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Why do dogs howl?

I enjoy singing along to the radio in the car as much as the next person — or dog. If I raise my voice to a certain octave, my dog howls along, although whether it is in harmony or protest is up for debate. The other day as we were driving, singing and howling, I started to wonder why exactly dogs howl.

Here is what I found out.

Call of the wild

My first thought was probably the one you’re thinking right now: duh, dogs are related to wolves. Wolves and coyotes, dogs closest wild relatives, both howl, so it makes sense that dogs howl too. In fact, given the wide range of vocalizations they share with wild canids, it would be more surprising if they didn’t howl. I decided to start my research with the deceptively simple question, “Why do wolves howl?”

More: Everything You Need to Know About Wolf-Dog Hybrids

Several hours and spectacular nature documentaries later, I had my answer. While the full range of meaning behind a wolf pack’s howls is not yet understood, we can guess that wolves usually howl for one of two main reasons: to warn strange wolves that they are trespassing on pack territory or to guide pack members back to the pack.

Dogs are not wolves, a fact that bears repeating, but there could be some of the same basic communicative instincts going on in your pup’s head. What your dog is trying to say, however, is probably a little different than the howls of their wild relatives.

More: Can Pets Detect Human Emotion?

Experts think that dogs howl for the following reasons:

  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • An alert to danger
  • Contacting distant dogs (or their owner)
  • Responding to high-pitched sounds (like my singing)

These behaviors are totally normal and can even be amusing.

Sometimes, though, howling can be a sign of a problem.

Howling for help

Howling at a siren is one thing, but constant howling is a little more concerning. Dogs that howl more than normal could be suffering from separation anxiety or a medical issue.

Separation anxiety is a common behavioral problem in dogs. If your neighbors complain that your dog howls whenever you leave the house, your dog could be howling because she is trying to get your attention and call you back home. Your dog could also just be bored.

More: When Does Dog Anxiety Become a Serious Problem?

If your dog howls when you are around for no apparent reason, you should call your veterinarian. This could be a sign of a medical condition, and it can’t hurt to rule out illness before you start looking for other triggers. Your veterinarian is also a good source of information about animal behavior and might be able to offer you some training tips to reduce your dog’s unwanted howling.

In other words, howling is normal, but it can sometimes be a sign of a more serious problem. Unfortunately, my research did not provide me with the answer to my real question: Is my dog singing along or begging me to stop?

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