Why Do Dogs Howl?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM September 26, 2019
Of all the ways that your dog communicates whether it is the quiet whine, the playful yip, the scared bark, or the exasperated groan, the howl is probably the least favorite form of communication for most dog parents. To some dog parents, a dog’s howl can raise the hairs on the back of their neck and conjure up a primal urgency to run and hide. What is it about a dog’s howl that makes us feel this way, and what makes a dog feel the need to howl?
Why Do Dogs Howl?
Howling is one of many forms of communication and is a response to various situations. Most of the reasons for howling are natural and simple such as attention seeking, contacting other dogs, or in response to a high pitched noise, while other reasons could have a medical cause.
For most dog parents, a dog howling may be an annoyance, especially if it happens in the middle of the night or while you’re out on a peaceful walk. The truth is howling can be a very important form of communication for your dog. You’ll see why as we discuss the different reasons a dog may howl in more detail.
While dogs typically try to get your attention by barking, sometimes a bark just won’t do it. In these cases, a dog may resort to a long, drawn-out howl in order to get you to tend to their needs.
- To Alert You
Similar to trying to get your attention, a dog may start to howl to alert you to danger. Maybe a skunk is about to cross your path or the mailman seems a bit shady, anything that your dog finds out of the ordinary and doesn’t want you to have an encounter with may cause them to howl.
- Contacting Other Dogs
Howling is a great way for your dog to communicate with the neighbor dog across the street or even the one 12 blocks away. Since long howls can easily carry long distances, it can be used to alert other dogs to their whereabouts, potential dangers, or where dinner may be.
Wolves, coyotes and other wild dogs howl to communicate between members of the same pack and between different packs. Howling can help find a lost pack member, tell other packs members that dinner is waiting, or warn neighboring packs to stay away. Just because your dog’s pack may be a little different than their wild ancestors, that doesn’t mean the howling gene is dampened. Some dogs may howl just because it’s ingrained in their genes.
- In Response to Sounds
Ever notice when a police car or ambulance goes through the neighborhood with sirens blaring that the residential dogs strike up the same tune as well? Many dogs howl in response to loud noises, especially high pitched ones. It may be because the sound reminds them of a howl, and they are simply answering the call. Or the sound makes them uncomfortable, and they’re trying to express their pain.
All of the above are natural reasons that may cause your dog to howl. While it may be annoying to you, none of these causes are anything to be concerned with. However, there are a few causes of howling that need to be addressed.
- Separation Anxiety
Usually your neighbor will be the one that alerts you to this. Dogs with separation anxiety may howl when left alone. They may also become destructive and try working out their anxiety on your couch, shoes, or carpet.
- Medical Issues
In some cases, howling may be in response to an injury or illness. When dogs (and people, too!) are in pain, discomfort, or aren’t feeling well, they may grunt, groan, or howl. It’s their way of getting your attention to let you know that something isn’t right.
Is Howling Natural in Domestic and Wild Dogs?
Now that you better understand the causes of howling, it’s time to decide if howling is indeed a natural behavior. Some of you are probably thinking no way would anything that sounds like that be considered natural, but the truth is howling in many situations is a completely normal behavior. Think of howling as the dog version of a long distance phone call. A howl carries further than a bark and allows dogs, both wild and domestic, to get their message to reach other canines at far away distances.
Wolves and other wild dogs howl more than their domestic counterparts because they tend to live in packs and travel great distances. Howling is a good form of long range communication between pack members when they are far apart. Domestic dogs may still carry the instinct to howl even if they’re only trying to speak with their neighbor across the fence.
Other Howling Situations Your Dog May Face
Since you’ve come onboard to believe that howling is a natural behavior in dogs, let’s look at specific situations when a dog howls and their reasoning for the behavior.
- Howling at the Moon
It’s probably the picture that pops in our mind when someone mentions a wolf-head thrown back, mouth in a perfect ‘O’, welcoming the rising of a full moon. The truth is this type of howling may have no lunar ties. As we’ve already discovered, howling is a great way to communicate over long distances and it just so happens that nighttime is also the best time to send a message. At night, sound travels further due to less atmospheric disturbances and less noise from cars, people, etc. It may also be that a full moon provides more light for dogs to find things to howl at.
That being said, there may be some celestial backing behind a dog’s increased howling during full moons. The moon’s gravitation pull on the Earth changes with the phases. Some people, and dogs, feel this gravitation difference which can actually affect how well they sleep. More sleep when the moon is smaller, and less sleep when it’s bigger. While the phase of the moon may affect how well your dog is sleeping, and how much they are howling, increased howling may also be due to how well you’re sleeping. In other words, your aggravation from not being able to sleep is affecting your dog.
- Howling When You Howl
A good conversation requires some back and forth. When you howl, your dog howls in response, out of politeness if you will.
- Howling When Other Dogs Howl
Similar to above, a dog howls to get an answer from their friends. They want to know who’s out there, what others are doing, and if there is danger. So when a dog howls while other dogs are howling, it’s simply a response to some burning question.
- Howling at Sirens
Sirens or other high pitched noises may remind your dog of a howl. Since dogs want to be polite and answer questions that are asked of them, they may howl in response to the noise. It’s also possible that the loud noise may be uncomfortable to their ears or frighten them, so they will howl to let you know about it.
- Howling to Music
Certain notes or pitches in music or even in your voice may sound like a howl to dogs. Since howling is one form of communication, they will want to respond back.
- Howling in Their Sleep
You may have noticed your dog, seemingly fast asleep, whining, groaning, moving, and even howling in their sleep. It should be no surprise that a dog’s brain, like ours, is active even asleep. Dogs may dream of doing well, doggy things. That may include chasing rabbits, wrestling with friends, or even howling.
When Should I Be Concerned With Howling?
There are many natural reasons why a dog may howl, most of them are of no concern. That being said, there are a few things that may make your dog howl that are concerning.
- Sudden howling
As with anything, a sudden change in your dog’s behavior should be noted. Dogs that don’t routinely howl but that suddenly start to howl or howl for long periods with no apparent stimulus should be checked out.
- Pain or Discomfort
Dogs that are in pain or not feeling well may howl to alert you to their discomfort. You may notice more howling at night when your dog is lying down in the case of painful joints or abdominal discomfort. You will probably notice other signs as well such as a decrease in appetite, lethargy, or agitation.
- Separation Anxiety
Dogs that don’t like to be left alone may howl whenever you leave for extended periods. This behavior is usually accompanied by other signs like destruction of your house, potty accidents, or neurotic tendencies like excessive licking or biting of themselves.
How to Prevent Your Dog From Howling at Night
The best way to prevent your dog from howling is to pinpoint the trigger. If your dog is howling out of boredom, fear, or anxiety you can try to reroute their attention to something else such as a toy or treat. However, you don’t want to make the toy or treat seem like a reward for howling, so try to get them to stop the howl by speaking to them and then give the reward.
Desensitization and counterconditioning is another way to stop howling at night. This method works best when howling is triggered by fear or anxiety. Desensitization refers to exposing your dog to less frightening versions of what is scaring them and allowing them to be comfortable with this version. You can then increase the scare factor until your dog is comfortable with all versions of the scariness. For example, if your dog is scared of sirens, you can try playing the recording of a siren quietly while comforting your dog. Once they are okay with the quiet siren, increase the volume until they are comfortable with even the loudest siren. Counterconditioning is typically used in conjunction with desensitization and basically consists of rewarding your dog for the behavior that you want. In the previous example, you would give your dog a reward; treat, toy, or affection, when your dog doesn’t howl in response to the siren noise.
Being a dog parent may sometimes feel like you’re a character in the Call of the Wild. Even though your canine companion may seem far removed from their wild ancestors, the fact is that their howling instincts remain. Howling can be a very important form of communication and may be in response to a variety of stimuli. Even though it may raise the hairs on your neck, howling is usually nothing to worry about, but sometimes those reasons may indicate a deeper issue. You should get to know your dog’s normal behaviors, howling or otherwise, in order to best notice any issues. You can also try to prevent your dog from howling in certain occasions, but sometimes you just have to let them harness their inner wolf.