Most of us might associate howling with wolves, but anyone who has a dog — or whose neighbor has a dog — knows that dogs can howl just as well as their ancestors. The howling can be amusing or a nuisance, depending on your point of view, but it's not without a purpose.
Dogs use their barks, growls, whines and of course howls to communicate with their humans and with each other in several ways.
What Is a Howl?
Dogs make a lot of different sounds, and a bark is probably the one people are most familiar with. But a howl is distinctive from a regular bark in a few ways, says veterinarian Ryan Llera of the Kingston Veterinary Clinic in Ontario, Canada.
"Barking is a more rapid and communicative sound that is better understood than howling," Llera says. "Barking can communicate joy, fear, aggression or attention seeking. Howling is less understood and is often thought of as an expression of sadness or frustration. But really, it is more of an inter-dog communication to let other dogs know what they are feeling."
Howling seems to be innate to members of the canine community; along with wolves, coyotes and jackals howl as well. And in fact, compared to wild canines, domestic dogs do not "truly howl," according to Barbara Sherman, a veterinary behaviorist at North Carolina State University in a 2015 interview with National Geographic. A true howl, Sherman said, is a "sustained, long-range call."
But some breeds of domestic dogs seem to howl more than others. Llera says that the same genetic differences that determine the appearance of breeds could explain why some breeds howl more than others. "Then again, it may be also more directly linked to the individual, regardless of breed," he says. For instance, some hounds — like beagles, coonhounds, bloodhounds and basset hounds — produce a unique sound known as baying, which makes the breed more likely to howl. Huskies also are more likely to howl; some think it's because the breed's DNA can be directly linked to the ancient Siberian wolf.
What Are Dogs Saying When They Howl?
When a dog howls, there are a number of feelings or messages that they are trying to share, either with their humans, with other dogs or both. Sometimes a dog's howl is triggered when they hear an external sound, like a siren or the bark of another dog. You'll know this is most likely the case if the dog stop howling when the external auditory trigger does. In these cases, it's most likely that the dog is just letting their owner know that they are aware of their surroundings.
When a dog howls, they might also be trying to share their location with other dogs in their pack — and that includes their human. For instance, after being left at home alone, a dog might howl when they hear their human driving up to the house or walking up the stairs.
On the other hand, sometimes a dog's howl means the opposite: They might be saying "back off." For example, sometimes dogs howl to keep others away, signaling to other dogs or humans that this is their turf. Dogs also howl when they are nervous; a pup that has separation anxiety might howl when they are away from their humans, or in pain.
But our furry friends will also howl just for attention — or when they're overly happy.
How Can I Tell Which Message My Dog Is Sending?
As we've mentioned, there are a lot of reasons why a dog might howl, which might confuse you if your dog is the one doing the howling. Are they sad? Happy? Just howling at the moon? Unfortunately, Llera says, humans generally can't distinguish what dogs are trying to say from the sound of the howls alone.
"It is unlikely that people can differentiate the meanings behind a howl without some sort of visual frame of reference," he says, "or if they've been able to see their dogs howling previously and know what was going on at that time."
To understand why your dog is howling, it is necessary to use context clues. Is there another dog nearby? Is your dog showing other physical signs of injury? Have you noticed a high-pitched noise nearby that might disturb your pet?
And what if your dog howling is becoming a nuisance? Can you quell it? Unfortunately, as anyone with a loud dog — or perturbed neighbor — knows, sometimes we just want our dogs to be quiet. But since dogs often use howling and barking to communicate, is it even a good idea to stop them if we can?
"It may depend on what they're howling about and if they have some needs, such as comfort, companionship, food, etc.," Llera explains. "I wouldn't say that it's detrimental to try and get dogs to stop howling, provided there is not negative reinforcement or punishment."
How do you go about that? Here are a few suggestions. If your dog has separation anxiety and is howling when at home alone, try a few distractions like chew toys or even leaving the television on. Or in more dire cases, medication might be necessary.
If your dog is howling to get your attention, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says you need to teach the dog that howling doesn't work. Don't inadvertently reward them for the behavior. Instead, ignore them completely when they begin howling; don't look at them, pet them or speak to them and that includes reprimanding them. Reward them only when they are quiet. That includes giving them food, treats, toys, etc.
Of course, sometimes dogs just want to howl, and there's not much we can do about it.
"They also may just be expressing themselves," Llera says.