Howls, Growls and Whines — What Do They All Mean?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

what does dog howling mean

Story at-a-glance -

  • Of all the vocalizations dogs make, howling can be the most difficult for humans to interpret
  • A dog’s howling can signal an illness or injury, separation anxiety, boredom or frustration; it can also be a bid for attention
  • Wild dogs howl to help pack members find their way home; dogs also howl to reinforce and defend territorial boundaries
  • Dogs who howl frequently can be trained to do it much less often
  • The reasons dogs whine are very similar to the reasons they howl

Our canine companions have quite a repertoire of vocalizations. Beyond barking, they also use acoustic forms of communication such as:1

  • Whines, which may indicate stress or a desire for attention
  • Growls, which are used as a warning or threat and sometimes during play
  • Groans and yelps, which indicate distress or pain
  • Grunts, which are related to pleasure
  • Howls, which are used for group cohesion

According to certified applied animal behaviorist Karen London, howling is one of the most difficult vocalizations to interpret because there are many potential reasons for it, including genetics, as in the case of Beagles and other scent hounds. Huskies also howl, which can sound a bit like singing.

“When dogs howl it serves as an alert,” London writes. “Dogs may howl to let you know that there is something they want you to notice. It could be a visitor, another sound, a lost toy or anything else that has their attention. They may be excited, frightened or frustrated by the situation.”2

What Your Dog’s Howling May Mean

If your dog suddenly starts howling, it’s important to have him seen by your veterinarian to check for a possible painful underlying condition.

Sadly, many dogs with separation anxiety howl either when left alone, or when their favorite human isn’t around. For instance, I have a friend with a little Chihuahua mix, and Chihuahuas are notorious for being one-person dogs.

Occasionally my friend visits family out-of-state and her dog stays behind with her husband and doggy brother. After a few days without mom, and despite the constant presence of dad and/or the other dog, the little guy has been known to howl mournfully. He only does it once or twice, but it’s a very sad sound.

Occasionally, dogs will howl out of boredom, frustration, or in a bid for attention, and certain sounds such as singing, a crying baby and sirens in the distance also inspire the howler in some dogs. But according to London, the sound that is most likely to cause howling is the howling of another canine, domestic or wild.

“Experts speculate that whether the sound is another dog howl or just similar enough in some way to get them going, dogs are joining the chorus,” says London.

More Reasons Dogs Howl

To guide members of the pack back home — According to Dogster,3 wild dogs howl to call hunters back to the pack. Those who stayed behind during the hunt howl to guide more adventurous members back home. Domesticated dogs sometimes have a similar way of expressing themselves, especially if their humans have been gone for a while. They howl to remind their favorite people where home is.

To reinforce territorial boundaries and as a defense mechanism — Dogs howl to warn other dogs that they’re entering their territory. Some dogs take the warning more seriously than others, as the howl also denotes a threat. According to Dogster:

"In this context, dog howling functions as a defense mechanism, warding off potential predators and ensuring the safety of the dogs in the pack. In a domestic setting, like your home, dogs may howl for the same reason. Some dogs bark, others howl when a stranger comes to the door or a new car pulls up in the driveway.”

To alert to an injury or discovery — Similar to Lassie alerting that Timmy had fallen into a well, some dogs howl when they know someone's in danger, including themselves. Dogs bred for hunting will often howl when they're chasing something, when the pursuit becomes dangerous, or when they've cornered a prey animal. Some hunting dogs are trained to howl to show where they are.

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How to Curb Your Dog’s Tendency to Howl

According to London, dogs don’t outgrow howling, but those who howl often enough that it’s a problem can be trained to do it much less often, and to stop when asked.

“With careful observation of the circumstances that precede the dog howling, you may be able to figure out what is triggering it,” she writes. “That will give you a good opportunity to short-circuit the trigger and therefore, prevent the howling. I recommend identifying and addressing the root causes and working on interrupting the behavior when it does happen.”

When you interrupt your dog’s howling, encourage him by redirecting him to another activity he enjoys. You can train him to stop to a verbal cue such as “Enough” by offering him a treat or favorite toy when he stops in response to your command.

Reasons for Whining Are Similar to Those for Howling

It’s important to keep in mind that anytime your dog communicates with you, she has a purpose in mind and she’s counting on you to figure out what she’s trying to tell you. Professional dog trainer Pat Miller, writing for Whole Dog Journal, lists several potential causes for whining:4

Pain or discomfort whining — The when and where of your dog’s whining is important in narrowing down its cause. For example, if she’s normally happy in her crate at night but suddenly starts whining in the wee hours, and especially if she also starts soiling or throwing up in her crate, she very likely has a digestive or urinary tract problem that needs attention.

If your older dog whines instead of jumping up onto the couch or into the car as she always has, she may be dealing with arthritis or another condition that is limiting her mobility and causing her discomfort.

A good rule of thumb is that if your dog begins whining in normal, everyday situations and/or at unexpected times of the day or night, a visit to your veterinarian is in order to investigate whether a painful or uncomfortable underlying medical condition is in play.

Stress and anxiety whining — As Miller points out, Anything that causes [your dog] to be fearful can contribute to … whining, and some breeds even seem to have a genetic predisposition to whining.”

If your furry companion whines as you’re preparing to leave the house, he may have separation anxiety, which is an increasingly common problem in dogs today. Miller offers the following suggestions for dealing with anxiety-related whining:

To help him be less anxious so he will whine less, make a list of things that cause your dog fear or stress, and pick two or three to start counter-conditioning, that is, changing how he feels about those things, so they no longer cause him stress or fear.

When you can tick one stressor off your list, pick another to begin working on, until you have addressed enough of them that whining is no longer a problem.

Additionally, anxiety-induced and the other types of whining may improve with the application of the ever-growing list of various tools and protocols we have to help our dogs be calm.” (More about those shortly.)

Frustration whining — Miller also calls this “demand whining” because in most cases, dogs become frustrated when their demands aren’t being met. The best way to curb frustration whining is to observe when it occurs, and then head it off at the pass by either giving your dog what she’s waiting for before she has a chance to whine for it, or by offering a distraction such as a food-dispensing toy before she starts whining.

Now, we’re assuming here that what your dog is demanding is legit, such as her morning walk, her afternoon ball-chasing session, or some other fun activity she counts on each day. But if she’s whining for your ice cream cone or a sip of your beer, it’s a whole different ballgame.

In this case, your dog is frustration-whining because she wants something she shouldn’t have. Since presumably she’s been conditioned to want it, instead of giving it to her, you’ll need to work to extinguish her expectation that she’ll get it.

Excited whining — As Miller observes, “… some dogs whine just because they are so happy they can barely contain themselves.” This type of whining tends to happen leading up to an adventure, which for your dog can include a car ride, an off-leash hike, or even just a walk around the block. As whining goes, the excited variety is probably something we should accept and even be grateful for!

Appeasement whining — This somewhat uncommon type of whining, according to Miller, generally occurs in social interactions between dogs. “In this case,”she writes,“it is a healthy communication, and not one you want to interfere with.”