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Why Do Dogs Howl?

by Shara Rutberg


Cruise the Internet and it’s easy to find footage of dogs howling along with people as they sing or play an instrument. Pups howling with crying babies are sprinkled all over YouTube. The Law & Order theme song inspires dogs around the world to serenade.


Why do dogs howl? Why do some launch into canine carols every time you play music by Adele? Why do howling dogs insist on letting loose high-decibel canine yowls every time a siren passes by?


Do dogs love the blues? Courtroom dramas? Firemen?


“The bottom line is, we don’t really know,” says Mark Beckoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of 30 books on human-animal interaction and animal protection.


Research and Dogs Howling


Not much research has been focused on dog howling. More has been conducted around aspects that are more widespread, like barking, body language and human-dog interaction, says Arik Kershenbaum, PhD, a Herchel Smith research fellow in zoology at the University of Cambridge.


Our knowledge of why wild canines howl is very limited because it’s nearly impossible to study howling in the wild, says Kershenbaum, who is in the midst of research seeking to understand behaviors like howling using a network of recorders among the wolves of Yellowstone. Because their behavior is so unpredictable and their territory so vast, trying to study wolf howls, he says, is “like trying to follow a whale underneath the ocean. We simply cannot keep up with them.” Studying howling among captive canids is fruitless, as the animals simply do not experience the same reasons for howling as their wild cousins might.


Researchers do know that wolves and coyotes may howl to advertise their territory and deter competitors, connect with pack members who have become separated, and attract mates. Unlike wild species, domestic dogs tend to bark—rather than howl—to alert and protect flocks and people. This may have been a behavior people selectively bred dogs to display as they became domesticated, but that theory, says Kershenbaum, is not certain. Some dog breeds, like Huskies and Malamutes, may be more likely to howl.


Despite the lack of available information regarding canine howling, Kershenbaum and other scientists are committed to finding answers. He, along with a group of other researchers, have launched the Canid Howl Project, an online portal where members of the public can help analyze the communication of wolves, dogs and coyotes. The researchers hope to glean more insight into why canines howl and what they’re saying when they do.


Dogs Howling at Sirens and With Humans


As for why dogs howl along with their human packmates? “It’s impressive, but not that surprising,” says Kershenbaum. “We can certainly speculate that highly social dogs seek to emulate their humans’ group behavior, as a way of belonging.”


Explaining dogs’ propensity to howl along with sirens has been perplexing researchers for years. Sirens are the number one stimulus for howling, even ahead of other dogs’ howling. Why? Scientists haven’t figured it out yet. But one thing researchers do know is there is no evidence that dogs and wolves howl at the moon. That’s a myth propagated by people who happened to notice the howling during the full moon, although it occurred all month long, explains Kershenbaum.


Researchers continue to try to develop methods to help understand wild canine howling. And their domestic cousins continue to yowp—at Adele, at crying babies, and at passing ambulances. One reason they do it may be the simplest, says Bekoff: “Dogs might just howl because they enjoy it.”


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