Updated - Oct 15th, 2022
Dogs communicate with us humans and their canine counterparts in a variety of ways. They bark, whine, whimper, snarl, yelp, and, my personal favorite; howl.
The howl is a very distinctive dog behavior. You’ll recognize it because when dogs howl, they will raise their heads and let out a long, low, sustained, mournful tone.
But why do dogs howl? The answers may surprise you.
Where does howling come from?
Howling is a dog’s genetic communication remnant of their ancestry to wolves. Whether it’s communicating their presence to neighboring dogs, getting your attention, or signaling distress, howling is normal canine behavior.
Think of howling as a long-ranged doggy telephone call. When dogs howl, they raise their nose to the sky and let off a poignant, sustained tone. Raising their head straightens out their vocal cords, increasing airflow, allowing the dog to signal over distances. Interestingly, howls are not all the same. They are unique to the individual dog, or familial group, like a wolf pack.
Some dog breeds howl more than others. Hunting dogs in the hound groups, which include Basset Hounds, Bloodhounds, Dachshunds, Beagles, and Coonhounds, for example, howl to signal the prey is present, cornered, or captured and ready for the hunter. These howls are called brays rather than full-throated howls. The bray is deep-toned, prolonged barking sound, and more enthusiastic than a mournful howl.
Dog breeds that resemble wolves, like the Alaskan Malamute, and the Siberian Husky are highly vocal breeds that will howl to communicate with anyone who will listen. They vocalize as howls, yips, and barks to communicate with their pack members or with us.
So why is your dog howling?
Common reasons dogs howl
Whether your dog is trying to communicate with a family member or neighborhood dogs, here are a few common reasons your dog may be howling.
Separation anxiety or loneliness
If your dog howls while you’re away from home, this can be a signal of separation anxiety or loneliness. This is the most common reason for incessant howling. It’s usually accompanied by some telltale signs, such as pacing, elimination accidents, destructive behavior, and barking. Dogs howl when they’re under stress. If this is the case for your dog, consult with your veterinarian, or a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT) to learn some ways to reduce their stress.
A bored dog may howl to get your attention. Remember that any attention will work for your beloved pooch. Be it good or bad, they got your attention. Many times, when your dog is howling to seek attention, a quick game or positive interaction will satisfy them,. But we’ll touch more on that in a minute.
Dogs howl to warn other dogs of their presence (the howling sound can travel several miles). If they sense an intruder, the howling can warn others to stay away from their territory.
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When dogs sense danger or potential predators, they will howl to alert their humans. There are many stories and videos on social media about dogs saving lives by howling to alert humans of danger.
When dogs are in pain, or uncomfortable, they can howl. This is the troubling side of howling and can indicate the need to see the veterinarian to rule out injury or health issues.
Sirens or other high-pitched noises, like singing, or musical instruments, can trigger most dogs into some pretty amazing howls. Some say it’s because the sounds resemble a distant dog howling, others believe it hurts their ears or causes them discomfort. There isn’t much proof of either theory, but we know dogs howl in response to high-pitched noises. I like to think my dog just likes to sing along with me!
Excitement and happiness
If you’ve ever been around an Alaskan Malamute, you’ve undoubtedly heard some enthusiastic howling on your arrival, or when playing. Dogs will howl to convey excitement and happiness and it’s the most heartwarming kind of howl.
Adjusting to a new environment
If you have a new dog that appears to be howling for no apparent reason, they may be howling to call their former family or to convey their presence to neighboring dogs. It will stop as your dog gains confidence and security with their new environment. Patience and rewards-based training methods will help during the transition.
Senior dogs can become howlers, especially at night, when they are experiencing some cognitive decline, or losing their senses of hearing and sight. When they don’t see or hear well, it can trigger confusion and howling for your attention to reassure them of their surroundings. This is another reason for a visit to your vet, or a veterinary behaviorist to figure out how to adapt your dog’s environment to accommodate the sensory loss.
If your dog is howling too much, there are ways to desensitize or provide counter-conditioning. Let’s look at how this is done.
How to stop unwanted howling
Positive reinforcement or reward-based training is the most effective way to stop unwanted canine behavior. This is true for the incessant howler. The key to get your dog to stop howling is to determine the reasons for it.
Some reasons may be:
- Is there a dog nearby?
- Is there a high-pitched noise your dog may hear and you don’t?
- Is your dog in pain or sick?
- Does it happen when you are away from home because of separation anxiety?
- Does your dog have needs that are unmet, like food, water, or companionship?
Separation anxiety howling is more difficult, and may require the skills and experience of a certified professional dog trainer, a veterinarian, or an animal behaviorist. A dog insurance plan may help offset the cost of treatment for eligible behavioral issues when your dog needs it.
Howling for sirens and other high-pitched noises requires counter conditioning. When you expect or hear the siren or noise that triggers your dog, offer a toy or a reward for your dog to come to you and sit. It’s really about distracting them from one activity to another until the noise stops. When you make it rewarding, with a treat for example, they will soon become desensitized to the noise that’s causing them to howl.
If your dog needs companionship or attention, sometimes the best solution is to provide regular interaction, so that your dog knows the difference between playtime, work time, or sleep time. A dog in a routine is much happier than a dog with no idea what comes next in their day.
Howling myths and folklore
You may have heard of other reasons for howling that stem from folklore and myths. There is no proof to these myths, but most of us dog people find these interesting, nonetheless.
Warning of natural disasters: Dogs howl to warn about impending natural disasters like earthquakes and dangerous storms. I kind of believe this one. When an earthquake hit near my home, my dog was already in the middle of our horse pasture far away from trees and power poles. So much for protecting me!
High Tide: Some say dogs will howl to warn of high tides. Since the moon controls the tides, and dogs raise their heads to howl at the moon (they’re really opening their vocal cords), people believed this was dogs warning about tidal changes.
Unseen spirits: Folklore says that if a dog howls for no reason, it can mean an unseen spirit is present and visible to the dog.
In conclusion, dog howling is a normal form of communication that can have many reasons behind it. Investigating the reasons for your dog’s howling is key for understanding what your tail-wagger is trying to communicate to you.
If the howls are incessant because your dog has needs, whether they need attention, have an injury, or just want companionship, use your resources to figure out the reason for the howls. When there’s howling, there’s a good reason for it.