Dogs howl for lot of reasons (but not because death is near, despite superstitions). Find out how you can curb your hound's howling tendencies.

By Debra Steilen
August 24, 2020
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If you live with a dog, you probably recognize—and respond to—most of his vocalizations. He barks when he wants to come inside and when he wants his treat now. He whines when he needs to go potty. He growls when he senses a stranger on the other side of the front door. But as CanineJournal.com notes, “The most primal, hair-raising sound your dog makes comes from deep in his throat, when he holds his nose high, purses his lips, and howls like a wolf.”

But why does your dog howl and what should you—or shouldn’t you—do about it? We asked experts to find out.

Why Do Dogs Howl?

In lieu of speech (and puppy-dog eyes), your dog tries to communicate with you by vocalizing in many ways. The sound that carries the farthest is howling—that long, loud, mournful cry inherited from ancient wolves, the domestic dog’s oldest ancestor. But your dog howls for many reasons.

Dogs Howl To Attract Attention. In other words, howling is a rally cry to other dogs. “Hey, I’m here! This is my territory!” Or they’re acknowledging that they hear another dog howling. According to CanineJournal.com, dogs who live in groups with similar dogs—like sled dogs—treat howling as a bonding activity.

Dogs Howl To Pump Up the Pack. Dogs howl in response to high-pitched sounds—such as sirens, some musical instruments (like the harmonica), and their owners’ singing. Dogs will even howl when you howl. This type of howling—which includes yips and yodels—is commonly used by wolves to energize their canine colleagues before a hunt. (Fun fact: Kevin Costner and other actors working on the film Dances with Wolves  sometimes had to howl on set in order to get the real wolves to howl on camera, according to MentalFloss.com.)

Dogs Howl To Express Distress. If your neighbors tell you Fido howls while you’re at work, your dog may be experiencing separation anxiety. This type of howling often goes paw-in-paw with other dog separation-anxiety symptoms, such as pacing, destruction, and elimination. BTW: Your dog is more likely to whine than howl if he is uncomfortable or in pain.

Dogs Howl Because They’re Dreaming. When your pooch is in the middle of an active dream, you may hear him howl, bark, whimper, or growl.  He might also move his legs or tail, breathe quickly, chew, or quiver. The sounds and movements may be linked to emotion being expressed in Fido’s dream.

A dog’s howling does not mean death is near. This is just a superstition; there’s no evidence dogs possess psychic powers (except for their ability to know when it is dinnertime without wearing a watch). As an article from Modern Dog points out, dogs howl when they’re lonely. If a dog is removed from the house when someone is seriously ill, that lonely dog will howl. Bring him inside, cuddle him, and the howling should stop.

Why Does My Dog Howl at the Moon?

You may observe your dog tilting his head to the sky when he’s howling. Some folks say that when a dog tilts his head upward he straightens out his vocal cords, which results in better airflow for howling. Other people theorize that howling at the moon allows the sound waves to travel farther. There is no scientific proof for either theory.

Which Dog Species Are Most Likely to Howl?

Domestic dogs claim ancient wolves as their ancestors. As a result, all dogs have at least some wolflike behaviors—such as sniffing the ground to track prey. Some noisy breeds are more likely to howl like their ancestors, says Dogster.com. Those breeds include Alaskan malamutes, American Eskimo dogs, basset hounds, beagles, bloodhounds, coonhounds, dachshunds, foxhounds, and huskies—both Alaskan and Siberian.

When Should I Worry?

Let your ears guide the way. If your dog howls incessantly when you’re away from home (your neighbors will let you know) or when he’s confined to his crate, you should seek help, says Kenneth Martin, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, dog trainer, and owner of Veterinary Behavior Consultations in Austin, Texas.

What will the veterinary behaviorist do when your dog is his patient? If it’s Martin, he’ll talk with you to figure out the context of the howling and determine the trigger that induces the behavior. “If your howling dog seems fairly relaxed, happy, and outgoing, he’s seeking attention,” Martin says. “If your dog is pacing, panting, or drooling while he howls, he’s anxious.”

In the case of separation anxiety, the treatment protocol may include medication. “As a veterinarian, you’re somewhat limited to the things you can do to lessen separation anxiety in the owner’s absence. How do you tell a dog it’s going to be OK?” Martin says. “If the dog is having a panic attack, that’s when medicine is appropriate.”

For more about separation anxiety in dogs, What are the Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs? includes tips to help you recognize your dog’s thinking.

How Can I Stop My Dog from Howling?

If your dog’s howling is triggered by a siren, he’ll likely stop howling when the siren stops. But he’s also going to howl the next time an ambulance flies by. Unfortunately, you may help your dog learn unwanted behavior by sometimes reinforcing his howling with affection (“I love you, Maverick!) or a reprimand (“Knock it off!”).

Instead of using those approaches, calmly interrupt your howling dog’s behavior, Martin says. “Offer an alternative behavior by calling your dog to come and sit. Then reward him with a treat,” he says. “Reinforce that alternative behavior frequently instead of paying attention to your dog when he gets into mischief.”

Martin also recommends rewarding your dog when he’s quiet. “Catch him before he starts howling,” he says. With proper encouragement and the right rewards, Fido will be more likely to continue the good-dog behavior. Punishment is a bad idea because he won’t understand what he’s doing wrong—when it feels so right.

Can a Synthetic Pheromone Help My Dog Relax?

Dogs may feel more relaxed while home alone when their treatment plan includes a synthetic pheromone (available as a collar, spray, or diffuser). Adaptil, for example, is a dog-appeasing pheromone that simulates what is secreted by lactating mother dogs to calm their puppies. Talk to your veterinarian about whether this approach is right for your dog.