A Dog Howling Primer

By Elizabeth Wasserman

A Dog Howling Primer

A few years ago, veterinarian Sophia Yin took her Australian cattle dog, Zoe, to a horse ranch and let the dog sleep in the stables overnight. In the middle of the night, Dr. Yin was startled by a strange, loud howling sound. "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.

Prolific Howlers
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.

Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.

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Posted on January 15, 2011

Chuck says: My dog Scooby howls at the Who song in the opening sequence of CSI. We mute it or turn it down.

Posted on January 20, 2011

Mike D. says: I once had a dog that howled, mostly at sirens. One Sunday morning, the rest of the family took their bicycles to the neighborhood park, leaving me to sleep in. 15 minutes later, I heard howling coming from inside the house. The dog had been left behind and couldn't chase squirrels in the park as the family rode bikes!

Posted on January 11, 2011

Thomas says: I allow my dogs to howl when they need to. I actually enjoy it.

Posted on January 12, 2011

Nancy says: Why would we want to stop our dogs from howling? As the article points out, howling is somewhat musical in nature. My dog howls when my son plays his harmonica. It is funny and heartwarming when Pepper joins in.

Posted on January 7, 2011

Lallie Hayes says: I have four dogs, all of which howl at sirens. The alpha male starts the concert; the lowest, and youngest, status dog may or may not join in. The most interesting effect is that they always stop at almost the same moment.

Posted on January 6, 2011

Marcia says: My Shih Tzu only howls if I start it...and it is the funniest howl you'll ever hear...sort of like nails on a blackboard. We love her "entertaining" howl...America's next "Idol"!!

Posted on May 27, 2010

Long Island says: My dog never howled until now at age 10 and he does it more often than he was doing it a month ago. It's always in the morning and he's lost most of his hearing so I wonder if that has something to do with it. He eats his food and does not appear sick or even old. He's a friendly Pit. I'm concerned about his howling.

Posted on June 28, 2009

maria says: how can you say you love your dog..if you feel barking/howling is noise? i love my dogs voice- i wish she would howl. we still aren't really good with stop talking when i ask.. but we are working on it. not liking the sound of your (happy) dogs voice reminds me of the days when human children shouldn't be heard only seen if they must. to that .. i also don't understand why have them- if you don't like them?

Posted on May 29, 2009

Doreen says: My sweet Ollie is a fox hound and howls and barks constantly! At trains, at cars, at birds at anything but I love her. I tried both the sonic collar and the cotrinella collar neither of them worked. I never believed in muzzles but when she barks for nothing and tell her NO I started with the muzzle. Now when I saw "MUZZLE" she stops. Be careful not to leave a muzzle on unattended. Petsmart sells the kind that are breathable and they can drink water as well when wearing them. I am still very happy to have gotten Ollie from the SPCA.

Posted on May 23, 2009

Bri says: We have a german short-haired pointer/pitbull and she howls. She howls everytime a specific vehicle leaves our house but it lasts only for about 15-20 seconds which we assumed it's because she no longer hears the truck. Every night/morning between 12am and 130am she howls. Why would she do this?

Posted on May 7, 2009

Beth says: My Sheltie has starting howling frequently, but he seems very happy when he is doing it. He can be lying in bed. He howls to wake me up. He howls when he's outside, sitting beside me in the field. He does not seem agitated, lonely or upset. It seems like he's singing. He is five, and recently began howling more frequently. Somewhat baffled by this behavior.

Posted on April 14, 2009


Posted on March 13, 2009

phyllis trevech says: My dog Charlie has never howled. He barks. The only indication I have had that he might want to howl, is when there were a pack of wolves about a mile away. How come he does not howl?

Posted on March 13, 2009

phyllis trevech says: My dog Charlie has never howled. He barks. The only indication I have had that he might want to howl, is when there were a pack of wolves about a mile away. How come he does not howl?

Posted on March 17, 2009

nancy nieves says: please send me a email with more info on how can i buy the maltese dog that gave birth on the internet thank you >cleo

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