"It sounded like the loneliest dog in the world," recalls Dr. Yin, DVM, a certified applied animal behaviorist who works at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists. She then realized it was her own pet, Zoe. "She thought she had been left and abandoned," Dr. Yin recalls.
Your dog may howl when you least expect it – as you’re warbling a tune at the piano, when a fire engine siren sounds or if your dog is left alone in a strange place. Howling may not be music to your ears, but to your pooch, it is a throwback to its wolf instincts. The purposes, meanings and triggers of howling may surprise you.
Why Dogs Howl
Howling – like barking – is one of the ways that dogs communicate with other dogs, and to a lesser degree, with people. Studies have found that dogs bark for different reasons. While less research has been done on dog howling, researchers believe that dog howling is a throwback to wolf heritage and that howls also have a variety of meanings.
Dogs often howl out of boredom or loneliness, seeking to communicate with others, as was the case with Dr. Yin’s dog. They also may be trying to summon other dogs or alert them as to their location, identity, territory and more. In the wild, wolves howl in an attempt to reassemble the pack after individuals travel far and wide. Dogs – descendants of wolves – may sometimes be trying to do the same.
"Because howling is long and sustained, its carrying distance is further than a bark, which is short and brief," says Lisa Peterson, communications director for the American Kennel Club. "It’s like a ‘long distance’ doggie telephone call, since the long, drawn-out sound can travel for distances of several miles."
Howling may be triggered by sirens, singing or other noises the dog finds similar to howling, says Dan Estep, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist in Colorado and co-author of Help! I’m Barking and I Can’t Be Quiet (Island Dog Press 2006). Social facilitation convinces dogs to copy another dog’s behavior, such as when one pooch barks at the mail carrier and the rest of the dogs on the block do the same.
Some dog breeds tend to howl more than others, such as hound dogs or Northern breeds, like Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes. That’s because humans have encouraged this type of vocalization over the years for hunting, sledding and other activities. "The hunter needs to hear them, so they want to breed a dog with a loud bay or howl that they can hear over distances," Peterson explains.
On occasion, dogs will preface a howl with a few short barks. Researchers believe that this type of howl is meant to try to attract extra attention, sort of like tapping a fork on a glass in a crowded room. Other research has found that dogs have distinctive barks, and the same is likely true of howls. "With wolves, the thing about howling that makes it different from barking is that it’s not only longer but more musical in tone," Dr. Yin says. "It can be carried farther and carry more of an individual characteristic."
How to Control Howling
If your pup’s howling gets on your nerves or your neighbors complain, you may want to try these tips:
- Mask Triggers: If the doorbell or a noon siren from the firehouse causes your dog to howl, leave the television or radio on to mute the other sounds, Peterson suggests.
- Try an Anti-Bark Collar: If you live in an apartment and need to curtail the howling or else, Estep suggests trying a training collar that either sprays citronella oil or emits an ultrasonic sound when the dog tries to vocalize.
- Behavior Modification: Desensitization to triggers may work, Estep advises. Set up training sessions during which you keep your pet calm and reward it with treats while exposing your dog to what makes it howl – the ringing of a doorbell or a telephone, for example.
You can also avoid situations in which you know your dog may howl. After hearing Zoe’s plaintive howl once, Dr. Yin let her dog sleep in her car whenever they went away on subsequent trips. Given the familiar environment and Dr. Yin’s frequent safety checks, Zoe napped in peaceful silence.