeth-barking, wide eyes, being stiff etc.).
A clear, loud vocalisation used for both short and long distance communication
- High pitched barking with gaps in between without teeth baring can signify the intention of initiating an interaction, whether that be play or other kinds of attention. Herding dogs often exhibit this kind of consistent barking in order to manipulate the behaviour of the animal it is directed at. This kind of barking can be used for both short and long distance communication.
- Deep loud barks in quick succession accompanied by any baring of teeth can clearly identify a dog that is signalling aggression, telling the receiver that they should withdraw immediately before they feel the need to escalate their behaviour to a bite. This kind of barking is often used when a dog is faced with a trigger perceived as a threat within proximity too close for their comfort.
- A single loud, low bark can be a response to an unexpected event – i.e. a knock at the door or the doorbell, a car door slamming in the driveway, being ‘snuck up’ on by something.
For health and safety reasons, it is very important to understand and address the underlying causes of whining, whimpering, growling. Contacting your local fear-free trainer to get advice as soon as possible minimises damage to your dog's mental health and reduces the likelihood of injury. Separation related issues and stress damage well-being; whimpering often signifies high levels of anxiety, and potentially underlying health issues. If growling or barking is accompanied by teeth baring or any other worrying signs indicating the listener to withdraw, seek assistance. While growling may occur in jest while playing games of tug, if you are unsure, contact your trainer to confirm the cause. In conjunction with advice from a trainer, book a vet appointment for any whimpering that cannot be tied to external stress-inducing stimuli.
FOLLOW YOUR ABC’S TO UNDERSTAND YOUR DOG'S VOCALISATIONS
Now that we understand the types of vocalisations dogs use and their common causes, we can begin to identify the underlying causes of our dog’s excessive vocalisations. This is the first step to implementing your plan to help your dog overcome the causes and promote a harmonious household free of unnecessary vocalisations.
The easiest way to identify triggers for certain kinds of vocalisations (and other behaviours) is to keep an ABC diary. To do this, you will need to take note of what happens before your dog vocalises, what sort of vocalisation they are doing, and the result of those vocalisations.
ABC diaries are implemented in both human and canine behaviour modification programmes: Antecedent (what happened beforehand); Behaviour (what the dog did in response); Consequence (what happened after the behaviour). Keeping an ABC diary can help you, your trainer, and your vet decipher the underlying causes of your dog’s behaviour, which will in turn help determine the best plan of action. Seeking advice from a fear-free professional is the most effective way to address undesirable vocalisations quickly while simultaneously promoting a positive relationship between you and your companion.
GENERAL WAYS TO HELP YOUR DOG REDUCE THEIR EXCESSIVE VOCALISATIONS
Luckily for us and our dogs, there are lots of ways we can help them learn to cope with frustrating things, fears, over-excitement, and other causes of excessive vocalisations while we figure out the best plan for their specific situation. As always, we want to set our dogs up for success by managing the environment in order to pre-empt undesirable vocalisations.
Next, we want to teach our dogs how to relax – while it may seem like dogs should naturally know how to do this, a lot of the time we need to intentionally provide a supportive learning environment. We also want to make sure their physical, mental, social, and emotional needs are being met.
Finally, we want to implement positive reinforcement training to promote quiet, calm behaviour when confronted with triggers, at the distance and rate your dog is able to cope with without vocalising before decreasing distance. Here are things we can implement in the home, in our dogs' routines, and in training to minimise excessive vocalisations:
Management – Congruent with all training, while your dog learns how to reduce excessive vocalisations you can help them along by setting them up for success using management tools relevant to their triggers.
- Protect them from stressors viewed from out windows at home by using window covers/seals to block visibility to outside;
- For excessive vocalisations in the car, have a crate in the car that you can cover in order to minimise their exposure to the outside world while moving. If this isn’t possible, use a canine seatbelt attachment on their harness to prevent excessive movement in the car, and use baby-shade covers for your windows to reduce visibility.
- Block accessibility to areas you use when you are unable to give them attention, such as study/office areas, the kitchen etc. Utilise puppy gates, a crate, and/or separate rooms.
- Use soothing music to block out worrisome noises from outside, being mindful of your dog's sensitive hearing.
- Avoid areas where your dog may be presented with triggers that cause frustration, excessive excitement, anxiety or fear.
Teaching our dogs to relax – Practicing these exercises with your dog to promote relaxation will decrease excessive vocalisations caused by anxiety, over-arousal, and excessive excitement.
- Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocols are scientifically proven to promote calmness in your dog, increasing their well-being and reducing excessive vocalisations.
Default Settle Training rewards your dog for a calm, relaxed state of mind. By increasing the positive association of being calm with positive reinforcement, your dog will be more likely to return to this state of mind on their own terms, during their own time. Eventually, this will become their ‘default state’ when you are relaxing at home or elsewhere.
Using free-shaping to promote relaxed behaviours uses positive reinforcement to increase your dog’s natural calm behaviours. This technique is often easiest to utilise after training has been underway for enough time that your dog is already practicing calm behaviours by themselves.
- Use LickiMats, Kongs, Snuffle Mats, and other calmness-inducing activities to help your dog practice calm states of mind. By being able to focus on one thing, they can learn to tune out other stressors and quieten the ‘monkey-brain’ triggered by over-arousal, anxiety, and other causes of excessive vocalisations.
- Plug-in Adaptil diffusers provide a long-lasting calming pheromone (DAP – dog appeasing pheromone) for your dog in whichever room it is present. This can be helpful in conjunction with other methods to promote calmness.
- Physical needs are met by providing your dog with exercise appropriate for their age, breed, and energy level. Their physical needs also include the appropriate amount of sleep and ‘down time’.
- Mental needs are fulfilled with ample sniffing time and enrichment opportunities suitable for your dog’s energy levels and intelligence. It is important to set your dog up for success with enrichment activities, making sure to avoid frustrating scenarios by ensuring the difficulty of the activity is within their ability. It is important they have time to recharge their mental resources by providing them with their physical need of adequate rest.
- Social and emotional needs include providing your dog with enough social contact for their personalities. Some dogs may crave experiences with their canine peers to enrich their lives, while others are perfectly content with human company. A dog who is not having their social needs met will be more prone to separation-related vocalisations and mental health issues, ultimately causing their well-being to suffer. Dogs who crave contact with other dogs may be more likely to respond to neighbourhood vocalisations from other dogs, or lead-frustration vocalisations when they see other dogs on the street. Simultaneously, it is important that we teach our dogs to cherish their alone time by pairing it with positive activities and proving to them that we will always return within their ability to cope. Dogs have evolved to be a part of a family unit, and rely on their social group to provide them with emotional fulfilment, safety, and care. Just like you, your dog wants to feel loved and valued as a member of the family.
Other ways to utilise positive reinforcement to decrease common undesirable vocalisations
- Going at your dog’s pace, you may expose your dog to a trigger at a distance where they are not vocalising. As soon as they look at the trigger, mark their look with a quiet, quick ‘yes’ (quiet to minimise arousal) and reward with a treat. Throw some treats in the grass, in a snuffle mat or on the ground to promote a calming sniffing activity before removing your dog from exposure to the trigger. Continue doing this, decreasing the distance and increasing the duration of exposure as your dog is able to cope. You need to set your dog up for success in order to reduce the opportunities they have to practice undesirable vocalisations. Because this technique requires really good timing to avoid creating associations that we didn’t mean to, it should initially be practised with a force-free trainer.
- If they are vocalising in the car, practice your calmness and default settle activities in the car without leaving home. Move down the driveway and repeat, going at your dog’s pace. Provide them with a calming food-enrichment toy to help reset their frame of mind.
- If the vocalisations are separation-related, go through steps to build up time away from your dog within their ability to cope, providing them with calming activities in your absence. Depending on the severity of the separation issues, you may need to get a force-free trainer and possibly even medication involved.
Again, it is extremely important to address fear, anxiety, and aggression related behaviours and vocalisations as soon as possible in order to minimise long-term difficulties. The sooner your dog is helped, the easier it will be for them to recover. If you are having difficulty identifying the cause of your dog’s vocalisations, or having trouble implementing an effective plan, seek professional help. Together, you will be able to identify their triggers and implement a plan to improve their quality of life.