An Ancestral Instinct
Long ago, before your four-legged canine companion learned to fetch your slippers and steal your spot on the couch, his ancestors consisted of purely wild animals who snarled and growled at humans. One may wonder next: how in the world did Rover go from being a bitter rival to transforming into our best pal?
Selective breeding and domestication seem to be the answer. It is estimated that gray wolves and dogs diverged anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. While we don't know the gritty details of how the process happened, one thing is for sure: dogs and wolves are different in many ways, but dogs still retain some intriguing ancient instincts dating back to when they were hunters/scavengers.
You can see ancestral instincts at play by watching your dog when he turns around in circles before lying down, upon kicking dirt after pooping and when your dog shakes toys vigorously with a side-side neck movement.
Howling is also an ancient instinct that reminds us of wolves, although to be exact, domestic dogs don't make authentic howls, which are defined as a sustained, long-range call, explains veterinary behaviorist Barbara Sherman in an article for National Geographic.
A Social Purpose
In the wild, wolves utilize their howling for specific circumstances: they may engage in group howling just prior to hunts as a way for psyching themselves up, they may howl to claim their territory and send intruders away and they may howl as a way to locate missing members when they're apart.
While dogs no longer gather for a hunt, and they mostly use their barking to send the mailman away, howling as a way to communicate isolation and a need to be re-united to his owners seems to be one of those behaviors to endure the test of time.
Howling may therefore be your dog's way to garner some attention. Perhaps, the vocalization is meant to track you down, or at least guide you in the right direction, which is back home where you belong.
In some sort of way, howling functions as a homing beacon-and it makes sense. As social animals, dogs dread being left alone and one of the biggest perks of the day (the other may be meantime) is seeing their owners come home.
As psychology professor, neuropsychological researcher and author of several dogs books, Stanley Coren, puts it, in the quote below, goes a long way in explaining how dogs must feel the moment their owners exit the door.
"The greatest fear dogs know is the fear that you will not come back when you go out the door without them."~Stanley Coren
A Sign of Distress
There is howling and howling when it comes to dogs vocalizing when left alone. Many dogs will howl the moment they no longer see you or hear you, and will keep howling for a little while, until they decide to settle down, patiently awaiting your return.
Some other dogs, bring howling to a more severe level, howling for hours and hours non-stop. These latter are often dogs who are either terribly bored or deeply suffering from separation anxiety or isolation distress.
Separation anxiety in dogs can be precipitated by certain events such as being surrendered in a shelter, moving to a new home, loss of another pet in the home, or by prolonged separation from the owner. According to Lilly research it is estimated that 10.7 million, or up to 17 percent of U.S. dogs, suffer from separation anxiety.
Did you know? In dogs with separation anxiety, vocalizations often consists of high pitched whining, barking or howling in order to be communicated as a distance decreasing signal, explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth M. Martin. Interestingly, vocalizations as such mimic a young puppy's distress calls when separated from its mother.
Reaction to Sounds
Many dogs will howl when left alone in response to certain stimuli. For example, many dogs howl when they hear sirens so living nearby a fire station can obviously be problematic!
It may also be troublesome if your neighbor is a big fan of playing various musical instruments known to evoke howling in dogs such as bagpipes, harmonicas, clarinets or saxophones. Even people holding a long note when playing the violet or singing may cause a bout of loud howling!
"Howling is a non-specific behavior. Howling can occur when a dog is distressed, feeling territorial, stressed in a situation that they cannot get out of, or responding to persistent noises such as the sound of a siren. Finally, I imagine it is a fun activity for some dogs—kind of like singing in the shower. "~Dr. Ciribassi, veterinary behaviorist
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs may howl for a variety of reasons when left alone. Determining exactly what is triggering the howling may be the most difficult part. Recording your dog's behavior when left alone though may provide some helpful clues about what may be going on in his mind. Below are some tips for tackling various types of howling.
- Avoid punishing your dog for howling and avoid corrective tools such as bark collars. The methods/tools don't address the underlying problem and are likely to make problems worse.
- Provide your dog with exercise and mental stimulation especially prior to leaving he home. A dog who is tired, engaged mentally and whose exercise needs have been met may be less likely to howling due to boredom.
- Give your dog safe interactive, food dispensing toys to keep your dog occupied when you leave.
- If your dog howls as a response to sounds in your neighborhood, short of moving, you can try keeping the radio or TV on in hopes of covering the sounds.
- If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, make your arrivals and departures low key and gradually desensitize your dog to your pre-departure cues and departures.
- Engage your dog in exercises to boost confidence in dogs.
Invest in calming aids for dogs who have a tendency to be anxious For example, pheromone-based plug-ins such as Adaptil can provide a calming effect on dogs.
There are also several calming supplements that may help such as those containing L-theanine.
Encourage independence. If your dog sleeps by your feet, help your dog to settle at a greater distance such as on a mat.
- For moderate to severe cases, consult with a veterinary behaviorist. Your dog may need medications for behavior modification to work. Medication along with behavior medication is more likely to bring quicker results.