As a dog parent, you know how daunting, rewarding and yet sometimes frustrating it can be to decipher what your dog is telling you. While progress is being made in our understanding of canine vocalizations, there’s still a lot to be learned. One canine behavior that still perplexes animal behavior researchers is howling. Why do some dogs howl while others do not? Are they channeling their inner wolf? Or do they hear something that hurts their ears?
A part of the canine vocal repertoire
Dogs use howling as one form of vocal communication — along with barks, growls, whines, whimpers, yelps and yips. While wolves use howling as a kind of primitive GPS to locate pack members, dogs howl for a variety of reasons:
- Attract attention
- Alert their owner to danger
- Contact and acknowledge other dogs
- Respond to high-pitched sounds, such as emergency vehicle sirens or musical instruments
Howling also gives dogs an outlet for expressing fear, anxiety or aggression. Sometimes howling simply communicates your dog’s excitement about something, while other times your dog howls because they are hurt or sick.
Some dog breeds, such as Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes, howl instinctively and are more likely to howl than other breeds. Even within a breed, some dogs howl routinely, but others never or rarely howl. While an occasional howl can be beautifully haunting and mesmerizing, frequent howling for long periods of time can become very frustrating for pet parents.
Can dogs be trained to stop howling?
Many howling dogs can be trained to be quiet. The key is to determine the reason they’re howling in the first place.
- Attention howling — Some dogs have learned that howling earns attention from their human family members. Typically, your dog will howl when you’re around and they want food, toys or petting. To teach your dog that howling will no longer work to get your attention, completely ignore them as soon as they start making noise. Pretend your dog is invisible: Don’t look at them, touch them or speak to them. You may need to cross your arms and turn your back to them when they are howling for attention.
As soon as they stop howling and are quiet for at least 5 seconds, give them a treat and praise them for being quiet. Wait for a few seconds longer of quietness each time they stop howling before giving them a treat. You should also randomly give your canine companion a treat and attention when they are not making noise. Eventually, you can use petting and praise for quiet instead of food treats.
- Sound-response howling — Although an emergency vehicle siren is the number one stimulus of howling in dogs, researchers still don’t know why dogs howl along. Some people believe dogs howl when they hear a siren because it hurts their ears, but this isn’t true. Others have proposed that the siren may sound to a dog like it’s coming from another dog off in the distance. The good news is that if your dog howls in response to a sound, they will most likely stop when the sound stops. You can try distracting your dog by tossing a ball or toy for your dog to play fetch. Focusing their attention on something else may get them to stop howling.
But if the sound trigger occurs frequently and your dog howls often, you may want to desensitize your dog to the sound. To desensitize your dog, record the sound that makes them howl and play it back at very low volume inside so that they hear it often. Give them a treat for not howling in response. Gradually turn up the volume on the recording for short periods and again reward your dog with a treat for not howling with (or over) the sound. Eventually, the sound won’t encourage them to howl along.
Excessive howling — even too much barking — by your dog can be annoying for you and your neighbors. Yet vocal communication is an important part of the bond between you and your dog. If your dog has a challenging howling issue, don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian or a certified professional dog trainer for help.