BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Why Do Dogs Howl: The Animal Within

Howling dogs
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Do you know those moments when you’re sleeping peacefully and then, all of a sudden, a nightmare about a werewolf hunting you disturbs your slumber? The werewolf is stopping once in a while to howl at the moon and rip his already ragged shirt, but is getting closer and closer by the second.

You wake up in a pool of your own sweat, scared by the chase and terrified by your potential dream-death, only to realize that Fido is the one doing all the noise. He’s howling away for apparently no reason, and you’re the one who’s paying the price. So why do dogs howl? We’ll try to answer the most common questions, so you can know exactly why that werewolf is hunting you.

The main reasons for howling

Conveying a message

Barking and howling are the primary means through which dogs relay their intentions. That’s a deeply ingrained instinct, determined by their wolf ancestry and their pack tendencies. When a dog howls, it means that they need to tell you something or, for that matter, convey something to the other dogs they hear in the distance.

Dogs howl

They could be trying to communicate various ideas, like:

  • Warning signals. A dog may want to let the others know that they can’t come any closer, because they don’t belong there.
  • Help signals. When they’re scared or they need help, dogs will more likely howl than bark. That’s because howls are transmitted on a higher frequency and are more likely to be heard.
  • Anxiety. Puppies and older dogs are going through significant life changes and they’re pretty much scared because they don’t understand most of their environment. Puppies are new to this world, while older dogs experience a decrease in their senses, and don’t precisely know how to act in these new conditions.
  • Mating signals. Especially female dogs will howl and whine when they’re in heat. They use these noises to attract potential partners, by letting them know they’re available and that the time is ready for conceiving. However, if you’re not allowing her to mate and if she isn’t spayed, she might also howl out of boredom during her fertile period.

Separation anxiety

If your dog is nervous when you want to leave the house, and yelping helplessly after you do, he may suffer from separation anxiety. Of course, if it’s really separation anxiety, your dog will likely exhibit other signs like: apathy, nervousness, irritability, apprehension or incontinence.

Howling when being left to fend for themselves is a common behavior in dogs. Since they use barking and howling as means of communication, they’re trying to convey a pretty clear message: “don’t abandon me”. As such, howling can become a self-soothing behavior in these situations. Dogs feel better when they howl because they get the impression that at least they’re doing something.

Separation anxiety

Besides, if they keep doing it non-stop until you get back home, they may draw the “logical” conclusion that their wailing is what brought you back home. If they become conditioned to think like this, you may never hear the end of it – literally.

Injuries

Dogs don’t express their pain the same way people do, and that’s why one of the skills a loving dog owner must possess is discerning between the types of noises they make. Dogs aren’t exactly the epitome of expressiveness in the animal kingdom, since they don’t tend to show signs of hurting, if their pain is mild to moderate. As such, when a dog howls, it could possibly mean that he’s experiencing a very high level of pain.

Discerning this from other type of howling – like social or inquisitive howling – is very important. Vocalizing pain through howling is associated with other noises, like whining, whimpering, yelping and groaning.

Besides, your dog will likely show other signs of injury, such as tenderness of the affected area, apathy, lack of appetite.

So, if you’re sure that your dog is howling because of an injury, be sure to take him to the vet right away.

Marking their territory

Have you ever asked yourself why do dogs howl at sirens? Many dog owners and researchers alike have, but the answer doesn’t seem to be very clear. Conversely, there seem to be many acceptable reasons why this happens, mainly because every dog is different and therefore interprets differently the signs received from the environment.

However, the most common explanation is that they perceive the siren as another dog howling. As such, they may think they’re hearing a lost dog searching for his own pack and wants to let the said “dog” know that they can’t come any closer.

In fact, dogs can use howling as a form of marking their territory in other situations too, such as when they hear other noises from the environment which don’t necessarily sound like howling, but like dangers.

Marking their territory

That’s why dogs have been originally trained to fend off predators. They make howling noises to warn the potential enemies that a certain place is well guarded, but they use barking when they feel a threat nearing them.

Bonding

Have you ever heard a whole pack of dogs howling for no apparent reason, except that some random dog started the whole deal?

Dogs are very strongly pack-oriented, so howling may be their way to show a certain affiliation to their pears. They may want to show other dogs that they recognize their presence and that they all come from the same tribe.

The pack instinct is something dogs inherit from the wolves, but it’s not just a genetic propensity that simply exists in their genome, but it’s something that has to be nurtured and cultivated through communication and pack activities.

That’s why your neighborhood may be woken up at regular times by all the noise your dogs make. They probably know each other, running and playing in the same dog park, but they’re still quite apprehensive, so they may not think they’re a pack per se.

Moreover, some dog owners find it very amusing when dogs howl and encourage that behavior by howling themselves. When dogs respond, it’s probably not a cry for help and they’re not hurt, but they’re just showing a pack instinct.

Imaginary hunting

But what does it mean when a dog howls for apparently no reason, when they’re neither in pain and distress, nor hear others howling?  A few dogs howl when they sleep, because they’re dreaming about something that should elicit this verbal response. In their dream world, they encounter a trigger: maybe a chase, another pack or a situation when they’re alone.

Imaginary hunting

On the other hand, some dog breeds were initially raised as proficient hunters so howling is in their genes more than in the genes of other dogs. They may not even know why they do it, it just happens.

How do you get rid of howling?

If your dog just rarely howls at sirens and doesn’t bother you very much, you’re amongst the lucky owners. Other people have a lot of trouble managing this unpleasant behavior, especially if their neighbors start complaining.

Nevertheless, as with all the behaviors exhibited by your dog you want to correct, you must first understand the cause and then shape your strategy accordingly.

Exercise and company

If your dog howls very frequently, you may want to consider spending more time with him. He may be feeling lonely or anxious – and remember that dogs are pack animals. Since you’re probably the only pack they know, you must provide them with the pack activities they need.

Snow dog howling

Making him understand that you are his pack will deter him from barking because he needs to find another pack or communicate with other dogs. Besides, you’ll create a stronger bond between the two of you, and your dog will soon let go of any separation anxiety he may feel when you go for work, since he will begin to trust you even more.

Not to mention that if he’s really tired because of all the fun he’s had playing and running during the day, he will lack the energy to howl during the night.

Distract his attention with toys

Surround him with all the toys he needs when you’re leaving him at home for prolonged periods of time – this will help ease the apprehension he must feel otherwise. As a plus, if he’s entertained, he won’t pay as much attention to outside stimuli which may trigger his howling behavior.

His favorite chew-toys, a beloved blanket and your presence help build a comforting environment. He won’t need to howl at sirens, nor recognize them as a potential threat because he’s already feeling safe and guarded in his own home.

In addition to this, playing with all his toys will soon exhaust him and he won’t feel as interested in noisy activities.

Counter-conditioning and desensitization

If you’ve given your dog all the attention he needs, but he keeps howling without any other visible sign of pain or anxiety, it may be possible that this has turned into a self-gratifying attention-seeking behavior.

The best thing you can do in this situation is to break the association that has formed in his mind that if he howls long enough, you’ll notice him and reward him with a pet or with some calming words.

Dogs howling

The reason is that what people see as soothing, dogs see as rewarding, so don’t give into the need to calm him down – you’re just reinforcing the negative association. We all know it’s hard, but ignore the howling if your dog just wants some extra-attention.

If your dog howls when he hears other dogs or even sirens, you have to first desensitize him to these particular stimuli. Interrupt him every time he yelps in response to noise, and redirect his attention to something else.

In fact, the best thing would be to prevent the howling altogether. Try to play some howling/siren sounds on your laptop, and watch your dog closely. If you sense that he’s about to start howling too, distract him with something else, until he completely ignores the sounds.

You can also teach your dog the “Speak/ Quiet” command, so he knows that he’s rewarded when he’s calm and that you prefer his quiet version.

Communication with other dogs

If your dog is very territorial and keeps howling to protect his home, that’s the behavior you want to deter. Some dog breeds are very apprehensive when it comes to socializing with other dogs, and they’re not very stranger-friendly either. As such, one of the solutions you want to try is showing him that he has nothing to be defensive of, by introducing him to other dogs and teaching him to interact with his new playmates.

You can even organize house parties with your neighbors’ dogs, if you want to show your dog that it’s ok to smell/ sense his peers in his backyard.

Puppies howling

Very young pups may also feel quite lonely. If you’ve adopted such a dog, it may be that he misses his mother and brothers, or the interactions he had with other dogs at the shelter. Giving him a substitute family can help ease his night howling, because he won’t feel so alone.

Besides, it’s always a good idea to teach your dog to be more independent and engage him in dog-like activities. The more, the merrier – and you’ll also benefit from this playtime: you’ll make sure that your dog has consumed all his energy before bedtime, giving you both the chance to enjoy a good night’s sleep.

Sterilization for girls

If you have a female dog that howls and whimpers every time she’s in heat, you may want to consider sterilizing her. Apart from the fact that you’ll be able to eliminate the need for her to howl, you’ll also be soothing her: the need to mate and not be allowed to let nature take its course can’t be a very pleasant feeling.

Additionally, sterilizing dogs may impact their howling proclivities even outside the mating season, because it makes them calmer. As such, this will increase your chances of having a more docile, quiet pet with less barking or howling tendencies.

Medical help

If there are any other signs of injury or disease, be sure to get your dog to a vet as soon as possible. As they get older, dogs develop arthritis, diabetes or even cancer. It’s very sad, but you must be careful to all signs of illness they may exhibit – including a cry-like howling. Even if you’re not sure, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Teaching your dog to howl

If you have it in for yourself, you can actually teach your dog how to howl. That’s not as uncommon as you may think and people do it for many reasons:

  • It’s Fun. What can be more humorous for your guests or for your kids than seeing a small little pup howling away at his owner’s command? It can provide a hearty entertainment for your dog as well, because that would put him in the limelight, getting him worthy praises and treats.
  • Bonding. Some owners think they can connect better with their dogs if they enter their canine world, apart from teaching the dogs how to adapt to the human environment. That can be true, since howling is a pack behavior.
  • Defense. Some breeds were raised for scouting and guarding. If you have a rather big property that you feel needs protecting, you can get a dog that has howling in his genes and teach him to do it as a way of marking his territory or alerting you of possible intruders.

As with other commands, you will have to show your dog how and when to howl. If you want to keep it light, show him that it’s fun to howl along when you do it. If you want a guard dog, he’ll have to learn that howling is only allowed when he spots something dangerous.

Of course, the methods are very different for each particular case, but one thing remains unchanged: giving him a treat every time you want him to howl.

Which breeds do the most howling?

These are the breeds that were either trained for hunting or guarding, or the breeds which need more socializing and interaction. Understanding your dog’s needs will help you figure out if they howl simply because that’s in their genes.

Akita howling

The breeds most prone for this type of behavior are:

  • Afghan hound
  • Akita
  • American Pit Bull Terrier
  • Appenzeller Sennenhunde
  • Basenji
  • Bluetick Coonhound
  • Bolognese
  • Bulldog
  • Bullmastiff
  • Chinese Shar-Pei
  • Chinook
  • Chow-Chow
  • Cotton de Tulear
  • Entlebucher Mountain Dog
  • French Bulldog
  • Great Dane
  • Greyhound
  • Ibizan Hound
  • Maltese Shih Tzu
  • Neapolitan Mastiff
  • Newfoundland
  • Norwegian Buhund
  • Peekapoo
  • Pekingese
  • Pyrenean Shepherd
  • Redbone Coonhound
  • Saluki
  • Shiba Inu
  • Siberian Husky
  • Treeing Walker Coonhound
  • Xoloitzcuintli

So what does it mean when a dog howls? Some superstitions out there associate it with extreme bad luck, accidents or even death, but the truth is that howling is in your dog’s genes, expressing his needs to socialize, to defend or to communicate distress.

Dogs Howls at Night

If it’s something you definitely can’t live with, don’t adopt a dog prone to howling, and use positive reinforcement do inhibit this behavior, not punishments.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • anna willard

    My close friend neighbor has a Siberian Husky who has a peculiar habit of howling at 3pm everyday! She thought he was going “to do his business” so she makes it a point to send him out. But he never does anything but play around the yard. What else can she do? He’s driving her nuts!

  • Liz Fraser

    Howling was the very reason why we ultimately chose to have Sapphire (our first greyhound) spayed. She was uncontrollably howling in her heat, that our vet ultimately suggested to have her spayed. It was a good decision since Sapphire was a lot calmer afterwards.

  • Michelle Ramas

    Wow! So that explains everything Robbie, my dog, does!

  • John Porter

    My vet said my dog is ready for mating when she’s howling. So, I guess I gotta get my princess a man! :)

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