When we say howling, one of the first images coming to the minds of people is a wolf howling at the moon.
Despite the poetic picture, wolves do not actually howl at the moon. The myth may have been originated by people witnessing wolves howling at night, facing the starry sky while the shiny moon was shedding some light on the dark woodland.
I am sorry to ruin the romantic belief, but wolves do not hold their head up to howl at the moon.
The reason why they do so is to give their message better acoustics; a sound sent upwards can travel a longer distance than if sent horizontally.
In the woods, an upward howl can reach up to 6 miles (9.6 km approx). In the tundra, where there are no trees, the wolf’s howl can reach up to 10 miles (16 km approx). It’s an impressive distance but still too short to reach the moon.
So why do wolves howl?
In nature, wolves use howling as a way to recall other pack members and to gather their group. It can also be used by an individual wolf to communicate its location to the pack. It is a form of lupine mobile phone. A wolf howl can also be a call to attract a mate. Howling can also be used to send a warning signal to potential intruders.
Wolves often howl in groups; this creates a combination of pitches that can reach up to 12 different pitches. This behaviour can serve also as a protective mechanism as it may confuse listeners into thinking that there are more individuals in the pack then what they actually are.
Lonely wolves tend not to howl too often to not attract rivals from around; that can be potentially dangerous as the lone wolf can’t count on his pack’s protection.
A howl can reveal a wolf’s size and health. A big healthy wolf tends to have a deep and strong howl compared to smaller or sick wolves.
Howling together is also a bonding behaviour that wolves do simply for pleasure. Even wolf cubs practice howling by observing and mimicking adult wolves.
Observing wolves can give us a clue to why domestic dogs can sometimes engage in howling.
In the case of a dog suffering from separation anxiety, howling, barking and whining is a way for the dog to recall the owner and to signal her position. A non-neutered male can howl to call and signal a mate if confined and under the effect of female pheromones. For some domestic dogs, howling can be a warning signal to potential intruders.
My wife’s family Central Asian Shepperd can do barks followed by howls when in guard mode at night. Probably she is trying to warn perceived intruders: “I am 66 kg of grumpiness, stay clear!”
However, dogs do not howl as much as wolves do because they have a different lifestyle.
Their territory is very small compared to wolves and, therefore, there is no need to send such long-distance messages. Of course, they may howl if a stranger or a stranger car approaches the driveway, but in general, they bark when what is perceived as a threat is imminent in their territory.
Another reason why dogs don’t howl as much as wolves do is that, as we mentioned earlier, wolf cubs learn this behaviour from adult wolves. Domestic dogs get separated from the mother at an early age and go live with their new, human group. Because of this, they have no other dog to teach this type of behaviour.
It can happen that some dogs respond to sirens of passing ambulances. The high pitch sound of an ambulance siren can be recognised by a dog as another dog howling and a dog may respond to the message sent. Once a dog starts howling, another dog in the neighbourhood can respond. In this case, even if a dog didn’t learn to howl as a puppy, he may start to join in and form the habit of howling.
Not all dogs tend to howl, however, that does not mean they cannot if they want. Some Spitz and hound dog types are more prone to howling than other dogs. So if you own these breeds, keep in mind that they may prepare a little concert for you and your neighbours.
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Also, if you like the topic of dogs, please check my book ‘Before You Get A Dog’ by Simone Burani. You will find the essential knowledge written in simple language to have a great time with your pet.