Regardless of where you live, be it in some urban center or a cabin in the woods, you've probably heard the howl of some sort of canine late in the night. As frightening as it may sound to us humans, howling hearkens back to a much earlier time in canine evolution. Unfortunately, popular media has muddied the waters by making howling something often related to the supernatural, but what are the actual roots of this behavior? Is howling just another way of socializing, or is it a defensive measure when threatened? In this comprehensive behavioral guide, we'll try to understand the roots of this "dog song".
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The Root of the Behavior
A lot of animal behaviorists are convinced that the howling we hear in canines has largely to do with their DNA. Dog breeds with longer histories have been proven to contain a large amount of genetic material inherited from the wolves and wild dogs that they originally came from. It is entirely possible that your dog's intrusive howl is a vestigial mark of an earlier time in canine history, a holdover from those ancient pack hunters and their wolfen instincts.
In nature, the howl began as a pack mechanism to help "scouts" find the pack after trying to scare up prey. A canine that stays put and howls is quite literally acting as an alarm to help pack members return to the point of origin. If you're wondering why your dog does this as an animal living with humans in a home, it is actually fairly simple. When you leave, your dog often views this as you being the pack "scout". So, when they howl, they are just trying to help you find your way home!
Territory is another pack mentality that lends itself to howling. Dogs, just like wolves, understand the boundaries of their territory and have instincts to protect that territory when threatened by members of other, unknown packs. The howl they give is a type of warning sign for both the approaching "stranger" and the members of your dog's own pack.
Another motivator for the howl is success, oddly enough. When your dog recognizes that they have "done good" or become excited, they often display behaviors to express their pleasure at their own achievements. This can also be to call for your attention during a particularly exciting moment. This may also hearken back to the days of the hunt, where a fresh kill would warrant a call to the pack that it was feeding time.
Encouraging the Behavior
While obviously, there are plenty of normal reasons for your dog to howl, you need to pay attention to these behaviors. If your dog is howling, it is entirely normal to assume it may be due to excitement, but it could just as readily be due to fear-based instincts.
Dogs can often howl when they are in physical distress. This howl will generally take on a different tone, something that you as an owner should be able to notice. If they are suffering physically, keep a close eye on the situation and watch for signs of pain such as limping or excessive drool. This type of howl generally happens several times in rapid succession, and usually has an air of panic to it.
Territorial howls are also something that, while often benign, can be an indicator of a negative situation. It could always be that your dog is howling on this particular occasion because an intruder is present, or because a wild dog or wolf has entered their yard or "territory".
Generally speaking, the howling that your dog engages in is completely normal and fine to encourage. But, always keep in mind that in residential areas, howling can become a larger issue for your neighbors over time.
Other Solutions and Considerations
One concern several animal behaviorists caution of is that excessive howling can be indicative of social distress and separation anxiety. If the howling becomes compulsive and too frequent, it can actually do damage to your dog's vocal chords. One solution to this is a bark collar, which sends a small shock to the dog anytime it senses sound coming from the dog's throat.
Another negative dog howl can be in response to unwanted sounds and stimuli. A dog's ears can hear a much wider range of frequencies than human beings, as well as hear sounds from much further away. This can be things such as police sirens, a baby’s cry, or even other dogs that are so far away you, as a human, simply cannot hear it.
The songs that your dog sings you may sometimes be intrusive, but often times they are just another facet of their genetic disposition. Sometimes, howling can even help protect you and your home. So if the noise isn’t causing any trouble, now may be the best time to take your dog outside to have a howling good time together!