The Sounds of Sadness: Why a dog’s whimpering gets to us

By Claudia Kawczynska, January 2020

Lola, 14 years old, with Cameron Woo

Summary: Dog lovers know that the whining and whimpering sounds our dogs might make are a sure way to get our attention. Researchers now tell us why that might be and why dog cries are sadder than even a baby’s crying to us.

Our dog Lola has recently entered a new phase of her life, so at the golden age of 14 she is definitely a senior dog, and seems to have a spot of dementia too that is making her rather noisier. Ever since we adopted her back when she was a spunky 10 month old, she’s been mostly a silent companion, not given to barking or whining. But now she has definitely  found her voice, expressing it the loudest in the backseat of the car when she is being taken (along with her other two canine housemates) to the park. She like to rest her head up near the back of the driver’s head and loudly whimpers straight into our ear. Also in the early afternoons she’ll burst out again when she tells us that she simply can’t wait until her evening dinner, and demands (in no uncertain terms) that she should be given a meal, without further ado. Her loud barking and whimpering seem to bounce off the walls straight to my heart. Seeing that she is a very old dog, we, of course, give into her. And yes, I know that in “rewarding” her for crying, we might be “spoiling” her, but really now, asking for human's attention at her age is something we are and should be grateful for.

But Lola’s whimpering reminds me of a research paper I came across a few months back about why a dog’s whimpering is the sound that’s most particularly evocative and sad to both cat and dog owners. In short, researchers found that a whimpering dog sounds sadder than a crying baby to us animal lovers.

In this research from the Aarhus University in Denmark titled, “Pawsitively sad: pet-owners are more sensitive to negative emotion in animal distress vocalizations,” lead investigator Christine Powers said that, “Pet ownership is associated with greater sensitivity to pet distress sounds, and it may be part of the reason why we are willing to spend large amounts of time and resources on our domestic companions. It might also explain why we find interacting with pets so rewarding, and are emotionally impacted by both positive communication signals, like purring and negative, like meows or whines.” This work was undertaken to collect a major database of emotional sounds—originally developed to test the instinctive responses that parents have to their children. More than 500 young adults were tested and found that dog whines sounded 'more negative' to dog or cat owners, compared to people with no pets, whereas cat meows sounded so sadder only to cat owners.

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Another interesting finding was that dog whines sounded saddest of all, and sadder than cat meows. Katherine Young, a collaborator on the study hypothesized that because dogs are more dependent on their human than cats seem to be, that “this difference in animal dependence may explain why dog whines are rated as more negative than cat meows by all adults, including cat-owners. Dogs may simply have more effective distress signals than cats.”

Either way, I can attest to the effectiveness of my old girl’s whining, I will do anything to appease her and have placed little containers of kitty kibble (much smaller and smellier than dogs’) in the car so I can toss a few bits in the back to “engage” her and to bribe her for a few brief minutes of quiet, and then at noon serve her a bone broth soupy midday snack (with whatever bits and pieces there is in the fridge). After all, Lola has rewarded us by giving us nearly 14 years of being a loving and quiet companion, if now it is her turn to “ask” for more, she well deserves it. Or as this research shows, it is in the natural order of how this human-dog relationship goes.

Christine E. Parsons, Richard T. LeBeau, Morten L. Kringelbach, Katherine S. Young. Pawsitively sad: pet-owners are more sensitive to negative emotion in animal distress vocalizationsRoyal Society Open Science, 2019; 6 (8): 181555 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.181555