By Richard Cross | Dog Behaviour
Does your dog howl at night? If you’re confused about why, here are five of the most common reasons – plus some tips for preventing it.
Films have taught us to fear it, but it’s hard not to feel a primal satisfaction at hearing a howl echo through a woodland or valley.
Of course, if your dog is howling at night, you probably also feel a mixture of worry and annoyance. Even small dogs can howl surprisingly loudly – and it’s not always obvious why it’s happening.
Let’s take a closer look at why dogs howl and the most common night-time triggers.
To understand why your dog is howling, we need to consider the environmental and social needs of his distant ancestor – the wolf.
Wolves are pack animals. They thrive in groups, but struggle alone.
This means it’s essential for a wolf to be able to communicate its position to others – often across great distances. Howling is perfect for this, as the long, high-pitched note carries much further than a bark or whine.
When a wolf is separated from the pack, it howls to indicate its location. Wolves also howl to call in stragglers and find lost pack members.
In other words, howling is a reaction to loneliness. Keep this in mind when we start talking about your dog’s behaviour.
Wolves also howl if another pack has entered their territory. Again, howling is designed to reveal their location, but the goal is now to warn others to leave.
Note: If you’ve never heard a wolf howl before, here are some great examples (use headphones if your pup is nearby!):
We always need to be careful when applying wolf psychology to domesticated dogs. The two share a common ancestor – but there are major differences in appearance and behavior.
With that said, the most common reasons for a dog to howl are to get attention, call to other dogs or humans, and to announce their presence. These are exactly the same as wolves.
In addition, some dogs howl at loud noises, such as singing, musical instruments and emergency vehicle sirens. Researchers aren’t sure why this happens, but it could be that the dog just enjoys joining in. It may also be a territorial “go away” – at least in the case of emergency sirens.
All dogs can howl, but certain breeds find it particularly satisfying. Sled dogs, for example, are often kept in groups, so they’ve retained a stronger instinct to howl as a form of communication. Hounds that have been bred for hunting also tend to howl more often, as they use this noise to signal an animal is trapped.
Some examples of dogs that love howling include:
We now understand that dogs generally howl for two reasons: to signal their location and to warn others. What does this mean in the context of night howling though? And is there anything else that could cause it?
One of the most common reasons for howling at night is anxiety at being left alone. Your dog’s howling is his way of calling you back.
This makes sense when you consider wolves use howling to call the pack together. It’s more common in puppies – especially when they are spending their first few nights alone – but can become a problem at any age.
Not all night howling is separation anxiety though. Separation anxiety will cause other symptoms, such as pacing, toilet accidents, barking, destructive behaviour and whining. A dog with separation anxiety will also usually suffer whenever he’s apart from you – not just at night.
If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, you should consult with a positive training expert and your vet. They can help you develop a plan for reducing your pet’s anxiety at being left alone.
Most importantly, never scold your dog for behaviors caused by anxiety – including howling. He’s not being “naughty” or disobedient, it’s just his way of coping with the intense and unpleasant feelings he’s experiencing.
There’s a difference between separation anxiety and attention seeking.
Many dogs don’t have separation anxiety, but still prefer to be with you. If your dog learns he can get attention by howling or barking at night, this can quickly become an ingrained behavior. Every time you go to your dog – even to tell him to be quiet – the howling is reinforced.
If your dog is howling for attention, the first step is to stop rewarding him for howling. Never give attention when he howls or barks.
You then need to consider why he wants more attention. Perhaps he’s spending too much time alone in the day and isn’t getting enough mental stimulation. Or, if he’s in a crate, maybe he needs more desensitisation training to feel comfortable inside.
By solving the underlying problem, and preventing accidental reinforcement, your dog may stop feeling the urge to howl.
On a side note, dogs sometimes howl if they need the toilet. While this is technically attention seeking, it’s one signal you probably don’t want to ignore!
Dogs sometimes howl because they are in pain or feel unwell. They may also whine, bark or yelp more often than usual.
For this reason, you should always take your dog to a vet if he starts howling more often. Dogs are experts at hiding discomfort, so any potential sign of illness should be investigated as soon as possible.
Older dogs with dulled senses may also howl more often. Aside from pain, the dog might feel confused – particularly in the dark.
If another dog is howling nearby, your dog may respond with a howl of his own. Some dogs even respond to coyote calls. This is particularly common at night, when there’s less background noise.
Remember, a dog’s hearing is up to four times better than yours. Just because you can’t hear a reason for the howling doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Tip: White noise can be a great way to cover up noises at night.
Some dogs howl at strange noises, such as emergency vehicle sirens or car horns.
While this might be a minor issue in a quiet village, it can be a nightmare if you live in a city!
The best way to prevent howling at a specific noise is by desensitizing your dog to it. Here’s the basic process:
At The Dog Clinic, we try to focus on evidence-based explanations for canine behavior. But this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the many superstitions associated with howling.
The most common superstition is that a howling dog signals an impending death. The internet is filled with stories of dogs randomly howling, only for an unfortunate soul to be found dead soon after.
It’s believed this superstition can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. Anubis, the God of death, was represented with a canine head. Howling dogs were thought to be calling to him.
Many other cultures have held similar beliefs though. There are Irish, Norse, Welsh and American beliefs that link howling to death, and modern films have reinforced this connection.
While there are lots of compelling stories about dogs predicting tragic events, the reality is that they are probably a form of selective bias.
Humans tend to remember things that confirm their beliefs and ignore those that don’t. A dog howling without a related death is quickly forgotten, but if someone was to die – even a few days later – the event is likely to stick in the memory.
So, despite the many superstitions around howling, one of the five reasons above is probably the true cause!
While a night-time howl can be somewhat disconcerting, it’s probably not related to the supernatural. Instead, your dog is just trying to communicate.
The key to preventing howling is to understand what your pet is communicating and why he feels it’s necessary. To quickly summarise this article, the five most common reasons for a dog howling at night are:
Do you have any questions about howling at night? Or do you think I’ve missed a potential reason for this behavior? Let me know in the comments section below!
Richard is a journalist who specialises in dog behavior. He's written hundreds of articles and books related to dogs, including for the Continental Kennel Club, Dog Fest (the UK's biggest dog festival) and various veterinary surgeries. When he's not spending time with Jess and Rudy (his beloved Labrador and Golden Retrievers), he enjoys reading, hiking and watching sports.