Have you ever wondered why dogs howl? About what they’re trying to say when they howl? Or even if dog howling is a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s a quiet night and very dark. You’re sound asleep, warm and comfortable when suddenly, something snatches you from a dream. You wake up with your heart pounding to a long, mournful sound that seems to fill the room.
You gradually recognize the sound as a dog howling, or possibly a wolf, but you have a hard time getting back to sleep. The howling leaves you feeling just a little unsettled.
It’s not hard to believe that in many cultures, the sound of a dog howling has been thought to be an omen that someone was going to die.
These days, we’re not as superstitious. But even though we now know better, the haunting sound of a dog (or wolf) howling in the distance still fascinates most of us.
In the dark on a silent night, it can chill your blood. But in your living room in broad daylight, when performed by your own dog, canine howling can also be good musical fun.
If you’ve ever wondered what dog howling means or if your dog’s howling is a problem, read on!
Why Do Dogs Howl?
There are a lot of reasons why dogs howl. The most obvious one, perhaps, is the relationship of our domestic dogs to the wolf.
In other words, it’s in their genes.
Wolves howl for any of the following reasons:
- To communicate with each other.
- To sound an alert.
- For social bonding.
- To attract mates.
- For guarding their territory.
- To keep track of each other.
- To signal pain or distress.
- In grief for a lost mate.
- Probably many other reasons that we haven’t yet discovered.
Our pet dogs howl for many of the same reasons.
We know that among domestic dogs, certain breeds are more likely to howl than others. For example, sled dogs howl, or “sing,” while they work.
And hunting dogs have been bred specifically for their baying (which is considered a type of howling).
The following breeds are among the most likely to howl a lot:
- Coon Hounds: Redbone, Black and Tan, Bluetick, Redtick, American English, Treeing Walker.
- Native American Indian Dog.
- Bassett Hound.
- Tamaskan Dog (wolf/dog hybrid).
- Alaskan Malamute.
- Alaskan Husky.
- Siberian Husky.
- American Foxhound.
- English Foxhound.
- American Eskimo Dog.
In fact, all dog breeds howl to some degree. It’s a natural part of being a canine.
One reason for that howling is to message each other. Canines in the wild howl to keep track of each other, to inform each other of the location of prey, to help stragglers or lone hunters find their way home, or to signal that they need help.
To Sound an Alert
Dogs bred to be guard dogs can be more likely to howl as their version of an early warning system. They may alert to anything in their environment they perceive as suspicious. The alarm can be directed toward other dogs or to their humans.
This, too, can be a response to something unusual in a dog’s environment that’s making it uncomfortable. While some dogs cower during a thunderstorm, for instance, others will howl.
Anxiety or Loneliness
Separation anxiety is usually the culprit here. Dogs who are left alone for long periods may be prone to anxiety howling.
Your dog may do this for the same reason his ancestors do. Wolves will howl to help another wolf who is separated from the pack find its way back. Your dog may believe his howling will bring you home.
(And in his mind, it works. He’s learned that if he howls long enough, you eventually do come home, right?)
Pain, Illness, or Distress
If your dog is not usually a howler, though, and he suddenly starts to do it, you need to consider a medical issue. You should make a vet appointment if it happens more than occasionally.
Dogs may also howl to notify other dogs that they have staked a claim, or to warn other dogs out of “their” territory.
To Attract Attention
Sometimes dogs howl for attention. “I’m here—pay attention to me!” Again, certain breeds are more likely to do this than others. This is nothing to worry about as long as it’s not bothering you (or the neighbors).
Sometimes a dog simply has nothing better to do. It’s common with dogs in homes where no one is home all day. It’s a situation that needs intervention, though, for your dog’s sake as well as your neighbors’.
Response to Noise
YouTube is full of videos of dogs howling along with the radio, television, musical instruments, or even their humans.
But the most common howling trigger is a siren. Many dogs will howl along with ambulance and police car sirens.
In fact, they are more likely to howl to a siren than to another dog’s howling. Scientists don’t know exactly why.
They may mistake the sound for another dog howling, and they're simply joining in.
Aging dogs tend to howl more than younger ones, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). They might howl because of canine dementia or confusion, loss of sight or hearing, or illness.
Happiness or Pride
Sometimes a dog will howl a “look what I found!” announcement when he finds a treasure such as a buried bone.
Barking and Howling
In the Wild
Scientists don’t know a lot yet about howling, or its relationship to barking. This is because the best way to study a natural behavior in dogs is to observe them in the wild.
Studying wild dogs/wolves for howling, however, is challenging for several reasons. One is that they travel long distances, so it’s hard to track howling habits of packs or individuals.
But one recent study suggests that canids (wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs in this study) use different howls to communicate different messages or emotions.
In all, the researchers discovered 21 different types of howls. Not all canine species used all 21 types, but the domestic dog is known to use many of them.
All of which means that the canine howls may be a sort of language.
And although they howl, wolves don’t bark like domestic dogs. This seems to be because barking would be dangerous for the pack, giving predators or competing packs too much information.
This also explains why they seem to be cautious about howling. They have been noted to howl less frequently in the spring and early summer when they have vulnerable pups to care for.
In the fall, they go back to their regular frequency.
Domestic dogs don’t appear to have those limitations. But after centuries of domestication, it’s hard to sort out natural behaviors in our pet dogs.
They seem to howl for many of the same reasons that wolves do. But unlike wolves, most dogs have evolved to bark more than howl to signal to each other and to humans.
Some researches think that humans are responsible for our dogs’ transition from primarily howlers to mostly barkers.
We may have selectively bred them to bark because it’s easier for us to understand than howling. Most humans can tell the difference between several types of barking, like a fear bark, a “let’s play” bark, or an aggressive bark.
So, while we can interpret our dogs’ barks pretty well, we’re not as good at understanding what their howling means.
For more information about dogs and barking, please see Stop Dog Barking: Why Dogs Bark and What You Can Do About It.
Because our family dogs have very different lives since we domesticated them, it’s difficult to study the connection between barking and howling in depth.
But as the study above suggests, it’s beginning to look like howling may be a canine language.
Researchers are beginning to show interest in that possibility.
This means that one day, we might be able to interpret dog howling. Until then, though, we’ll have to guess why our dogs howl at home.
And when it’s not serving them (or us) well, there will be times when we need to stop it.
So, How Do You Stop a Dog from Howling?
The best way to stop your dog from howling is first to determine why he's doing it. Here are some tips on how to figure that out:
Rule Out a Medical Issue
If your dog’s howling has been sudden in onset and you can’t identify a trigger, you need to rule out a medical issue. You should make a vet appointment as soon as you can. Your dog may be in pain.
If your dog’s howling seems to happen mostly when no one’s paying attention to him or when no one’s home, he could be bored or lonely.
Or he may howl or bark excessively.
Make it a point to leave your dog interactive toys to play with when you’re not home. And most importantly, see that he gets plenty of exercise.
Consider getting up a little earlier in the morning to give your dog a 30-minute walk before you leave the house. Or hire a neighborhood teen to walk your dog before school or during the day.
Another 30-minute walk before bed would also make a significant difference to your dog. It may be a cliché, but it’s also a fact: A tired dog is a happy dog.
Rule Out Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is another consideration if your dog is howling when you’re not home. Is your dog always within two or three feet of you? Does he follow you even to the bathroom?
Maybe he indulges in some of the destructive or compulsive behaviors listed above?
If so, then you may be dealing with separation anxiety.
To stop your dog’s howling when you’re not around, you may need to start a behavioral program for separation anxiety.
For severe cases of separation anxiety, you may want to consider talking to your vet about medication for your dog.
Teach the Quiet Command
The most direct way to stop your dog from howling is to teach him to be quiet.
But before he will understand what quiet means, you will need to teach him speak.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends the following training regimen to teach the speak command:
Use an object that gets your dog to bark or howl (a favorite toy, maybe?). Ringing the doorbell or knocking on the door may also work.
As soon as your dog barks or howls, reward him. Repeat this until your dog is barking or howling on command.
Then, add the quiet command. Get him to speak on demand, but don’t reward him. Then ask him to be quiet. When he is quiet, even for a second or two, quickly reward him.
Be very careful to time rewards just right. Don’t give him the treat until he has finished speaking. Gradually increase the duration that he must be quiet before he gets the treat.
When he is doing well with being quiet on command, work up to using the command when there are distractions, such as a loud television or a house full of people.
Once he’s doing this well, try adding distance to the training. Gradually ask him to be quiet from positions farther and farther away from you.
Helpful Dog Training Resource:
Try an Anti-bark Collar
Some say that anti-bark collars will stop howling. These collars fit snugly. When the dog moves his throat to make a sound, it causes a little compartment on the collar to open, emitting a scent that dogs find unpleasant (usually citronella).
The idea is that the dog associates his barking with the unpleasant smell, so he stops barking.
If you know the howling trigger, then you can attempt to avoid or remove the trigger. Avoidance works well if his trigger is something like the Jeopardy theme song playing on TV. You can simply turn the volume down.
Create a Distraction Plan
Other triggers are hard to control, such as sirens or wild birds chirping. For triggers like this, you can try redirection. Give the dog something to distract him from howling.
For example, when you hear a siren, immediately distract your dog by initiating a game of fetch or a quick training session. Or try hiding some treats in a puzzle feeder—anything that will occupy his attention until the trigger is gone.
If he does begin howling, withdraw your attention by turning away from your dog. If he stops briefly, turn back and quickly reward him while he’s quiet.
Institute a Behavior Modification Program
In many cases, howling is not a behavioral issue that needs “fixing.” When your dog sings along with a soprano on the radio, for example, you know he’ll stop when the music does (or when you turn the radio off).
However, you may live in an area where sirens are very common and your dog’s howling along is bothering neighbors. Or maybe he howls with fear during thunderstorms.
In those cases, you may want a definitive method to train your dog not to howl.
This is where behavior modification comes in.
A behavior modification program is always the best option to change unwanted behavior because it teaches the dog a new way to respond to a stimulus. This creates a more permanent behavior change than most other methods.
Dog behaviorists typically use two methods to treat dogs with anxiety and phobias—desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitizing your dog is the process of gradually getting him used to a stimulus so that it stops being a trigger to him. The process involves exposing him to the trigger in small “doses.”
In the case of a reaction to a siren, for example, you could play an audiotape of a siren at a very low volume and for a very short time. If your dog doesn't react, turn the volume up just a bit or increase the duration.
When your dog does react, continue playing the siren at the same volume or for the same duration. Turn it on and off until your dog is habituated to it and no longer reacts.
Then repeat the procedure as often as needed at a slightly louder volume or longer intervals. In time your dog should stop reacting to the siren.
Counterconditioning is the process of training your dog to have a different (often opposite) reaction to a stimulus. It works well in situations where your dog is anxious or afraid.
For example, if your dog howls during thunderstorms because he’s afraid, you may be able to countercondition him. He can learn to see storms as a good thing by a process called “jolly talking.”
When your dog begins to react to thunder, immediately start talking to him in a happy voice. At the same time, feed him treats that he especially loves, one after another, until the thunderclap stops. Then stop treating immediately.
Repeat this step with every thunderclap. Your dog should gradually learn that thunderstorms mean something good—delicious treats for him. It may get him over his fear reaction.
For more information about desensitization, counterconditioning, and behavioral modification programs in general, please see Dog Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD), Causes, and Treatment.
Where to Find Help
Is your dog’s howling a problem that you would like help dealing with? There are a few places where you can look for help.
You may want to speak with your vet first. Depending on the cause and seriousness of your dog’s howling issue, your vet may recommend a certified dog trainer or a certified dog behaviorist.
A dog trainer can deal with most common behavior problems. You can check out the following websites for searchable databases to find one in your area:
- International Association of Canine Professionals.
- Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
Certified dog behaviorists have more professional education. They are a better choice for complex behavior problems, such as obsessive-compulsive behaviors (OCD).
Find one in your area at one of these sites:
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.
- Animal Behavior Society.
- American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Helpful Online Dog Training Resource:
A Final Word
Now that you understand why dogs howl, you may decide that your dog’s howling is not a problem. If you’re satisfied that he is not suffering from loneliness, fear, or a medical problem, he may be howling for the sheer fun of it.
According to Karen Becker, DVM, dogs have deep emotions just as we humans do. Howling may be their way of expressing strong emotions, such as joy or love, with their version of singing.
So, if your dog’s howling is not bothering anyone, a final option is to just go with it. Or better yet, why not sing along and make it a duet? Your dog is sure to love it!
References and Further Reading
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Behavior problems in older dogs.
- Becker, Karen, DVM. Health Pets. Mercola. Could be a very noisy sign of love—and maybe she’s calling you home. July 13, 2017.
- Buzhardt, Lynn, DVM. VCA Hospitals. Why do dogs howl? 2015.
- Kershenbaum, Arik, et al. Behavioral Processes. Disentangling canid howls across multiple species and subspecies: Structure in a complex communication channel. (Full-text author’s version. Final version published at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2016.01.006, March 2016).
- Rutberg, Sara. PetMD. Why do dogs howl?
- University of Cambridge. Wolf species have howling dialects. February 8, 2016.