While dogs can’t talk, Mother Nature has blessed them with an ability to produce a variety of sounds to express themselves. Certainly, you must have heard the high-pitched sound dogs make, and wondered, why do dogs howl, especially at night. Are they still connected to their ancestry? Why are they channeling their inner wolf? Well, in reality, what we don’t quite understand is that, howling is a dog’s way of communicating a feeling, a condition, or a message. There are added reasons to know why exactly a dog may be howling. While some may find it disturbing or troubling, some reasons may signal a real issue with your dog.
1. The History of Howling
The howling sound is habitually used by wolves as a way to unite with other wolves. They use this approach to gather their pack for a hunt while other group members may be scattered or asleep. Howling in unison may also indicate a social cause. When wolves howl in a chorus, it creates a sense of belonging within the pack.
A dog’s howl is quite identical to a wolf’s. However, domestication has changed the way dogs communicate vocally. Even though, dogs howl less than wild canines, the howling behavior is sometimes triggered by sounds like sirens or horns, other dogs howling, a sound on the television, someone singing or an owner imitating a howling sound. Dogs can also howl when they are separated from their pack or owners. In such cases, their howling denotes emotional pain.
Did you know? When wolves in a pack howl together, they combine different chords rather than letting out the same notes, to create an illusion of there being more wolves than what they really are. Recordings of wolves howling have proved this. Wild Canine Researchers have found that no wolf howls using the same tone as the other.
2. Why Do Dogs Howl?
Howling is a dog’s inborn behavioral trait. It is in their DNA. Probably, one must have noticed a dog lifting his head to the sky to let out this long wailing sound. This vocalization is termed as howling. A howl is very different from a bark which is typically short and explosive. Since dogs have evolved and grown closer to human beings, some of the reasons for howling differ from that of wolves. The most basic reasons can be divided into two categories: First, reasons that must be addressed by dog owners and second, harmless reasons that exi
3. Reasons That Must Be Addressed
-Pack Separation Anxiety: The ancestors of dogs naturally lived in family-like packs, a culture still found in stray dogs. Indeed, separation from a family can leave a dog anxious and distressed. When a dog finds itself separated from its pack, or if any member from its pack goes missing, it sets off a howl as a beacon to indicate its location. It’s like the dog is saying- “I’m here, where are you?” Additionally, puppies too sometimes howl to call out to their mothers.
-Owner Separation Anxiety: Separation anxiety in your dog can also trigger howling. This behaviour occurs when he is separated from you. Dogs are known to be very sincere, affectionate and emotional companions. They have a deep attachment with their owner, caretaker and family members. Normally, when a dog is adopted into his new home or when he is taken to a new place, he will remain fine until there is his owner or someone around to keep him company. The moment he finds himself lonely, he may howl.
-Isolation Distress: When dogs are left alone for a very long time, they can develop strange habits along with howling. Have you witnessed a situation of walking into your house to find things lying chewed up, or the flowerpot turned over with the soil scattered and the plant gone? Well, I have. After I had adopted Selfie, a female Indian breed, she was going through isolation distress for a few weeks, when she was left alone during the day while everyone was at work. If you leave your dog alone or unattended for longer periods, it will tend to howl and behave in an unexpected manner in protest.
-Sad and Annoyed: There are many stray dogs in my area and often I have noticed them howl when they are sad or upset. For instance, a mother dog was found howling as one of her new born puppies had not survived the harsh winters. Domesticated dogs may release a howl when they hear sirens, alarms or certain musical instruments they find annoying. While these kind of howls may mean they dislike the sounds they hear, sometimes it may also mean the dogs actually like it and just want to join in. In either case, they are simply responding to noise.
-Medical Issues: Dogs may also howl when they are in physical pain. You might have noticed that stray dogs howl when they have accidental injuries. Howling in illness is very common in dogs. Sometimes your dog might howl when he is sick and suffering in pain. In such cases, you must be attentive and look out for physical injuries. If you don’t find any visible injuries, you must immediately visit your dog’s veterinarian.
Sometimes, dogs, particularly homeless dogs, howl when they feel uncomfortable and cold in harsh winters.
4. Harmless Reasons
-To mark their territorial presence: Marking a territory is another characteristic that dogs inherited from wolves. Dogs live in packs and defend their boundaries, just like wolves. Howling dogs communicate their presence and alert other dogs that the area they are intruding is claimed and demarcated. In this way, howling also works as a defense mechanism averting predators and ensuring the safety of the dogs in the pack. Domestic dogs have a similar approach. When they observe a dog or any stranger approaching their house, they bark or trigger a howl to warn that dog and to inform their fellow dogs if any.
-To grab their owner’s attention: Some dogs discover that howling can win them attention from their owners. It is very easy to differentiate such naughty doggies from the ones in actual trouble. These attention-seekers will howl only in your presence while requesting your attention for food, petting, access to the door or a desired object. Attention-seeking dogs usually give out repetitive mild howls. In such cases, you need to totally ignore the howling, and randomly attend to your dog only when he’s quiet. Don’t look at him, touch him or speak to him. Don’t try to scold him either. Dogs, like kids, often find any attention rewarding-even if it’s negative attention. When your dog will realize that fake-howling is making him invisible, and instead, being quiet is gaining him your attention, he will learn to control it.
-To alert their owner about possible danger: Dogs are genetically programmed to sense danger. Their ability to detect danger before it was upon them or their master, and set off a powerful howl as an alarm has protected lives and properties in several occasions. My Desi Indian dog, Selfie, howls at the tip of her voice to alarm us when she hears strange noises or footsteps in the neighbourhood. Nothing escapes her radar ears and exploding howls.
Furthermore, stories in the media have also shown dogs howling and alerting their owners before an earthquake. In 2011, a research study scrutinized dog behaviour after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Pacific Coast of Tohoku in Japan. According to the research, 236 of 1,259 dog owners noticed strange behaviours, such as stressful howling and barking before the earthquake. Some said their dogs were so nervous that they ran away. All this happened in seconds and minutes before the earthquake. A Geological Survey investigation found that unusual animal behaviour can be linked to their ability to notice the smaller seismic compressional waves, known as P waves, which very few humans notice.
-To make contact and acknowledge other dogs: As an inherited behaviour, dogs howl to send a message to their separated pack members, informing them about their presence and current location. This method helps them find each other. Domestic dogs also make contact and acknowledge other dogs in their area. They use friendly howls to greet and recognize other dogs in the region. In a way, they are saying– “I’m happy to know you. I come here in peace.”
-Response to high-pitched sounds: If you sing in a way which is quite similar to a howling sound, then it’s possible that your dog will also start howling. Also, when one dog starts howling, then other dogs will also start howling. It is a natural pattern for dogs to respond. Particularly, some high-pitch sounds such as the ambulance or fire truck sirens, musical instruments like the mouth-organ or flute can trigger howls.
-Excitement Howls: When a dog feels excited, he might like to show off and expect some praise. But if you fail to notice, he might gently howl in a low tone, because howling is a dog’s normal way of vocal communication. Another fascinating fact is that feral dogs usually howl when they discover some game or succeed in their hunt. Similarly, a domesticated dog may feel excited and would like to communicate his success, requesting a little appreciation, which means he’ll start howling to call his owner.
5. Training a Dog Not to Howl
If you have planned to adopt and domesticate a dog, you may have to teach him to curb his vocal behavior. In cases of physical pain or distress, the howling is infrequent and periodic, where training is not required, and immediate monitoring is essential. But if your dog is great at instigating the rest of his neighborhood into a howling chorus especially at night, you need to discipline him. It may take more time to teach him to stop the unnecessary howling, as it’s an ingrained trait. Some ways to train a dog to control his howling in vain, include:
-Redirecting his attention: This is one of the most effective ways to control your babbler. You can redirect his attention to something more productive when he begins to howl. For instance, the moment your dog begins to howl, fetch him his favorite toy and tempt him into a little play session. You can also try to give him his chewy bone to wear off his temporary urge to howl. Remember, it is a gradual process and you need to work with your dog patiently every single time, until you get the desired result.
-Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DSCC): I can vouch for this method developed by psychologists, as it worked for my dogs. Desensitization means to make less sensitive. The goal here is to lower the exposure of the object, person or event that triggers a howl in your dog. Counterconditioning is to teach your dog to have a pleasant reaction and feeling towards the same.
For instance, if a karaoke or any sound on the television triggers a howl in your dog, which lasts for longer hours, hampering his routine, then, you can try lowering the volume to expose him to a less scary version of his fear that triggers a howl, and gradually increasing it until everything is normal. Associate this achieved normal behaviour with petting, treats, or praises to successfully complete the plan. Encounters with a vacuum cleaner, a new friend or a squeaky toy can be planned in similar ways.
-Ignore pointless howls & Reward when quiet: If you find the above methods too painstaking, then this one’s for you. If your dog howls solely to grab your attention, then ignore him until he’s quiet, and attend to him after a few seconds of silence. Also, you can occasionally reward him with treats when he’s quiet. Simple!
-Spending Time with your Dog: 65 percent of domesticated howling dogs show symptoms of loneliness. Imagine yourself being locked or crated for hours, may be for weeks, months or years. You will start howling too. Well, the pandemic lockdown has given us a taste of this fact real nice. So, try spending time with your dog to attend to his emotional needs.
If your dog’s howling issue turns out to be challenging to work with, then it is advisable to seek professional help from his veterinarians or certified dog trainer.
6. The Dogs Most Likely to Howl
While howling is common among all dogs, some breeds howl more than others. The dog breeds more likely to howl include: Dachshunds, Beagles, Basset Hounds and Bloodhounds, Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and American Eskimo dogs. Studies say, as a dog gets older it tends to howl more often. This is especially true of senior dogs who become disoriented due to dementia or loss of vision or hearing.
7. Concluding Thoughts on Why Do Dogs Howl
Dogs are very social animals, like human beings and need everyday interaction with their human families. Keep your dog inside more often, play games, exercise and take walks with him on a daily basis. At times, when you leave your dog home alone for more than a few minutes, be sure to give him plenty of toys and attractive chew items to enjoy by himself and stay engaged.
The bottom line is that dogs howl for a plethora of reasons. Whether your dog is howling for his friends, barking for fun or excitement, it’s not so important to ask why they are doing it, but rather to listen what your dog is trying to tell you.