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Why do dogs howl?

Published: 
Sunday, April 5, 2015

The culture in T&T still thrives on old wives’ tales, and one of those relating to dogs is that “whenever you hear a dog howling, it means someone is going to die.” It may indeed seem that this is true, as some have witnessed an ambulance with blaring siren arriving to collect an ill person from the neighbourhood only to hear that the person passed away shortly afterwards. Have the old wives ever considered that the dog was not so much in tune with the health of the person involved but was instead singing along to the siren?

All dogs are descendents of one common ancestor—the wolf—and certain behaviours typical to wolves have thus been inherited. It is common knowledge that wolves howl (photos generally portray them baying at the moon) but less commonly known are their reasons for doing so.

Wolves live in very close-knit social packs, usually consisting of members of the same family. They are predators, they form territories, and they actively defend their hunting grounds. Patrolling to reinforce the borders of their territories as well as to scout for food are common activities in the daily life of an adult wolf. Wolf pups and their “nurses” stay within the den area. 

Wolves need to communicate with the rest of the pack and the bark is a short-range form of communication (only heard over short distances), so they howl. Barking is more common in wolf puppies who never wander too far from the rest of the family. 

The higher frequency of the howl travels over greater distances and has developed into the ideal type of vocalisation to “speak” to other pack members who are far away. This is why our dogs often join in when one dog starts to howl—the chorus is the result of each dog communicating with the other. 

The howl also demarcates the boundaries of the territory as the resident wolf or dog aurally stakes his claim.

If your neighbour complains that your dog howls whenever you are not home, this is a sign that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. The howl is his attempt to call you back, much the same way that the wolves left in the den area vocalise to let the patrolling wolves know where home is located.

Every person has a distinctive voice and can be recognised by someone who hears it. Similarly, each wolf has a howl unique to the individual so it is also a form of identification. As a dog owner, we should be able to differentiate our dog’s howl from that of another dog. 

Some dogs may manipulate the situation and the howling can become a cry for attention if the dog learns that every time he howls, the owner rushes to see if something is wrong. It is important that you check your dog if he howls since many dogs howl because they are injured or in pain, just as humans cry in similar circumstances, but be careful not to reinforce the behaviour as you may end up with a dog who “cries wolf.”

Dogs hear higher frequency sounds

Hearing range usually describes the range of frequencies in Hertz (Hz) that can be heard by an animal or person. People are commonly reported to have a hearing range of between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Although the hearing ability of a dog is dependent on its breed and age, the normal range of hearing is approximately 40 Hz to 60,000 Hz, which is much greater than that of humans. 

As dogs hear higher frequency sounds than humans, they have a different perception of the world. Sounds that seem loud to humans often emit high frequency tones that can scare away dogs, hence the phobic reaction of some dogs towards thunder and fireworks. 

Scientific studies report that the frequency range of wolf or dog howling varies between 150 Hz to 780 Hz. The frequency range of sirens averages 700 Hz which is within the same frequency range as a howl. It is therefore logical that the dog hears the siren but interprets the sound as coming—not from an emergency-response vehicle—but from another dog and so he responds with his own howl. This is also the case with other high-frequency sounds such as someone singing or notes emitted by a musical instrument. 

Moral of the story—don’t panic when you hear your dog howl: it does not mean someone is going to die!

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