By Courtney Emken
co-written by Jen Larson, KPA-CTP, and Bart Emken, CPTD-KA
If you’re not fluent in doginese, it can be easy to interpret your dog’s whining as, well… simply whining. However, just like with human babies, not all cries and whines are made equal. Depending on the tone and the context, your dog may want:
- A potty break
- Your attention
- Their dinner
- A trip outside
And much, much more. To complicate things further, the specific meaning of a whine can differ from dog to dog. So while Rover may whine at the door because he wants to be let out, Fido whines at the door because he’s afraid that you’re about to leave.
Today, we’re going to share our best methods for determining the cause behind your dog’s whining. Then we’ll show you how to reduce their vocalizations without resorting to outdated aversive practices. Let’s get training!
Why Do Dogs Whine? (Hint: You Might Be Encouraging It)
While whining can be cute, it’s often a sign that your dog has an unaddressed need. It’s imperative that owners get to the bottom of why their dog whines, as it can indicate serious issues such as:
Unfortunately, dogs commonly use the same vocalization to express multiple wants and needs. Since there’s no “one size fits all” solution to reducing your dog’s whining, you’ll need to determine the exact cause behind the whine before taking the next step.
Owners should start by carefully analyzing the situation surrounding the whine. Watch your dog’s behavior and look for clues that may point to the root cause, such as:
You should try to rule out physical injury first. Dogs often whine when hurt, and if you notice unusual behavior that accompanies the whine like limping, the sooner you get them to the vet, the better. However, remain calm. You don’t want to overreact and endure a stressful (and expensive) vet visit if your dog was just feeling overwhelmed at the park.
Look for specific behaviors that indicate injury, such as:
- Atypical reactivity
- Limping, stumbling
- Labored breathing
If injury doesn’t seem to be the cause, the most likely culprits are anxiety and excitement. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two. To do so, you’ll need to evaluate their environment by asking yourself questions like:
- Where is my dog looking while whining?
- Are we in unfamiliar territory?
- Are there any outlets for their energy?
The key is to pay attention to your dog’s body language and the surrounding stimuli. Maybe your dog is intently staring at another dog while whining. She probably just really wants to meet them and play. This is especially common during walks or while at the dog park— places where tons of really cool stuff is happening all at once.
For another example, let’s say your dog is hiding beneath the table and whining. He’s at home, there’s no strange people or dogs around— so why is he whining? Well, perhaps your dog is frightened of thunderstorms and the incoming inclement weather has made him worried.
These two cases are fairly straightforward, but even subtle disruptions can prompt your dog to whine. For instance, let’s say that you’ve established a routine where you feed Fido at 5:00 each day. You notice that when you near 5:00 Fido begins to softly whine and beg.
What’s happening is that Fido is nervously checking his watch and thinking “hey, it’s food time— but where’s the food!” This is a mild anticipatory anxiety that many dogs feel. Unfortunately, it can quickly evolve into a learned behavior if owners aren’t careful.
Dogs whine naturally, but it’s owners who teach them that whining yields rewards. As in the previous example, if the owner keeps feeding at 5:00 while Fido is still whining, the dog has learned “if I keep whining long enough I get food, sweet!” Once this lesson is learned, it can take lots of work to undo it.
How To Stop Canine Whining In Its Tracks
Unfortunately, it’s difficult not to encourage whining. Even if you don’t give in and feed Fido, your mere attention is reinforcement enough. To prevent this, you’ll want to avoid any kind of positive reinforcer while your dog whines, which includes:
- Looking at your dog
- Petting them
- Talking to them
This can be really, really hard— we know from experience. You almost automatically want to comfort and soothe your dog, but sometimes your instincts are the exact opposite of what you should be doing.
Luckily, this can also work in your favor. Dogs are keenly aware of our reactions and will quickly pick up on what works and what doesn’t. From now on your mission is to deny any and all reinforcement to the whine until they stop.
This can take a lot of patience. You may have to wait for several minutes, ignoring your own guilt and anxiety over their plight. Whenever these feelings arise, remember this phrase: “Love them like a human, understand them like a dog.”
Your dog is just like a three year old yelling “I want ice-cream!” They don’t know any better, and you have to act as their self-control. Stay vigilant. Soak up all that whining until there’s a break then hit ‘em with a tasty treat. If you repeat this over the course of a few days your dog will put two and two together— that when they stop whining, they get what they want.
If you’re having difficulty reducing your dog’s vocalizations, whining or otherwise, please contact us today. Our experienced trainers can give you more personalized advice and spend one-on-one time to discover the source of your dog’s whine and how to stop it. Happy training!