No matter where you live, you almost certainly have had the experience of being out on the stoop or porch late at night and hearing the unmistakable sound of dogs howling in the distance. Sometimes, I have the same thought as Bram Stoker’s famous vampire, “Listen to them — the children of the night. What music they make!”
That often leads me to think of Dracula’s strange and threatening agenda, and I start to wonder if the howling dogs are, in fact, making music, or if they are plotting the overthrow of humanity and the establishment of universal dog empire.
Why do dogs howl? Researchers believe that dog howling is bound up in dog genetics. The ancient dog breeds are recognized for how closely their DNA matches that of the wolves from which they descended. Is dog howling an atavistic expression of a shared wild ancestry? A lingering vestige of wolf times and pack activity? Communication seems to be at the heart of things, so let’s investigate why dogs howl and what they might be saying.
In the wild, wolves and feral dogs howl to bring scouts back to the pack after a hunt. Dogs who remain behind howl to provide the location of their base. Dog howling acts as a vocal homing beacon or a kind of auditory lighthouse which guides other pack members back. Pet dogs howling can be a similar expression, particularly if you’ve been out of the house all day. Dogs howl to beckon their loved ones back home.
Dog howling signals to other dogs that the area they are entering has been claimed and occupied. It is a warning to outsiders that encroachment risks the threat of violence. Howling dogs announce their presence and alert their community to changing circumstances. In this context, dog howling functions as a defense mechanism, warding off potential predators and ensuring the safety of the dogs in the pack. In a domestic setting, like your home, dogs may howl for the same reason. Some dogs bark, others howl when a stranger comes to the door or a new car pulls up in the driveway.
A howling dog may simply want attention. Some dog owners know that dogs can be as emotionally manipulative as any human. The sound of a dog howling attracts the attention of its owner. Maybe you dash across the house to see what’s wrong, only to find yourself greeted by a dog who wants to be played with. Go through this routine enough times and the dog will learn that howling is an effective way to bring you running.
Of course, there are two sides to this coin. If your dog knows that you leave for extended periods of time, he may howl as an expression of separation anxiety. Dogs that don’t have toys or sufficient things to entertain them in your absence get sad, lonely, and depressed. Dog howling can be in protest of being left alone. Imagine if someone put you in a crate all day or left you in some other space for an extended period of time. You’d howl, too!
Dog howling can be a response to environmental triggers. Common provocations include ambulance, police, or fire-engine sirens. The sound of these noises were the only times that my dog ever howled. The distant sound of approaching sirens always prompted her to sit up and join in the wailing. The reason remains uncertain, since she never howled at the sound of other dogs howling. Perhaps the pitch of sirens awoke some otherwise-dormant genetic memory.
Much of our research confirms that dog howling occurs when certain sounds are perceived. The prompts and triggers can be anything: music on a stereo at a party, popular television theme songs, or the sound of musical instruments. People who enjoy dogs howling even seem to encourage their dogs by howling themselves! It would seem that one reason dogs howl is the experience of community or of bonding. Why do dogs howl at sirens? Why do dogs howl when you howl? Perhaps it’s to join in and be a part of the action.
Dog howling can be an expression of injury. People weep when they get hurt; dogs howl in similar situations. Dogs howl to vocalize pain. Some dogs are also trained to howl when they make discoveries. Hunting dog breeds howl to signal the pursuit or apprehension of prey. If a dog has treed, cornered, or caught something, they may howl to alert their owners to the location of the prize.
Some dog breeds certainly tend to howl more than others. Breeds known for howling include Alaskan Malamutes, American Eskimo Dogs, Beagles, Coonhounds (Black and Tan, Bluetick, Redtick, English, Redbone, and Treeing Walker), Dachshunds, Foxhounds (American and English), Hounds (Bloodhound, Basset), Huskies (Alaskan and Siberian), Native American Indian Dogs, and Tamaskan Dogs, among others.
One thing to consider is that dog howling, like any other form of vocal expression, has no fixed meaning. It is a shifting signifier whose interpretation is situation-dependent. I enjoy going to karaoke; is it so difficult to imagine that a dog might not howl out of necessity, but out of joy?
Is your dog a howler? When and how do your dogs get the urge to sing? Share your experiences with dog howling in the comments! Let us know the breed or mix, if you can, and our Dogster community will benefit from the knowledge.
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