By Andrew Perry
While we may know a dog or two that will not howl, or have never howled, all dogs can howl. Howling is a deeply ingrained part of a dog’s instincts, because they are the direct descendants of wolves. And everyone knows that wolves howl. In fact, it is arguably the most iconic part of being a wolf. Look at your little teacup Chihuahua and marvel at the fact that it is essentially a wolf engineered to look ridiculously cute by humans. And yes – that little teacup Chihuahua – it can howl.
In the wild, howling in wolves is usually done to relay one of two messages: to warn another pack that they’re encroaching upon their territory, or to guide a lost wolf back to the safety of its own pack.
Is Howling An Instinct, or Voluntary?
Friederike Range, a cognitive ethnologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, recounted an experience when she was in a unique position to explore this strange behavior. She and her colleagues have raised wolves at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn. “We started taking our wolves for walks when they were six weeks old, and as soon as we took one out, the others would start to howl,” said Range. “So immediately we became interested in why they howl.”
Range and her team were interested to discover why wolves howl, and whether it was simply an instinct that the wolves were compelled to do, or if it was a voluntary behavior.
During an experiment where the wolves were divided into two packs, she observed how they formed a hierarchy. In the wild, a hierarchy is already established by families. But since these were captive wolves, they organically created a chain of command. Range’s team created a fascinating experiment, with control groups to protect the integrity of their experiment. Please read about that here (https://www.science.org/content/article/decoding-call-wild)
In the experiment, they discovered that when one of the wolves is taken for a stroll. Within the first 20 minutes the pack began to howl. Oddly, the one that was on the stroll did not return the howl.
After further observation, Range and her colleagues discovered that while there was always some howling when a pack member was on a walk and left the pack, the howls became pervasive when the dominant, or alpha, went for a walk. It’s like they were stressed about not having a leader. Another fascinating observation is the wolves’ propensity towards their own friendships within the pack. On an individual level, if the wolf on a walk was a particular wolf’s preferred pal, that wolf left behind would howl the most. That wolf was worried or missed its best friend.
This observation, to Range meant that howling was not a contagious response … social relationships were very important to the pack, and their howling patterns reflected that.
Was It Stress of Separation?
Seeing the trends from when the pack leader was separated and when a ‘best friend’ was separated, Range said they thought these howls were because of the stress of being separated. “I thought stress would be connected to the amount of howling, but that’s not always the case.”
The team measured cortisol levels (indicating stress), and found that stress indeed was a factor when the pack leader was taken away, but it wasn’t the case with the ‘best friend’. Their team wrote in Current Biology that with the best friend, it was more strategic than emotional. They’re trying to contact individuals that are important to them and reform the pack.”
So, if anything, the howl for a best friend was more out affection than anxiety.
From this, Range and her colleagues deducted that a major reason for howling was to “help the pack assemble after a long hunt.”
So Why Do Domestic Dogs Howl
Since domestic dogs don’t live in quite the same environment as wolves, howling among them is kind of a mystery to scientists.
Elizabeth Peterson, an Associate Editor of Live Science, wrote “If a dog howls in response to another dog or a loud siren, he may be saying, “Get off my turf!” or maybe even “Where are you guys? I’m over here!”
And if your dog howls when you leave the house, think back on Range’s study, and how dogs howl the most when the pack leader leaves. In this case, you are the pack leader.
Knowing this, it’s quite possible that your canine companion is hoping that by howling, it will trigger a response from you as the pack leader – to help you find your way home in time to feed him or her, or to play.