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Why Do Dogs Howl?

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Pet Services

why-do-dogs-howlNo matter the breed, age, or temperament, all dogs howl. Some howl a little. Some howl a lot. Some howl louder. Some howl longer. But they all howl. So, why do dogs make this mournful, soulful, sometimes awful sound?

Why do dogs howl?

Like many canine behaviors, howling has ancestral roots. In the wild, the forerunners of domestic dogs howled. Safety-conscious wolves in the woods bellowed to announce their location to other members of their pack family. Brave wolves howled to warn other wild animals to stay away from their territory. Our pets may not howl to pinpoint their whereabouts or keep intruders at bay, but now, as in generations past, dogs howl as a form of communication. Since dogs are part of our human families, we need to understand what dogs are trying to communicate when they howl so we can respond appropriately.

What are dogs saying when they howl?

Here are a few basic messages communicated by howling:

“I am alert and responsive to my environment.”  
Many dogs howl when stimulated by certain high pitched sounds like sirens and music, or in response to another dog’s vocalizations. Howling acknowledges that they heard the sound and expresses their readiness to respond or desire to join in the action. If your dog’s howling is triggered by auditory stimulation, chances are he stops baying when the sound stops. Turn off the music and he stops singing along. This type of howling isn’t usually troublesome unless the triggers occur so often that the cacophony becomes a nuisance for you or your neighbors.

“I’m over here! Come this way.”
In the wild, part of the canine pack stays home while other members scout the area for food. Howling is a form of communication that helps members of the pack find each other. Dogs that remain behind vocalize to signal the location of home base and guide scouting members back to safety. After being left home alone, our devoted dogs may howl when they hear us drive up or when they spot us climbing the steps in an attempt to guide us safely back home.

“Stay away from here.”
Some dogs howl to keep intruders outside their territory. Howling signals to incoming dogs that a particular area is already claimed and visitors aren’t welcome. Howling is a good defense mechanism that wards off potential predators. As our dogs protect our homes, they may howl when a visitor – human or otherwise – approaches their territory.

“Here I am.”
On the flip side, an approaching dog may howl to let residing dogs know they are coming. This vocal announcement prevents an incoming dog from startling current inhabitants of an area. Howling alerts surrounding dogs that their environment is about to change.

“I want some attention!”
Some dogs howl to communicate the need for attention. And nothing quite gets the attention of a dog owner like a piercing howl, so the ploy works. This verbal canine manipulation can become bothersome, so humans must learn not to reward vocal demands. Try to avoid eye contact and resist the urge to approach a howling dog. Don’t pet him or talk to him while he is baying, but don’t admonish him either. Some dogs, like some children, will do anything for attention, even negative attention, so reprimanding your dog may make the situation worse. When he quiets down, give him the attention he craves. This is difficult to do, especially if you are concerned about disturbing the neighbors, but persistence pays off. To help your dog stop howling for attention, try to reward only quiet behavior. Give him hugs or treats randomly when he is quiet and withhold anything he “asks for” by howling.

“I’m really nervous!”
We are the world to our dogs. They focus on our activities, and make a big deal of our arrivals and departures. They are sometimes so centered on us that they become very anxious when we are not with them. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, he may howl when left alone. Howling due to separation anxiety only occurs when the dog is separated from his owner, so as soon as you come home, the baying stops. Dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit other behaviors such inappropriate eliminations, constant pacing, destruction of furniture and flooring, or self-mutilation. Often dogs with separation anxiety respond well to distractions such as chew toys, music or television, but other dogs need behavior medications and counseling sessions that teach both dog and owner how to handle the situation (see article  Separation Anxiety in Dogs).


“I’m hurt.”
Some howls cannot be ignored. If your normally quiet dog begins howling, he may be injured. People cry when they are hurt, and dogs do, too! Dogs will howl to vocalize pain, so bring your canine companion to your veterinarian to rule out illness or injury. Perhaps he has arthritis or abdominal pain or any number of uncomfortable medical problems.

“Look what I found!”
Howling can actually be a cheer. Dogs in the wild howl when they corner prey, and domestic hunting dogs are often trained to mimic their ancestors. Your dog may not be a hunter, but he may get excited when he finds a new treasure in his backyard. Yippee! Look at that caterpillar. Hurray! Here’s a big flower. Whatever the prize, howling lets you know your dog is proud of a new discovery.

As long as there are dogs, there will be howling. Occasional or constant. Mournful or exuberant. Howling is part of normal canine communication. We just have to listen and interpret what they are telling us.

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