There is no exact translation in canine language for the kind of crying we humans do. Dogs don’t secrete hot, salty tears when they’re sad, nor do they wail or sob like people. Which is why interpreting a dog’s cry can be tough. When we’re talking about a whimper or whine, the canine “cry” can mean one of a million things.
As with barking, dogs who whimper or whine are trying to communicate. Excitement, anxiety, frustration, pain, attention seeking, and resource solicitation are all common reasons dogs whine at their people.
Most commonly, these sounds are aimed at conveying the desire for food, water, a potty break, a toy, attention, etc. This is similar to how puppies interact with their mothers, by “asking” for something with a plaintive whimper or whine. So it’s no wonder adult dogs recruit this same vocal impulse when communicating with their people.
To be sure, whimpering and whining are instinctual. But it’s also learned. After all, it doesn’t take long for dogs to understand there’s a direct connection between letting out a little whine and getting what they want. And that’s how canine “crying” can turn into a problem behavior. Just as barky dogs can drive their owners crazy should they do so constantly in search of attention or anything else they might want, whiny dogs can stress out a household with their piteous keening.
So too can older dogs who display crying behavior as part of their age-related cognitive decline. Dementia, disorientation, and the anxiety they occasion can lead to whimpering and whining, and even howling — especially at night.
Separation anxiety is another serious condition that can lead to chronic crying. These dogs will sometimes spend their entire days barking and/or whining.
Luckily, there is help. FIrst, consult with your veterinarian to help rule out medical problems (like pain or cognitive decline). If the problem is likely behavioral, a well-recommended certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist is an ideal choice for those who seek to end excessive crying behavior. And, as always, your veterinarian should be apprised of your dog’s behavioral issues.
One additional note bears mentioning: Most dogs tend not to whine when they’re suffering chronic pain. So though a dog may cry out when stepped on by accident or whimper after surgery, dogs who suffer from constant pain (as with dental pain or the orthopedic pain of osteoarthritis) rarely display their discomfort vocally. Though counterintuitive to humans, it’s an important point for all dog owners to keep in mind.