What You Need to Know About Howling
We'll tell you the meaning behind the noise — and how to stop it.
By: Elizabeth Wasserman
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, she was startled by a strange, loud howling sound.
“It sounded like the loneliest dog in the world,” says Yin, a certified applied animal behaviourist who works at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists. Then she recognized the sound and realized it was Zoe.
Your dog may howl when you least expect it — as you’re belting out a tune at the piano, when a fire engine drives by with wailing sirens or if your dog is left alone in a strange place. While 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, 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 an instinct built into our furry friends from their 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 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 may sometimes be trying to do the same.
Sirens, singing or other noises the dog finds similar to howling may trigger howling, says Dan Estep, a certified applied animal behaviourist in Colorado and co-author of “Help! I'm Barking and I Can't Be Quiet.”
Social facilitation convinces dogs to copy another dog's behaviour, such as when one pooch barks at the mail carrier and the rest of the dogs on the block do the same.
How to Control Howling
If your pup’s howling gets on your nerves or your neighbours 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.
- Behaviour modification: Desensitization to triggers may work, Estep says. 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, Yin let her dog sleep in her car whenever they went away on subsequent trips. Given the familiar environment and Yin’s frequent safety checks, Zoe napped in peaceful silence.
Elizabeth is a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer who 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.