We like to joke that no one will ever dare break into our house. Wiley, our dog, sits on the front porch and howls about 10 times a day, loud enough that you can easily hear it up to six blocks away. But why does he do it? Why do dogs howl?
Wiley’s been a howler since my friends pulled he and his family off Death Row when they were five weeks old. What started as an adorable little mewl has since developed into an eerie, occasionally terrifying and powerful howl. Usually, it’s in response to ambulance or fire truck sirens (a sensible beast, Wiley stays quiet around cops), but he’ll also respond to howls from us humans, notes on our piano or howl just because he feels like it.
Dogs Howl Because Wolves Howl: Dogs are descended from wolves, of course, who howl to communicate with pack members over long distances. It’s thought they’re communicating locations, guiding members who have ranged far away scouting for prey back to the pack for the night. This instinct has been passed down to dogs through their genetic memory, explaining why howling is most evident in breeds with relatively little departure from the wolf predecessors — huskies, malamutes and other northern breeds.
The homing beacon may also be another reason why dogs howl; they’re calling family members home after long periods of separation.
Dogs Howl For Pack Bonding: This is thought to be the reason why dogs respond to howl-like noises — sirens, music, their owner howling, etc. It’s a group behaviour from what remains a pack animal. No, they don’t think the fire truck a half mile off is another family member, the note they make is just a trigger for the instinct.
Dogs Howl To Call For Help: If your dog or one you’re familiar with howls, then you’ll know that a howl isn’t a singular sound, but instead an array of tones and inflections that can express different emotions. Going back to the idea that howls travel over long distances, dogs may use them to signal for help if they’re trapped, injured or scared. Or, if your dog just wants your attention.
Dogs cry out when they’re hurt or scared by something sudden — yelp! And howling can be an extension of that. A sad, mournful, pathetic howl can be a form of crying.
Dogs Howl To Claim Territory: Know how your dog pees on every tree, fire hydrant and bush in the neighbourhood? They’re leaving a calling card for other dogs, sometimes saying, “Hey, this street corner is mine.” Howling may be used similarly, announcing to the world that Fido is the master of this domain.
Dogs Howl To Signal: Some hunting dogs are trained to howl when they discover an animal. Think of a blood hound’s bay. Again, because howls can be heard further than a bark, this behaviour is trained to signal over long distances.
Of course, dogs aren’t a species that’s ever had a huge amount of scientific study done on them. The above reasons are likely explanations and partial reasons, but don’t capture the breadth of causes or full nuance of the howl. Watching Wiley, it is clear that the howl is often an involuntary reflex like a burp or a hiccup or a sneeze — something he’s just got to get out. You can see the tension build up, then release when he throws his head back and let’s loose with everything he’s got. He bends backwards so hard that his front feet scrabble at the ground to keep him upright and there’s absolutely no stopping him once he’s started. He’ll even howl through his teeth if I try and close his mouth with my hands.
My theory? It’s the call of the wild.
Picture: Cole Young/Flickr