Wolves do it, dogs do it … but why?

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Many years ago, Pat Rogers gave me a cassette tape of Christmas carols … sung entirely by cats. No kidding. Someone had recorded meows of all pitches, durations, and intonations, and pieced them together to create music from “Silent Night” to “Jingle Bells.” Even a nod to Hanukkah with “Hava Nagila.” It was hysterical. I still have the tape. If I can find my even older tape deck, I will play it in the office this holiday season. You might think my patients would respond adversely to all this mewing, but I have not noticed anything beyond mild curiosity. Dogs, however, often do respond very vocally to certain sounds. A client asked me about this recently — a dog who howled along with human-made music. The human was surprised by this. Not me. Search YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of videos of dogs “singing” along. Which brings us to today’s topic, howling.

Wolves do it. Dogs do it — some dogs more than others. Why do they howl? Well, for wolves, howling is first and foremost a method of communication, a way to attract attention, to make contact. If one wolf has gone off as a hunting scout, he may howl, “Hey, listen up. There are deer over here.” Maybe he’s strayed too far and is lost. Now he howls, “Where are you guys?” The pack responds: “We’re over here! Come home!” Or the pack may collectively howl to tell a neighboring gang of wolves, “This is OUR turf. Stay away!”

Domestic dogs howl less than their wild cousins, but are still genetically programmed to express themselves in this ancient way in response to certain triggers. If one dog howls, others often respond. It’s a natural instinct, and totally normal, as long as it doesn’t become excessive. Breeds more prone to howling generally include those that still often live and work in packs; sled dogs like Alaskan malamutes, American Eskimo dogs, and huskies; hunting and tracking breeds such as beagles, coonhounds, foxhounds, and bloodhounds. These vociferous howlers are often intentionally trained to bay loudly as a signal that they are in hot pursuit or that they have located and/or caught their intended prey.

Nobody thinks it odd that sled dogs raise a racket at the Iditarod, but what about Caruso, that pampered pet in Edgartown? Why does he croon when the ambulance goes by, sirens blaring? People often think these high-pitched noises hurt the dog’s ears, but most veterinarians disagree. If Caruso were in pain, he would show other signs, like tucking his tail between his legs, or running to hide. But Caruso does none of these. He just joins in with the song of the emergency vehicles, with the wail of the crying baby, or the music of the clarinet, harmonica, or flute. Certain sounds simply elicit an instinctual reaction. Dogs who “sing along” may actually find joining the choir satisfies the part of them longing to be a member of a pack. Not much different from why we humans sing together, is it?

Occasionally, these vocal instincts can go awry. Caruso may bark excessively when you get home, or when he wants attention. Or maybe when he’s left alone, he gets anxious and communicates with a distressed howl: “I’m loooonnneeely. Where are yooouuuuu?” Dogs with separation anxiety will often exhibit persistent howling and barking when alone, as well as other dysfunctional behaviors including pacing, destructive scratching, digging, and chewing, and urinating or defecating in the house. If Caruso is lamenting long, loud, and lonely, disturbing the neighbors and making everyone unhappy, including himself, consult your veterinarian. A comprehensive program of medication and behavioral modification can often tame this problem.

Myths and superstitions about howling dogs abound. Going back to ancient Egypt, we have Anubis, the god with the head of a dog who was guardian and protector of the dead. A howling dog was thought to be calling a person’s soul to Anubis. The Vikings believed that dogs guarded the underworld, and every Harry Potter fan knows Cerberus, the giant three-headed dog who in Greek mythology let people into Hades, but did not let them leave. In Wales, it’s the ghostly “hounds of King Annwn” who are said to escort the dead. The Irish say that earthly dogs howl because, unlike us, they can hear the spectral hounds leading riders through the sky to collect the souls of the dying. Why are there so many stories, in so many cultures, about dogs announcing death by howling? Behaviorists propose a simple scientific explanation. When a person is sick or dying, a pet may be separated from them more than usual. Caruso is simply doing what comes naturally, howling to the “head” of his “pack”: “Where are you? I miss you. I’m lonely.”

Another down-to-earth explanation? While researching, I came across an article called “The Paradox of the Howling Dog,” written by Sonam Tashi, a journalist with the Bhutan Times, posted on the blog of Rika Dhan Subba. I invite you all to read this moving piece in its entirety about the death of Sonam Tashi’s cousin, the howling of their family dog Bablo, and the author’s musings about dying but, spoiler alert, I am going to tell you what the “paradox” was. Hunger. The animals in this story were howling, not as harbingers of death, but because everyone was so preoccupied with the dying people that no one fed the dog. Think about it. During times of illness and impending death, the family pooch understandably may get less attention, less walks, less playing ball, even less food and water. I’m not discounting that a dog truly feels grief and loneliness with the loss of a beloved human, but there is not necessarily anything mysterious about him howling. He may just be saying “I’m lonely. I’m hungry. I want to come in.” Or he may be saying “I hear you wailing with grief. I will join in and howl.” It’s not supernatural. It’s the call and response of the wild.