Dogs howl to communicate. With her doleful, drawn-out vocalization, your dog may be talking (saying “look what I found!”), seeking attention, or sharing that she’s in pain, bored, or lonely. Howling is one of those dog behaviors that sparks curiosity and questions. Do all dogs howl? Why do dogs howl when left alone? And if your dog is a howler, how do you keep her “ah-oooos” to a minimum? Let’s start where the howling began.
Can Dogs Howl Like Wolves?
Dogs howl just like wolves because they are direct descendants of the sharp-eyed hunters. As close ancestors of wolves (Canis lupus), dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) have retained many of their wilder cousin’s characteristics, including the instinct to howl.
A wolf pack’s territory—where they hunt, live, and raise their pups—can be 50 square miles, and even wider. Pack members must sometimes separate from each other to scout for food or hunt. Howling, which carries much farther than a bark, is how they keep track of other pack members and communicate over great distances. With a howl they can draw the pack together after a successful hunt, or alert far off wolves to approaching danger.
How to Stop Your Dog From Howling When Left Alone
Before you can stop your dog from howling when left alone you must first determine the cause of her vocalizing. Some reasons your dog howls are no cause for concern, including:
- Sounding the alarm about approaching danger
- Communicating with another dog
- Communicating with you
- Responding to a distant siren or other high-pitched noise
In these instances, the howls are situational, short-lived, and usually nothing to worry about. (If there’s imminent danger, your dog will likely bark to grab your attention rather than howl.) For the most part, your dog’s howling will stop when the wailing siren passes out of earshot, or the dog across town quits howling. Train your dog to respond to the “quiet” or “hush” command to cut off these instinctive howls when you’ve got visitors or she starts howling at 3 a.m.
There are times when your dog’s howls may be a sign something’s wrong. Worrisome causes of howling include:
- Separation anxiety, loneliness
- Attention seeking
If your dog’s howling behavior changes noticeably, or if it has a pained, almost crying quality, check her for visible injuries and seek medical help. The veterinarian will treat the injury or check your dog for any underlying health issues—and related pain—that could be prompting her howling.
When your dog’s plaintive howls are caused by separation anxiety, addressing this common problem can help minimize the howling. Separation anxiety howling will occur primarily when your dog is alone—in another room, in the yard, or in the house by herself. You’ll hear it as you arrive home from work, or from exasperated neighbors. To determine if your dog suffers from separation anxiety, look for these other symptoms:
- Incessant barking
- Urinating or defecating in the house
- Eating excrement (coprophagia)
- Chewing, digging and other destructive behaviors
- Escaping or attempting to escape a contained area
- Chronic pacing in a fixed pattern
Your dog doesn’t need to have all of these symptoms for a diagnosis of separation anxiety. Also, these symptoms warrant a trip to the veterinarian to rule out other causes. Once you’ve determined your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, you can manage the problem. Helping your dog overcome her separation anxiety could involve counterconditioning, desensitization, and/or medication—depending on the severity of her condition. In challenging cases, some people seek help from a dog behavior specialist with expertise in anxiety.
If your dog’s howling is an attention-seeking behavior, she’ll let loose with the yowls when you’re in her sights. The key to alleviating attention-seeking howling is to ignore her the instant she starts vocalizing. Avoid scolding or yelling, which is always counterproductive in dog training. Instead, ignore your dog completely. Go about your business as if she isn’t there until she quiets down. When she’s quiet for several seconds, you can pet her or scratch under her collar.
If you suspect your dog is howling to request dog toys and treats, time in the back yard, or a belly rub—don’t give her what she wants. This only reinforces her use of howling as a form of communication. When your dog is peaceful and quiet give her a treat once in a while, targeting the positive reinforcement to a problem time of day, if she has one.
Why Do Dogs Howl at Sirens?
Your dog is demonstrating her ancient roots when she howls at the siren of a passing ambulance, police car, or fire truck, or bays at a distant train whistle. Sirens and whistles are high-pitched noises that resemble the sound a pack member—or rival pack member—might make from a distance. When she hears these sounds, her instincts kick in and she “ah-oooos” in response. Depending on whether she thinks the sound is coming from friend or foe, she may be saying, “Stay away from here!” or, “Hellooooo! Come find me!”
Why Do Dogs Howl at Night?
If your dog is a howler, you may notice she howls most often at night. The simple explanation for this is there are fewer sounds in her immediate environment at night. The hubbub of the day subsides and there are fewer cars, buses, and trucks on nearby roads. In the increased quiet of the evening, your dog’s sensitive ears pick up more sounds than she hears during the day.
For many dogs, the howling hour is actually early morning. If your dog howls when the rooster crows, it’s for the same reason other dogs howl at night. It’s quiet out there before the world awakens fully and gets on its noisy way.
When a Dog Howls Does It Mean Death?
In the ancient legends of many early civilizations, dog howling is associated with impending death or the gathering of souls to the afterworld. In Norse mythology, for example, dogs were thought to howl when they sensed the approach of Freyja, the goddess of death (along with love, fertility, and battle), who rode through the heavens in a soul-collecting chariot pulled by two giant cats. In Irish folklore, dogs howl because they sense packs of mythical hounds leading a celestial ‘hunt’ for the souls of the dead.
Many people around the world still associate the doleful howling of dogs with death, even if they don’t believe the sound is a true harbinger of doom.
What Dog Breeds Howl?
All dog breeds howl, but certain breed types tend to howl more than others. You may have figured that out already based on the list above. Scent hounds, for example, are often howlers because they evolved to alert the rest of the pack and hunters when they were closing in on their quarry. Working dogs with arctic roots also tend to howl to perceived pack members in the distance.
If your dog howls often, her instinctive call turns into a quality of life issue for you and your neighbors. Thankfully, you can get to the root of the problem and take steps to minimize her plaintive cries, but not extinguish them. The occasional howl is a captivating sound—mournful and strangely beautiful—with many possible meanings and causes, and ancient beginnings to marvel over.