Is Your Dog Howling – Why Do Dogs Howl And What Does It Mean?

In Is Your Dog Howling we find out why dogs howl and what dog howling really means

“Is Your Dog Howling” is about the kind of howling that makes your skin tingle and the hair on the back of your neck stand up. We’re going to find out why dogs howl, what dog howling means, and even how to make your dog howl.

Dog howling is a primitive form of communication

We’ve all heard recordings of the amazing howl of the wolf or coyote on wildlife films. It’s kind of haunting and quite beautiful. People are often surprised to hear the very same noise come out of their family pet. I’m not talking about the string of barks that blend together in an over excited dog, or the bay of a hunting hound. The sound of dogs howling is different. Distinctive and rather primeval. You’d be right in thinking that howling dogs are using a primitive form of communication.

So why do some dogs do it? And not others.

Which dogs howl?

Some breeds of dog are more likely to howl than others. Huskies and hounds for example. And within a breed there will be differences too. Labradors are not the breed most likely to howl, but some do.

Howling dog - why do dogs howl at sirens - find out in this fascinating article

I have two Labradors that howl. They don’t howl when they are left, and they don’t howl in the car. When they do howl is when they hear a siren.

Why do dogs howl at sirens?

I have a wonderful team of working gun dogs, Spaniels and Labrador Retrievers. We live in a small village and the sound of sirens is unusual. But on the occasions when an ambulance or fire engine passes through the village with a siren blaring, my dogs all join in. They sound, for all the world, like a pack of wolves.

It starts with one of the spaniels – she points her little face to the skies and makes her mouth into an O and begins to wail. Ah – ooooooooh, ooo-oooooooh! Quite softly at first, then building to a crescendo. One by one, each of the dogs adds her voice to the others until the siren has long gone (or until I have shouted at them to be quiet!)

I find it spine tingling and actually quite beautiful… but the neighbours may feel differently so I do ask them to stop! My elderly Lab occasionally howls in her sleep, and when she does, all the other dogs join in in exactly the same way. Usually at about 3 o’clock in the morning. The theory is, that the dog recognises the siren as a signal from other dogs not known to him. Perhaps a statement of their presence. And that the dog that howls at sirens is responding with a statement of his own.

We’ll look at that in a bit more detail below in What Does It Mean When A Dog Howls.

Why does my dog howl when I leave him?

Some dogs howl whenever they are left. It is likely that dogs that do this are howling to attempt to recall family members. Or to let them know that they have been abandoned. If a dog doesn’t feel abandoned and is secure in the knowledge that his owner will return in due course, he won’t howl.

Most dogs don’t howl when left, and studies that have been carried out suggest that howling in dogs left alone may be associated with separation anxiety. Like us, most dogs are highly social and derive their sense of security from being part of a family group. Being isolated makes some dogs feel insecure and worried. And unlike you or I, when his family leaves the house, your dog has absolutely no way of knowing for sure, that they are ever coming back.

Howling dog and musical instruments!

The dog I spent much of my childhood with, was a beautiful Golden Retriever called Rob Roy. At one point, aged about thirteen, I thought it would be particularly cool if I learned to play the clarinet. The effect of the instrument on my dog was electric. He would throw his head back and sing right along with me, the howls becoming more and more drawn out and enthusiastic as I progressed.

This caused much hilarity from the male members of the family, and plenty of comments about my ability (or lack of it) but my mother grew increasingly concerned that the instrument was hurting the dog’s ears.

Why do dogs howl to music?

There are plenty of YouTube videos of dogs doing the same thing as my Golden Retriever, but why do they do it? Was my mother right – was my dog howling because his ears hurt, or is there some other reason? Let’s have a look.

What does it mean when a dog howls?

Studies in wolves have shown that howls can encode individual and group identities. In other words, dogs can recognise the howls of dogs that they know, and can tell when a howl, is the howl of a strange dog or dogs.

DNA tests show us that dogs are descended from wolves, they are in fact, the same species. And howling is likely to be an instinctive part of that genetic inheritance. The original purpose of this powerful sound is likely to be found in protecting or identifying territorial boundaries, and in keeping the family group safely together.

Howling carries a long way outdoors. My little spaniel throws her head back when she howls because it helps to project the sound even further. In wild canids, this head up projection of a loud howl  is a way of saying “we live here – this is our place”. There is no reason to think that your dog is doing it for any other purpose. In other words by howling, your dog is saying – “this is me, and this is where I am”

When my dog howled at my clarinet, he probably interpreted my playing as me saying “here I am”. He was effectively saying “me too!” My mother’s fears for his ears were probably completely unfounded.

Howling puppies and worried dogs

Howling is probably also a good way of keeping members of the group in contact. In puppies for example, howling is a way for a puppy to let a parent dog know the puppy’s location so that he can be found if he gets lost or left behind.

In why do dogs howl we look at why puppies howl when the are left and at other causes of dog howling

Most new puppies will howl at times if left entirely alone. Many domestic dogs continue to show juvenile traits throughout their lives. And it’s likely that dogs with separation anxiety are showing the same kind of anxiety as an abandoned puppy.

The causes of howling – a summary

Howling serves two distinct purposes

  • A statement of territorial rights – “this is our place” (and we will probably defend it).
  • Group cohesion – maintaining contact and keeping the dog family together as a unit.

The first purpose is what makes dogs howl at sirens and musical instruments. The second purpose is what makes dogs howl when they are left alone.

How to stop your dog howling

Howling at triggers like sirens and instruments is usually short lived. The dog thinks that the trigger is a territorial cry and is responding with one of his own. You may be able to cut the howling short by teaching your dog to be quiet at a signal from you. Plenty of edible rewards after the cue – “be quiet” – usually works to stop a dog howling. You can’t eat and howl at the same time

Dogs that howl through separation anxiety are like puppies that have never learned that being left alone isn’t dangerous. This type of howling can be treated by getting at the root cause – the dog’s fear of being alone. This means ‘de-sensitising’ your dog to solitude. You can find out more about that in our article on separation anxiety.

How to make your dog howl

Perhaps surprisingly, for those who would like to stop their dogs howling, many people search the internet for ‘how to make your dog howl’. How easy or difficult this is to teach, depends on how readily your dog howls naturally. If you know that sirens make your dog howl for example, then all you need is a recording of a siren.

Choose a cue – you can use any word you like – it doesn’t have to be ‘howl’. Immediately after the cue play your siren recording. And as soon as your dog howls, give him a brilliant reward. Such as a nice lump of juicy chicken. Rinse and repeat, gradually leaving a gap between the cue and the recording, until the dog will begin to howl when he hears the cue, before you play the siren. Once you get to that point you don’t need the recording any more.

That’s all there is to teaching your dog to howl. The tricky part is initiating the howl in the first place. Here are some ideas for making your dog howl:

  • Play a recording of a siren
  • Try different recordings of wind instruments
  • Try howling yourself (it works for some dogs)
  • Play a YouTube video of a howling dog  –  there’s an example below

Does your dog howl?

How about you? Does your dog howl? Is dog howling a problem for you or dog you quite like the sound. Let us know what starts your dog howling in the comments box below.

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Palestrini C, Minero M, Cannas S, Rossi E, Frank D “Video Analysis of Dogs With Separation Related Behaviors” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2010

Scaglia E, Cannas S, Minero M, Frank D, Bassi A, Palestrini C “Video Analysis of Adult Dogs When Left Home Alone” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 2013

Kershenbaum A, Root-Gutteridge H, Habib B, Koler-Matznick J, Michell B, Palacios V, Waller S. “Disentangling Canid Howls Across Multiple Species And Subspecies: Structure In A Complex Communication Channel” Behav Processes 2016

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  1. I have a chocolate lab who never howls—even after playing various howling videos; however, recently learned that when I play the piano he will howl along with me—not if same classical music is on a device but only if I play it. I feel lime he is singing along with me but unfortunately it is quite loud and I live in an apt complex so need to play more when he is outside—but always makes me laugh!!

  2. My black lab (1 year old) heard coyotes a few months ago. Scared the daylights out of him. Then for some reason, he decided to try howling himself. Every night, just at sunset, he gets up on his hind legs and howls if he is outside. He never howls inside or at any other time. Why the hind legs? I’ve asked him but he won’t tell me.

  3. My Miniature Pinscher Baxter howls when he hears coyotes howling in the summer when the windows are open. If I start to howl softly while he is laying on my chest he will then throw his head back and howl like crazy. It’s an amazing thing to watch and listen to him howl too. It is very moving and it looks primal. I always pat his head and hug him after he finishes his performances.

  4. My chocolate Lab howls when he hears a VM on speaker from the phone. It’s hysterical, but he was never trained to do so.. what triggers him ? He also “ sings” along at high pitch when he hears the piano bring played. I have never had a Lab that was so vocal !

  5. My Shih Tzu will howl when I come home from work, I pick him up and hug and kiss him and then he starts howling then I howl also and we both go on and on. It’s so funny! I think hes just happy to see me and he knows I’m happy to see him. It’s so cute.

  6. Does anybody know why a Jack Russellcrosschi howls quite a lot,only got him today,he fs `12 years old,has had 2 [previous owners ,last owner said he howls sometimes at night,she cant find a trigger for it. It is quite a pitiful whine. Wish I could find out why, Any ideas.

  7. I have a 1 year old male labrador (not neutered) and recently he has been howling and digging in the fence next door to my neighbour. She has a Portugese waterdog (female) and occassionally has other friends with pets. Is the reason for his howling because of attraction (pup-erty) or territorial or others. It’s not bothersome at all. It’s just something new that Hugo does but I am curious as to the purpose behind his new behaviour.

  8. Dexter didn’t howl at all for the first three years of his life; then we got a little tom kitten, and whenever Gimli is outside now, having a karaoke evening with the neighbourhood cats, Dexter first does some rapid fire barking, then throws his head back and howls. It’s pretty loud, and it’s going to wake up the neighbours but I struggle to stop him, because I am usually laughing so hard! The cats’ choir is the only thing that makes him howl.

  9. My 2 year old lab howls occasionally when he is left after playing and sometimes he howls at night. I presume it is when he is bored but it is quite rare when he does it?

  10. The weirdest howling incident I came across was when I had a horse at a livery stables. A local farm had a Manchester terrier that was loose and running around the roads. One of the liveries hit the dog and thought it was dead, so I said I would go and check. I took some feed sacks to put the body in, so it could be returned to the owners should they wish to collect it. It was dead, I put it in the sacks and left the body by the top gate for the owners to pick up. One of the yard dogs went up to the sacks, sniffed and started a blood curdling howl, and was joined in by the other 5 or so stable dogs, who just stopped wherever they were and howled. It was eerie and poignant and something I’ll never forget.

  11. My 2 yr old springer howls when other dogs arrive at the house, as we have dogs for doggie day care this is quite a regular occurrence.

  12. My 5 year old labrador only howls when playing with a squeaky toy alone, then she rips the toy apart to destroy the squeaker part. so i only let her play with them while Im playing with her, as I don’t think the neighbours would be keen haha. what makes it really odd is that is the closest she has ever gotten to barking! (probably a good thing!)

  13. Only in the last year or so, my lab cross howls when the phone rings…He’ll howl until it stops bringing ( only set for three rings), and stops immediately when it stops or I answer.
    He always modulates the sound, never one long wolf- like vocalization.
    He is a beautiful senior, and will be 12 in the fall…But never did it as a pup or when younger.
    He is most certainly happy, and leads a fine life.

  14. My two labs and puggle howl when they hear a family member arrive in the car. the puggle starts and the rest join her. Itis very much a welcome home!!!

  15. We have a rather large pack of rescue dogs. A couple of them are particularly prone to howling and when one starts, they all join. A few others will start it when one of us drives away. I especially love seeing the little mini-dachshund do it 🙂

  16. My 2 year old chocolate lab (Colt) howls at sirens and will also howl in his sleep. I think Colt sounds so sad when he howls, however, my husband thinks it’s funny and can get Colt to howl by imitating sirens.

  17. I baby sit my son’s 2 year old dog when he go’s out of town because of his job and have been doing that for as long as he’s had her. It’s a black Lab and her name is Bailey. He always calls from where he stays and ask’s about her. His ring done on my cell phone always gets her attention and gets real excited knowing it’s him on the phone. She recognizes his voice and is surprised and happy to listen to what he has to say. It’s totally mind boggling the intelligence she has.

  18. I work at a dog park and I just love the dog’s. One day as I was leaving all the dog’s started howling and they we’re all at the gate looking at me.It was so beautiful.

  19. My two and a half year old springer spaniel howls only when he is left alone downstairs when I go upstairs to shower. Otherwise he does not howl when left alone.

  20. My 2 year old black lab howls occasionally, it seems to be triggered by dreaming. It has only happened 3 times that I’m aware of and is directly after she wakes from a dream. She stretches out her neck and is definitely awake when it happens. It never stops until she has finished even if I touch her. It’s kind of a sad sound and I instinctively want to comfort her. Perhaps she’s dreaming that her territory has been invaded – she often growls and raises her hackles when we watch nature programs on tv.

  21. Our 1 year old WCS howls to one particular squeeky toy! It’s a green christmas tree and as soon as it starts squeeking (well when my children squeek it!) he starts. He seems quite happy about it, at first we thought maybe it was hurting his ears but seems like he enjoys joining in!

  22. My 3 year old black lab will howl when I play through the sound options for an alarm on my iPad. The first time was such a surprise for me…I laughed my head off and wished I had it on video! She tilts her head, listens carefully, then lifts her chin and howls away.