Would you like some cheese with that whine?
Engines whine, toddlers whine, and people who are behaving like toddlers whine. Mosquitoes whine (but that’s more in our perception, than in their actual behavior.) The most famous whiners, however, are canids (foxes, wolves, coyotes, and dogs), and the absolute best at it: the domesticated dog. Any age, breed, sex, or size of dog is an equal-opportunity whiner. They’ve had a few thousand years to perfect it. So they’re reeeeeeeallly good.
Why do whiners whine? Usually, because they want something. And as any toddler knows: the squeaky (or whiny) wheel gets the grease. Anybody who’s ever had a whiny engine knows: if it doesn’t get the grease, bad things will happen. Further, the louder and more intense the whining, the faster the grease is gotten. This is a fact of life, and the reason whiny kids tend to grow into whiny, annoying adults. Whining gets results. People tend to give whiners what they want as quickly as possible, so they shut up.
Dogs are social creatures, and are excellent at communicating, though it takes careful observation of body language and facial expressions to decipher the meaning of some of their vocalizations, as they are not always terribly specific. For instance, our dachshund, Walter, barks at intruders, but he also barks to hurry me along at breakfast time — his hunger is always dire. Similarly, whining can mean many things, and some are not as obvious as others.
Reasons dogs whine
• Discomfort: Discomfort comes in many flavors and styles; number-one is pain. But, pain WHERE? Anywhere. Name a body system, and there can be pain associated with it. Orthopedic pain may cause the dog to sit at the bottom of a stairway and whine, because it hurts to go up. Eating garbage can lead to gastrointestinal pain. Whining to go outside and pee for the umpteenth time today may indicate urinary pain. A herniated disc in the neck or back may trigger neurological pain. Glaucoma causes ophthalmologic (eye) pain. Bad teeth cause dental pain. Ear infections or wounds on the skin are ouchy.
Some discomforts are NOT pain. Hunger and thirst, extreme itching, temperature extremes, or nausea can all be very distressful.
• Anxiety: Lots of things lead to anxiety. Separation from the “pack,” irritating noises (construction, beeping, constant crying of a baby), disharmony in the home (amongst people, animals or both), and a very unpredictable environment (random timing of meals, walks, bedtime) are just some examples.
• Fear: Loud noises like thunderstorms or firecrackers can be terrifying. Some fears stem from a traumatic experience that left a lasting impression, such as fear of garbage cans (ever since one blew over in a gust of wind) or fear of the dog door (since the broken-tail incident.) Poorly socialized dogs can be paralyzed with fear when asked to get into a vehicle, walk amongst other dogs, visit crowded or noisy places, or go to the veterinarian.
• Attention-seeking: Whining is a very efficient way to get attention when you want something: snacks, attention, playtime, toys, a pat on the head, a comfier place to sleep. Whining also can be a subtle way to alert others to potential danger (mailman come to kill us all) or unusual situations (Timmy trapped in a well.) And then, some whining is just to let us know it is sooooo boooooorrrring heeeere.
• Sympathy: Dogs are social, and when they sense another in their pack is distressed, they feel it, too.
Synonyms for “whine” include: bellyache, cry, whimper, simper, crab, gripe, fuss, grouch, grouse, grumble, grump, holler, keen, kvetch, and nag, to name a few. Interestingly, all of these words aptly describe my husband on a typical shopping trip to Sam’s Club with me. We did not purchase the infant formula we found there that advertised a reduction in these symptoms (including gas!) “in 24 hours,” but I cannot say I wasn’t sorely tempted. Perhaps if I slip some into his morning coffee … I will be sure to report my results.
While whining dogs can be irritating, and can lead one down the path to exasperation, scolding a dog for this behavior is ill-advised. In fact, if anxiety or attention-seeking are driving the behavior, it may only worsen with this approach. If no good reason can be found for the behavior, but it’s driving you nuts, it’s best to seek professional help and see the veterinarian — it is possible there is something more serious happening that is yet to be discovered. It’s also possible you are contributing to the problem with YOUR behaviors and body language.
One last thought: if needy whiners aren’t your thing, you may want to rethink getting a dog. Or taking your husband to Sam’s Club. Maybe, try getting a cat.
— Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.