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Why Do Dogs Howl?

Abhijit Naik Mar 2, 2020
Howling has long been associated with something bad; courtesy, the cliched depiction of a howling dog in popular culture. If, however, you sit back and try to figure out why dogs howl when they hear high-pitched noise, like that of a siren or music, you will be in for a surprise, considering that it's a perfectly normal dog behavior.

When it's better to howl than bark

When it comes to communication in dogs, howling is way more efficient than barking, as it carries over a far longer distance than the latter.
Howling is usually associated with wolves and therefore, similar behavior in dogs shouldn't really come as a surprise; after all, they are distant relatives. Howling is a form of vocal communication for wolves and dogs alike. In the wild, wolves either howl to warn intruders or to guide a wolf that has lost its way back to the pack.
And considering that the dog and wolf have a common ancestor, it's very likely that this is the same reason why dogs howl.

It's worth noting though, that the said ancestral instincts have evolved. In domestic dogs, howling is basically a means of long-range communication with other dogs or owner, and thus, not as common as barking.
If you pay attention, you will notice that your pet dog howls in certain situations; most likely when he hears the siren of an ambulance or a fire truck, some musical instrument, or when you are leaving the house.

Why do Dogs Howl at High-pitched Noises?

While it is yet to be completely understood, howling in dogs is attributed to their tendency to associate the 'noise' with something.
If your dog howls every time he hears a siren, it's likely that he is associating it with the 'howl' of an intruder and sending a warning sign to the latter. In this case, he will stop howling the moment the siren fades. If this happens frequently, he might be led into believing that he can 'chase' away the intruder by howling.
Dogs also howl when they hear musical instruments, like a flute or harmonica, and squeaky toys, which once again hints at the fact that they associate these 'noises' with something; most probably the 'call' of their kind.
It is not always about competing though. Your dog will also howl when the neighbor's dog howls, and soon enough, all the dogs in the neighborhood will go on a howling spree. It is as if they are communicating their whereabouts to each other.
This bears striking resemblance to each pack of wolves using a distinct howl to communicate with other members of the group in the wild.
For wild species like wolves and coyotes, howling has also been a means of assuring each other that they are together.
When a wolf breaks from the pack and loses his way, he howls and the rest of the pack howls in return to guide him. That explains why your dog howls every time you step out of the door to leave, or when you get late while returning and your dog is lonely at home. It's the loneliness which acts as a trigger of this behavior in some cases.

Separation Anxiety and Howling

If your dog is howling when you leave the house, it is most likely because of separation anxiety.
It is usually the case when the dog is left alone or when the dog is separated from the owner as a result of the latter's demise. In this case, howling is just a symptom of the underlying condition, and thus, is accompanied by other symptoms, such as pacing and depression.

Do Dogs Howl When They Are in Pain?

At times, people are led into believing that dogs howl in response to the loud noise which is painful for their ears.
They argue that we humans can at least cover our ears with our hands when noise becomes unbearably loud, but dogs can't, and thus, they howl to express their pain and discomfort. While that may seem logical considering that dogs hear better than us and something which is loud for us will be a lot louder for them, veterinarians disagree.
If dogs are howling because the noise is too loud for their ears, then they should also display other signs of distress, like run and hide inside the house or tuck their tail inside and run for cover.
That's what dogs do when they are scared of loud noise such as that of firecrackers. In response to sirens and other high-pitched voices though, their behavior shows no sign of fear. Instead, they seem willing participants in all the commotion.

How to Stop a Dog's Howling?

While it's perfectly natural for a dog to howl, it can become irritating after a point of time, such that you have no option, but to step in and take measures to stop it. For that, you need to know why the dog is howling in the first place.
If it's some underlying medical problem, medication will help you do away with the same. In contrast, if your dog is doing it to get your attention, you can ignore this behavior―lest it may become a habit.
The easiest way to ensure that your dog doesn't indulge in incessant howling, is to spend time with him. Simply put, it's important that you pay attention to him when he is quiet or else the chances are that it will prompt him to howl or whine to get your attention.
In the end, we have to admit that most people are worried about their dogs howling because they believe that it has something to do with bad omen - a sign of someone's impending death. Not just popular culture, but even folklore and mythology are full of stories about how dogs can see the 'death' coming. 
We often hear from people around us as to how they heard their dog howling when one of their family members died. Similarly, some people have their own stories of how their dog howls looking at the Moon on a full moon night, as if to say that there is something spooky about the event.
As infamous as it is, a dog's howling has nothing to do with death or any other supernatural event for that matter. It's a perfectly normal behavior for dogs, as we have seen in this story.
As for our tendency to associate dog's howling with death, it may have something to do with confirmation bias - a concept in behavioral psychology which states that we tend to interpret things in a way that confirms to our beliefs.
Also, we have a tendency to remember those instances wherein our predictions came true, while conveniently ignoring those instances wherein we were proved wrong. So, while the dog howls on a routine basis, we will only notice this so-called 'unusual behavior' when someone dies, or when it's the full moon night.