Why Do Dogs Howl?

Howling as you probably know is part of the canine vocal repertoire, along with the more conventional bark, growl and whine. This haunting call is an evolutionary gift from wolves. The howl of the wolf has long evoked fear and superstition in people. The howling of your dog by contrast, prompts anything from curiosity to dismay. Why do they do it?

Howling evolved as a long-distance call among wolves. Roughly translated it means “I'm here!”. A wolf might howl to signal his or her precise location to the rest of the pack. Pack members would then howl back to acknowledge the message. An alpha male wolf might howl to assert  a territorial claim, warning others to stay away. Howling may also be used as a sort of reunion call to the rest of the pack after a period of absence.

Acoustically, a howl is perfect for travelling over long distances. Unlike the bark, which is relatively monotone and choppy, the sustained 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 meanings. 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 it's the cause of this familiar scenario: First one dog in the neighbourhood howls, then another, then the dog down the block chimes in, and so on it goes.

Some domestic dogs routinely howl, while others never or barely howl at all. Some dogs will howl as a symptom of separation anxiety. Such dogs develop a strong bond with their owner and fear being left alone. They may howl, vocalize, and exhibit anxious and destructive behaviours due to an overwhelming urge to be reunited with their owner. For Northern breeds like Huskies and Malamutes, howling is a mainstay of their repertoire. They rarely bark, but instead communicate with a human-like “woo-woo” sound that can easily crescendo into a howl when they're excited.