Tuesday, October 6, 2009
By Linda Cole
It's hard to miss the neighborhood dog choir howling their mournful tune as a fire truck or ambulance whizzes by. Dogs raise their heads in a howl to signal when we leave the house and when we return. One begins to howl and is soon followed by other voices in the area, but why do dogs howl? Are they really that sad when we leave and that ecstatic when we return?
Researchers understand why wolves howl. Their howls, in various tones, help the sound travel farther than a simple bark would go. We know wolves howl as a signal to the pack, “Come see what I found” or to let other members of the pack know where they are so they can meet in a single location. Wolves recognize each pack member's howl and if an unfamiliar voice joins in, the pack leader knows an intruder may be in his territory. So a howl is also a warning to outsiders to stay away or else. It's also a way to account for each member of the pack when they are separated by the hunt or for any other reason. Each wolf joins in signaling they are present and accounted for, and everything is OK.
It's believed dogs howl for similar reasons, although their ancestral instincts no longer guide them and the reason for their howl is not as clear to researchers. Dogs communicate with growls, whines and howls. Their verbal language tells us how they are feeling in certain situations. If a dog howls when his owner leaves the house, it can mean he is calling his pack leader back. It can also mean he is bored out of his mind and doesn't know what else to do. A dog who spends his day chained to a post in the middle of the backyard or locked in a house all day may need a brisk walk before you leave for work to help him relieve built up energy. You can help ease his boredom with appropriate chew toys that can keep him simulated with something to do while you are away.
People believe dogs howl when they hear sirens because it hurts their ears, but this is not true. My neighbor has four Yellow Labs who spend their day outside. They are the first in the neighborhood to hear sirens. Soon, the air is filled with all the other dogs in the neighborhood, including mine, howling in unison. Dogs howl at sirens because of their instinctive link to wolves. To a dog, that sound is coming from another dog off in the distance howling and he is just being polite by answering the other dog's call. High pitched sounds on your TV or from a musical instrument can also produce a howl from your dog. I like to play a harmonica, but learned a long time ago not to blow into it around my dogs. I was mobbed as they tried to figure out where that sound was coming from and where the other dog was at. Come to think about it, my cats also wondered what was going on with that silver thing with the odd sounds coming out. I didn't think my playing was that bad.
Dogs also howl when they are lonely. He instinctively knows howling can tell him where another dog is at. Because dogs are social animals and used to being in a pack, one dog may howl to locate dogs within howling distance so he doesn't feel so alone. Not all dogs howl and some will howl more than others. Constant howling can indicate a dog who has separation anxiety from his owner. If your neighbors complain that your dog howls whenever you are gone, you may need to consider adding more exercise to his routine, toys to help give him stimulation or even adding another dog to your pack. Sometimes your pet needs a pet to keep him company when the boss is not at home. However, bringing another pet into your home is not always a good solution for a dog who misses his owner.
Dogs howl for a variety of reasons. That mournful sound we hear is not sadness. To our dogs it is simply their way of communicating over large distances. It’s a foggy memory of a way that was once used to bring the pack together. Although wolves and coyotes still use a howl in the matter nature intended, dogs howl because domestication has left them bored or lonely, and in some cases lacking in exercise. I like listening to dogs howling in unison because they seem to enjoy it. It’s sort of like a group sing along. As long as it's not four in the morning.
Read more articles by Linda Cole