Q. What does it mean when my dog whines — and how can I stop it?
A. At my house we affectionately call our Pug Willy Whiner. As a puppy, whenever he was tense, anxious or even excited, Willy whined. He whines less frequently now, because he has been trained not to, but when he does vocalize, whining is his go-to expression.
Dogs whine for a variety of reasons. Your dog may whine because he wants something or because he is excited. He may whine because he is apprehensive or anxious about something. A dog who is showing appeasement behavior may whine as part of his interaction with other dogs or people.
Dogs with separation anxiety may whine when you leave them, as well as engage in other behaviors, such as pacing, drooling and destruction at exit points. If your dog is exhibiting this type of behavior, talk with your veterinarian about training with a professional, and possibly medication, to help manage your dog’s anxiety.
Dogs whine for medical reasons as well, including pain and cognitive dysfunction syndrome. For this reason, it is important that you inform your veterinarian if you notice that your dog’s whining is associated with signs of pain or if you notice any behavior changes in your pet.
Identifying the Problem
The best way to handle whining is to identify the cause of the behavior and change your dog’s behavior through reward-based training. As with any situation where your dog is exhibiting heightened anxiety, punishment is not a useful training tool. If you punish your dog for whining, the vocalization may cease, but his anxiety will not change. In fact, it may very likely become worse, and your dog may respond in a more dangerous way, such as biting.
The exact causes of whining are not always easily identifiable. Your dog may whine when a person or dog approaches him; this could mean that he is excited — or that he is afraid. If your dog is excited, downplaying the greeting and refocusing his attention can lessens the whining. If your dog is afraid, you will need to manage his fear in order for the whining to stop. If you suspect that your dog’s whining is a sign of fear, seek professional help, starting with your veterinarian.
How to End the Whining
The more occupied your pooch is during the day with a variety of activities, such as walks, food puzzles and games, the less on edge and apt to whine he will be. Redirecting your whining dog to a better activity, such as searching for hidden kibble on the lawn or chewing on a stuffed Kong, refocuses your dog’s attention on an acceptable outlet. A dog that whines when he is excited or nervous can also be taught to relax with settling exercises, such as a down stay.
Dogs that whine to get attention or items they want, such as food, a treat or a toy, require different management and training strategies. If your dog gets especially worked up during meal times, putting him in a different room while you are preparing his meal (or eating your own) can decrease his excitement or anxiety. If your dog whines in nervous apprehension, you will need to increase his confidence in anxiety-provoking situations. For example, if your dog is anxious at the vet, plan happy visits to the vet’s office to play or get a treat from the receptionist; these fun outings will help ease his anxiety and lessen the whining. When the dog’s emotional state is changed, whining naturally decreases.
Reinforce the Positive — and Ignore the Whining
Be mindful that following up a desired behavior with something your dog enjoys makes him more likely to repeat that behavior. If you speak to your dog when he whines, you are rewarding the whining, which makes it likely that your dog will keep doing it. Even a negative response, like yelling at your dog for whining, can inadvertently reward the behavior (after all, negative attention is still attention). On the other hand, yelling at your dog when he whines may increase his anxiety, which can result in more whining.
When your dog whines, it’s best to ignore him, which can be done simply by looking away and ending all interactions with your dog. Keep in mind that whining should never be given attention, even negative attention, by any member of the family. Instead, make a point of rewarding your dog when he is quiet. This increases the chance that your dog will respond to exciting or stressful situations without whining.