Have you ever noticed your dog howl in response to other dogs, sirens, or other seemingly howl-like noises? If so, but your neighbor’s dog remains silent, it is likely because your furry friend is genetically closer to its wolfen ancestors than the growler next door.
According to new research, the propensity for dogs to howl is also likely related to their fear status and associated stress levels, which are also traits found to be shared by wolves in the wild.
Why Does My Dog Howl All of the Time?
One of the more common questions veterinarians and other animal care professionals hear from new dog owners is ‘why does my dog howl all of the time?’ A number of theories have been proposed, but the most popular is rooted in the animal’s lupine origins. That’s because all dogs evolved from wolves, and wolves howl. Still, not all dogs howl even though they are descendants of wolves, leading researchers to ask what separates the ‘howls’ from the ‘howl-nots.’
Previous research has looked at everything from breeds, age, gender, and even where a dog was raised for the answer, but no universally accepted explanation exists. Now, a team of researchers from EÖTVÖS LORÁND UNIVERSITY (ELTE) in Hungary has taken a different approach by examining the potential relationship between howling and DNA. And if their findings are confirmed, it may finally explain why your dog loves to howl.
Genetic Similarity to Wolves and Fear-Induced Stress May Hold the Answer
“This is the first study specifically investigating howling in domestic dogs,” the press release announcing the latest research states.
Anecdotal evidence has suggested that a dog’s genetics may affect whether or not it howls when it hears howling, particularly a dog that is more closely related to its wolf ancestors. This notion inspired the Hungarian research team to see if it was true or just an urban legend. And sure enough, based on their study, which involved playing back the sounds of howling wolves to 68 purebred canines from varying breeds, the more “ancient” a dog’s DNA, the more likely that hound will howl.
“According to our results, breeds which are genetically more similar to wolves (“ancient breeds”), are more prone to reply with their own howls to wolf howl playbacks,” explains Fanni Lehoczki, the first author of the study. “On the other hand, breeds more distantly related to wolves (“modern breeds”) typically reacted with barking instead of howls.”
The researchers note that while howling is biologically possible across all dog breeds, their findings seem to indicate that the behavior simply lost its “functionality” due to the changed social environment. As a result, modern breeds may have simply lost the genetic information needed to help them determine the right way to use howling, as well as the appropriate situations.
“We assume that more ancient breeds, which are genetically closer to wolves, can process the information encoded in wolf howls better than modern breeds,” says Tamás Faragó, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Ethology, ELTE and the senior author of the study. “Thus, ancient breeds of our study might become stressed by intruding on a pack’s territory and use howling for the sake of avoidance, just as wolves do.”
The researchers say that this particular type of stress may also be a determining factor in which breeds of dogs howl and which dogs don’t.
“We found that breeds that howl more also show more stress-related behaviors in this situation,” explained Lehoczki.
This correlation was observed exclusively in older dogs, who the researchers say exhibited more fear-related behaviors than younger dogs in previous studies.
“Interestingly, this genetic effect on howling occurs only among older dogs (>5 years), for which an experience, or some age-related personality effect, can be a plausible explanation,” said Faragó. “It is possible that- in line with our hypothesis, that howling appearing with a higher level of stress is a fear reaction – older dogs are more fearful.”
This fear-stress connection also showed up in a difference between male and female dogs. Specifically, the researchers found that there was no difference in the propensity to howl between intact and spayed females, whereas neutered males who lack testosterone howled more in response to recorded howls.
“As neutered males are suggested to be more fearful, this result can be in line with our findings about responsiveness and more stressed behavior,” Lehoczki hypothesized. “Thus, the dog howl may mean ‘I am scared, don’t come closer.’”
Yes, Humans Are Likely the Cause
Although the researchers could not rule out additional causes of howling versus non-howling in individual cases (for instance, things like poor diet, environment, and training or lack thereof could all be factors), the broad range of differences in the desire to howl at howling wolves or similar sounds seems to mostly come down to the way the pooches are bred and whether or not their human caregivers have neutered them.
“The findings support the hypothesis that domestication and selective breeding by humans fundamentally changed dogs’ vocal repertoire,” the press release says, “and both the perception and production of howling in dogs.”
Christopher Plain is a novelist, comedian, and Head Science Writer at The Debrief. Follow and connect with him on Twitter, learn about his books at plainfiction.com, or email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.