Why Dogs Really Howl

June 11, 2014

By Langley Cornwell

Last month I wrote an article on Superstitions about Howling. The article was fun to research; it covers the likely origins of the belief that a howling dog is an omen of death or extreme misfortune. Even though that notion is reinforced in literature and films, of course it’s not the real reason dogs howl. But what is? Why do dogs really howl?

Turns out, there are many reasons dogs howl.

As a Response to Environmental Triggers

Many years ago I lived in New York with a mixed breed dog that looked like a blend of a yellow Labrador retriever and a Samoyed. She was precious and stunningly beautiful. Out of all the dogs I’ve shared my life with, she was the most primitive. There were times when I thought she acted more like a wolf than a domesticated pet, and when she started howling, the primal sound of it would chill me to the bone.

This dog howled in response to environmental triggers, especially to the sounds of sirens. Dog howling is often a response to outside stimuli and the triggers are varied. Many dogs respond to ambulance, fire-engine or police sirens. Some respond to other dogs howling, music, certain instruments, etc. Apparently the pitch of certain sounds awakens an otherwise dormant genetic memory in domesticated dogs. The reasons are unclear, but some experts believe when dogs hear some sounds, they howl to join in and be part of the action.

To Organize and Bond

Wolves and wild dogs used howling as a means of communication. In the wilderness, a pack of dogs often sent one or two members out to act as scouts, to survey the surrounding areas in search of prey. When the scouts were ready to rejoin the pack, they would start to howl. The other pack members, hearing the scout’s unique sounds, would howl a response to help guide the scouts back to the pack’s home base. In these cases, the howling pack members acted like a homing beacon, calling the scouts and reorganizing the pack.

Now that we feed our pet dogs good food like CANIDAE Grain Free PURE, there’s no need for wild scouts to search for prey. Even so, experts believe that one of the reasons pet dogs howl is to express the need for a feeling of community or of bonding. If you’ve been away for a while, some dogs howl to indicate they miss you, and their howl is a call that beckons you home.

As an Alert

Hunting dog breeds and search-and-rescue dogs are often trained to howl as a means of communication, to let you know they have found what they’re trained to search for. For example, if a hunting dog trees or corners prey, he will howl to let you know he’s accomplished his task. His howl also makes it easy for you to determine his location.

Howling may also be an indication of pain or suffering. If your dog suddenly starts howling, check to make sure he isn’t injured.

To Defend Their Territory

Some dogs howl to signal that an unwelcomed outsider has entered their territory. Likewise, the sound warns the intruder that they’ve entered an occupied area and if they don’t leave immediately violence may ensue.

This behavior also harkens back to the days of feral, wild dogs. Howling not only let other pack members know that a threat had entered their space, it also worked to run off potential predators and safeguard the welfare of the dog pack. Some domestic dogs howl for the same reason, like when an unfamiliar car pulls in the driveway or a stranger comes to the door.

For Attention

This may be the most common reason domesticated dogs howl. Your pet spends a lot of time studying you. He becomes well versed in your body language and routines. Because of this, he knows what to do to get a response from you. What would you do if your dog suddenly broke out in a full-voiced howl? Odds are, you’d run to see what was wrong. Voilà – he has your attention.

Dogs also howl when they are experiencing separation anxiety. When you are gone, your dog may feel lonely, bored or depressed, and howl in protest.

Some dog breeds are known to howl more than others. Have you ever had a dog that howled a lot? If so, what breed was he/she?

Top photo by Chris Scott
Middle photo by theihno
Bottom photo by Meredith Leigh Collins

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. Sherrie Cannon says:

    Our dachshund has started howling when I call my retired husband at home. I worked from home for years, but now work away from home. For some reason Stewie knows I’m calling.

  2. Jeff Lysak says:

    My dog would howl at the vaccume cleaner.

  3. Buddy is a hound mix and he howls for so many different things, including I’m leaving the house. He’s taught the other dogs to howl too. He also howls when the phone rings because it can mean the answering machine will turn on.