The Root of the Behavior
Our dogs are descended from wolves, who largely cease most vocalizations, including whining, once they reach maturity. Wolves do whine when they are expressing submission or are in pain. At the earliest start of the relationship between wolves and humans, wolves found that using immature behavior often worked to shape the behavior of humans, causing the human to give treats, praise, and affection. Basically, wolves evolved into domestic dogs through their efforts to manipulate humans, to the point that domesticated dogs are now considered a distinct sub-species of the wolf.
Today, our dogs are furry little flim-flam artists who know exactly how to manipulate people to meet their own needs and desires. Our dogs will act in a certain way when they want a walk. Maybe they scratch the door or gaze knowingly at their human until they get our attention, or they may even bark. Some particularly clever dogs will actually bring their leashes to us. Dogs are smart enough to know which actions to perform to get us to notice and fulfill their desires. Which brings us back to their cries for attention.
Dogs love attention from humans. We provide food and shelter. We entertain our dogs with games and toys, we give them treats, and we pet and scratch them. Humans are the source of most of the good things in a dog’s life, so they do things like perform tricks, follow us around the house, and generally try to share our space. Is it any wonder that they will sometimes try to get extra attention from us?
When we hear our dogs whine, it triggers a protective, nurturing impulse inside us. We want to make sure our dog isn’t in any distress, or if she is, we want to make sure that she gets out of that distress as soon as possible. And the fact of the matter is, we also want to protect our environment and prevent any extra work that our dogs might give us. For instance, who wouldn’t rather take a dog outside, even in the middle of the night, rather than clean up urine or feces?
Encouraging the Behavior
Responding to a dog’s cry for attention in and of itself isn’t a problem. Our dogs are attempting to communicate a need to us, whether they are hungry or in pain or just plain bored. A dog’s cry gets noticed from her humans, and we respond to it as best we can. Because dogs don’t talk much, we can only guess what they may need. So sometimes, we find ourselves jumping through hoops and flailing around to meet the need that our dog is expressing. Except sometimes the need our dog is expressing is simply a need for attention.
Look at it from the dog’s perspective. She whines a little, and her human jumps up and immediately pays attention to her, often offering treats and petting her. Depending on the time and situation, she may get a meal or a toy or even a walk. Is it any wonder that sometimes she sounds a false alarm?
The best way to respond to a dog who has learned to whine for attention is to ignore her while she is whining. Don’t yell at her, because that is also attention. Simply ignore her until she calms down. Once she has calmed down, be sure to give her a treat and praise. Reward your dog for her silence, and she will soon learn that whining isn’t the best way to get attention.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Of course, your dog will also whine when she has a physical need. Sometimes, when your dog is whining, it will be immediately obvious what she needs - she may be standing by the front door or sitting next to an empty water bowl. Other times, it may not be clear why she is whining. If you find that you need to figure out why she is whining, even for no other reason other than to eliminate a true problem, please make sure your dog is sitting first. Dogs can and do whine for no reason other than to get our attention. If that is at all a possibility, be sure to require your dog do something other than whine to get your attention.
We often think of our dogs as silly creatures that exist solely to be our pets. But they have complex, internal lives with their own agendas. Maybe they don’t have office politics (although who hasn’t worked with someone who likes to mark his territory, metaphorically at least), but they do have needs and desires. Often, attention from us is at the top of their agenda. Mostly, this is a good thing, but when it’s not, we need to address the situation directly.