Howling dog
Credit: Soggydan via Flickr

It is scientifically proven that dogs have a great ability to communicate, even with humans to a certain extent. Dogs can sometimes howl pretty much like wolves do (they’re their ancestors, after all). The howling in wolves is primarily intended to maintain the cohesion of the pack and as a means of communication during the mating season.

Why do dogs howl?

The howling, contrary to what many people think, is not a way of crying but a kind of song. Wolves howl to reassemble the group. Howling strengthens the bonds of the pack and keeps them together. They even have harmonic variants that have been studied: this shed surprising and fascinating results, implying that each participant has a place in the choral harmony.

In this regard, we find that the howl is similar to the motivations of human singing. The tribal people shared collective singing in order to maintain the union of the tribe. For humans, social parties were (and still are) intended to maintain the cohesion in a group of cooperative gregarious animals, and singing contributed to it in many of them. Why does a company gather its employees to celebrate a party which includes the singing of the anthem of the company? To strengthen the group’s bonds; like wolves, we are a cooperative pack of animals. And in this sense there is no difference with tribal chants, which were frequently made the day prior to the hunting, in the same way that wolves howl prior to going for a major and risky hunting.

However, as previously mentioned, it is surprising that many people confuse singing with crying. The saying goes that when a dog howls all night, it is foretelling that someone will die. The origins of this myth are due to this confusion of singing with crying.

Usually when a person is seriously ill, a number of changes occur in the habits of their families, especially if the patient is in the hospital. So there’s a situation where the dog sees their “pack” disappearing almost overnight. The dog is left alone for a long time and perceives that "the pack is moving" .... and howls.

Then, if the patient finally dies, it is logical that we humans, infer that the dog howled in the days leading up to the fatal outcome because he foresaw the imminent death of the person and then we inevitably identify it as a mourning howl. This is why it is popularly said that when a dog howls someone will die.

To understand why the dog howls when the herd moves, we must refer to their ancestors the wolves and ask the question: Why does a wolves pack move? When environmental conditions have become adverse, the pack might have to leave the territory and find a new one. This is a critical situation in the life of the wolves, and any gregarious carnivore, like lions. It is desirable to remain for many generations in the same territory, but there may be conditions, such as drought, when their preys migrate, and in these cases predators must follow them to stay close to the "supermarket".

Obviously this implies a big risk, since the new territory where the preys are moving may already be dominated by another group of predators, either wolves or other species, which means it is possible that they won’t be able to conquer it.

In this situation, puppies and wolves of lower social ranks might be left behind, losing touch with the rest of the pack. What should they do them? They howl to gather their packs.

Howling can also occur in stressful situations of separation, as in the case of the dog being left alone at home for long. This howl is intended to gather his pack, the human family.

What is my dog trying to tell me?

The howl is a behavior that appears to be more common in northern type of breeds like Siberian Husky or Alaskan Malamute. Typically dogs howl in response to certain sounds of high-intensity and mid-frequency (or medium-high frequency), such as the siren of an ambulance or the notes of a violin, a flute ...., which in many respects resemble a howl. This kind of howling is normal and in no way should be interpreted as a sign of distress or suffering. Here is a list of the most common reasons why a dog howls, and the type of sounds associated with them:

Long and loud :
“I'm here!”
“This is my territory"
"I hear your cries"
Dogs use this kind of howls to announce their presence, socialize from great distances and reaffirm the territory. There is no sadness in this sound.

Choppy howling with a final prolonged howl:
"I feel lonely"
“Is there anyone out there?”
Motivated by the isolation from family or other dogs.

Sudden series of howls:
"I'm really scared"
"It hurts"
"I give up"
An active response of dogs to fear and pain; it usually occurs when the dog escapes from an aggressor in a fight.

Moaning that rises in tone:
"I want this ..."
"I need this ..."
A request for something, the higher it is, the stronger the emotion associated with it.

Moaning that decreases in pitch at the end:
"Come, come, hurry!"
Indicates the excitement and anticipation felt by the dog when he knows you’re going to give him food or take him out for a walk.

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