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Why Do Dogs Howl?


Howling is a part of the canine vocal repertoire, along with the more conventional bark, growl and whine. This plaintive and haunting call is an evolutionary gift from wolves. The midnight howl of the wolf has long evoked fear and superstition in people. The howling of one's pet dog, by contrast, prompts anything from curiosity to consternation. Why do they do it?

Howling evolved as a long-distance call among wolves. Roughly translated, means “I'm here!” A wolf might howl to signal his or her precise location to the rest of the pack, a sort of canine GPS locator. Pack members would then howl back to acknowledge the message. An alpha male wolf might howl to assert his claim on a parcel of territory, warning others to stay away. Howling might be a way of saying “I'm lonely.” Or it might be a sort of reunion call to the rest of the pack after an absence.

Acoustically, a howl is perfectly calibrated to travel over long distances. Unlike the bark, which is relatively monotone and choppy, the sustained “Arooooo!” of a howl swings through a wide range of pitches, which maximizes its range. Acoustic studies show that each wolf has a unique howl, a sort of auditory fingerprint, which pack members use to identify each other. Howls can also have different shades of meaning. Thus a “lonesome howl” might differ from a “puppy howl” which would differ from a “confrontational howl.”


Howls, like yawns, seem to be contagious. And just as the sight of another person yawning can give you the irresistible urge to yawn yourself, one howl demands a reply. It's innate. And it's the cause of this familiar scenario: First one dog in the neighborhood howls, then another, then the dog down the block chimes in, and so on it goes.

Some domestic dogs routinely howl; others never or barely do so at all. Some dogs will howl as a symptom of separation anxiety. Such dogs develop a pathologically tight bond with their humans, fear being left alone, and may howl, vocalize, and exhibit anxious and destructive behaviors out of an urge to be reunited with the pack. For Northern breeds like Huskies and Malamutes, howling is a mainstay of their repertoire. They rarely bark, but instead communicate with a humanlike “woo-woo” sound that can easily crescendo into a howl when they're excited.

For the modern dog, the trigger can be something man-made. High pitched noises on the TV, shrill sounds from musical instruments, or the family singing show tunes around the piano can send a dog tunelessly crooning. The dog is not in pain or critiquing your singing. She's just seized by an irresistible urge to reply.

And of course there is the paws-down favorite, the acoustic piece de resistance:
the siren call of - you guessed it - the fire siren.

It may sound like your dog is possessed when this serenade starts, but really she is just heeding the call of the wild!

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