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Why do dogs howl?

Golden labrador howling

Howling is your dog's way to communicate.

© Pixabay

Howling is a natural noise for dogs, but is not always welcome nor a sign that all is well. Let's look at why dogs howl and what we can do to help.

By Karen Wild, CCAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:34

Why do dogs howl?

Dogs are not the only animals that howl of course. Other howling species include monkeys, mice, and more familiarly, wolves.

Howling plays an important part in wolf culture. It's used to establish territory and boundaries. A howling pack of wolves is saying: “this is our space, not yours”. It also works as a natural “sat-nav”. Wolves can locate each by their howls, which can carry for many miles. Howling also has a social function and is a way of communicating as a group.

Dog howling sounds

Some experts suggest that dogs were first domesticated between 20,000-40,000 years ago. Dogs and today’s Grey wolf descended from a common wolf ancestor - but dogs are very different to today’s wolves. Modern dogs also look very different from their early ancestors, but they still carry many of the same instincts; howling is just one of them. It’s important to consider the purpose of howling in today’s modern context if we are to fully understand our dogs.

The domesticated dog howls to attract attention and to communicate with other dogs (you'll often see that when one starts howling, others join in). Some pooches will even howl along to music. Every dog takes part in this behaviour, if the right circumstances arise to trigger it.

Different dog breeds make different types of sounds. For instance, some dogs will produce more of a yodelling sound. Others, like Basset Hounds, will produce sounds that are more like baying. A lot depends on the dog’s physical anatomy. Just as dogs have different-sounding barks, the same applies to howling. Howling itself can sound different, depending on the reason!

Why does my dog howl so much?

There's nothing wrong with a little bit of howling. It's perfectly natural. But excessive or distressed howling might be your dog's way of saying they're not happy. Common reasons for excessive howling include:

Separation anxiety, loneliness and distress

Dogs can howl if they're feeling lonely. After all, they are social animals. The comfort of belonging to a group is vital in maintaining their physical and mental health. Other symptoms of separation anxiety include destructive behaviour, accidents around the house, and excessive barking. Separation anxiety and distress is manageable, but it's best not leave any dog alone for long periods of time. They have a right to social contact.

Illness or injury

Dogs will sometimes howl if they're sick or injured. It also signals that the dog needs some help, comfort or attention. If your dog is howling for no obvious reason, take them for a veterinary check-up.

Response howling

Dogs are pack animals that mimic and reflect each other’s behaviour. If they can hear another dog howling, they’ll probably join in! This is also true of similar noises such as those of sirens or bells, or even singing or music playing. It may not be a sign of distress, but do check your dog is actually feeling ok and don’t encourage it on purpose.

My dog is howling all the time, how do I stop them?

Excessive howling can be a problem. Your dog might be sick or anxious. It can also get pretty annoying, for you and your neighbours. If your dog is poorly or upset, you should try to get help.

Once your dog gets the right treatment, the howling should stop. It might be linked to an underlying medical issue, so take your pooch to a vet. Indeed, excessive howling can also be associated with behavioural or emotional problems. In some cases, you may need to consult a clinical animal behaviourist.

Why is my dog howling and crying?

Remember that some dogs howl for attention. It's their way of asking for things, like affection or food. If you immediately respond, your dog may stop, but you may be teaching them to howl. However, ignoring your dog when he clearly needs something, is pretty unfair and tends to make the howling and crying louder and more insistent. Your dog may try other things like barking or pawing at you. Ignoring howling is generally not the right thing to do. Instead, take action. Decide what it is your dog needs - do they need food, water, a walk, to play, are they poorly, lonely, upset for another reason? It’s not as simple as ignoring it and hoping it will stop. Work on the cause, and give your dog no reason to feel lonely or upset.

You can then start rewarding him for being quiet! When your dog is quiet and calm, gently praise his good behaviour or give him a little treat. A dog’s brain links actions and behaviours to positive or negative outcomes, so paying attention to them when they are quiet means they are not learning to make noises to get noticed.

Do dogs howl when they are sad?

It could be that your dog is feeling distressed, lonely or poorly, and howling can result. However, not all howling is linked to sadness.

Some dogs howl more than others, and the majority of them will howl a little bit! In most cases though, it's just a way for dogs to express themselves. They might be saying hello to their friends, protecting the family home, or even just having a sing-along when a musical instrument is being played. This is all OK and it will usually stop after a short while. However, as with all excessive behaviour, too much howling can be a bad sign. Your pooch might be lonely or injured, or they may have picked up some bad habits.

Why is my dog howling in his sleep?

Is your dog physically well? Some dogs that are poorly will still howl in distress even when sleeping. Or, your dog could be having a dream that means they imagine a reason to howl. Try not to disturb your dog, but do keep a close eye on them to make sure all is well with your doggy best friend.

Can I change the howling behaviour?

Focus on why your dog is howling. This is the first step in managing any type of compulsive behaviour. Once you've established the cause, you can then make the right adjustments. Much of your dog's behaviour, including howling, is linked to their environment. If you create the right environment, you'll encourage the right kind of behaviour.