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Dealing with Whining Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Dogs don't have too many sounds in their vocabulary – there's growling, barking, howling, whining ... and that's about it. The original function of these sounds was fairly straightforward – the growl being a warning; the bark, an exclamation; the howl, a long-distance communication; and whining, a care-soliciting call. But dogs can employ all of these sounds in different ways. Under different circumstances they use them to express a number of different desires and emotions.

It may not be surprising to learn that there are various types of growl, each implying a different level of threat (the mutter or grumble, the throat growl, and the belly growl, for example) or that barking serves more than one purpose – either beckoning, warning, or indicating arousal and excitement. It may not be quite as obvious, however, that whining can also be a flexible vocal tool.

Humble Beginnings

Young puppies whine to communicate with their moms. Whining by pups, like the crying of human infants, is a sound that is virtually irresistible, thus ensuring the pups' proper care and attention. At first, whining is automatic, rather than planned, and is stimulated whenever the youngster is cold or hungry. The result: A visit from mom whenever one of her pups whines. She is then able to assess the need of the pup and to supply the missing ingredient. Soon, pups learn to whine with purpose.

The Next Step

Human families adopt pups at around 8 weeks of age. By this time they certainly have the whining game down to a tee, but now they must find out what effect it will have on their new caretakers. Newly adopted pups whine for the same basic reasons as before, but now there's no mom to summon. Loneliness or boredom may precipitate their sorrowful whimpering and whining in vain hopes that she might reappear but, of course, she usually doesn't. It's the owner's response to the pup's whining that determines how things progress from this point onwards.

Owners reactions fall into three categories:

  • Those who ones who leave the pup to whimper unattended – the uninitiated or uncaring types
  • Those who approach the pup to make sure it's all right and take any action that is necessary – the thoughtful types
  • Those who attend to the pup at every whine and whimper as if the pup was in mortal danger – the nurturers

    Pups who wind up with uninitiated or uncaring owners eventually learn that whining is an ineffective strategy for dealing with their problems and may cease the behavior entirely. Pups mistreated in this way do not develop healthy bonds with their owners and often end up as quasi-autistic, social misfits with a tendency toward over-bonding later in life. In essence, lack of attention toward genuinely needy pups, leads to the production of overly needy, clingy adults.

    Thoughtful owners, by virtue of their nature, do what is best for their pets. They are there when needed but do not allow themselves to be trained by the pup to follow his every wish and direction. The pup is never allowed to become cold or hungry and never lacks for attention when he really needs it. Pups raised this way become well-balanced adults that will whine for attention when attention is due but for the most part will be affectionate, independent, and respectful.

    Nurturing owners try to answer their pup's every whine and whimper. These owners are too easy, too nice, and fail to set limits. Pups catered to in such an attentive manner may become overly pushy adult dogs that expect their owners to jump to attention whenever summoned. Whining is a key method for such dogs to summon attention.

    Whining For Attention

    Some owners inadvertently condition whining in their dog as a result of consistently (or later intermittently) supplying their direct attention in the form of eye contact, praise or petting. To break this annoying habit, it is important to avoid giving the dog any whining-solicited attention. Sometimes using a neutral stimulus, like the sound of a duck call, to signal the imminent withdrawal of your attention (the opposite of the dog's desired response) helps curtail the whining sooner than simply not responding to the dog's demands.

    Anxious Whining

    Some dogs whine when no one is around because they are stressed by their owner's absence. Such whining may be a component of the separation anxiety syndrome. These dogs whine when separated from their owner by a barrier (e.g. door) or sometimes even when the owner is asleep. Though the vocalization may arise almost subconsciously, and may be out of earshot of the nearest human being, it signals a wish to be reunited with the owner.

    Excited Whining

    Sometimes dogs whine, not as a message to some other creature, but in anticipation of some event. A dog that has chased a squirrel up a tree may find the object of his desire suddenly inaccessible and may whine until his prey disappears from view.

    Pain-induced Whining

    Anyone who has witnessed any number of dogs recovering from surgery or following trauma will probably have noticed whining in this context. Whining at such time is reflexive and automatic. Alleviating postoperative hypothermia and pain goes a long way toward reducing this type of whining, even in a semi-conscious animal.

    Learned Whining

    Dogs sometimes learn that whining produces a favored response from the owner. If whining gets the owner to produce a Frisbee, for example, and this is what the dog wants, then he will whine to get it. This is similar to attention seeking but a little more specific and contrived. It's more of a communication - directing the owner what to do. This behavior derives from "cause and effect" learning where the effect is positive.

  • If the dog's ball rolls under a couch, the dog doesn't whine and the owner may fail to notice the dog's dilemma. The result: No reinforcement of the whining.

  • If the dog whines in frustration at the out-of-reach ball and this causes the owner to free the ball: The dog learns that whining can work to its advantage.

    Whining of this type can be used to signal many desires, if it is paired with a secondary cue. For example, a dog that is whining and pointing toward an out-of-reach food treat is signaling that he wants the treat.

    Treatment

  • Make sure the dog receives plenty of exercise and feed him a healthy non-performance diet.
  • Ensure clear communication between the owner and the dog (click and treat is best).
  • Click and reward when the whining has stopped (wait 3 seconds).
  • Ignore whining for superfluous attention.

    Conclusion

    All dogs whine but some are more whiney than others. Whining can be almost automatic and may arise in response to certain adverse circumstances or situations, or can be used as a communication device to obtain attention or to achieve some goal. Only excessive, problematic whining requires attention. In some respects, whining in dogs is like crying in children and can be employed in a similar way. If a new puppy cries at night, he should be given some attention, so he knows he can still solicit "maternal attention." However, whining or crying at night should not be rewarded with food, exuberant petting, or picking the pup up, otherwise bad habits can be created. Your presence for a few minutes is quite enough to let the pup know that you hear him, that you are there and that you care.

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