Both wolves and dogs howl, but what are they communicating by their call?

Arousing fear and an almost reverential respect but also a certain curiosity about its hidden meaning: howling is the distinctive call of the wolf, but is also used, on occasion, by its ‘domestic cousin’ – the dog. Documentaries and movies about wolves and werewolves have taught us to recognise a wolf’s unique call, but what many of us don’t know, is that each rank of the wolf pack has a unique howl; it has a purpose and meaning, which is often unfathomable to us humans.

How a wolf uses its howl in the pack

One way wolves use howling is as ‘social call’; howling allows pack members to communicate their current location to other members of the pack. This resonant cry is also used during hunting to warn off any other wolf packs nearby, by indicating that another group already occupies the surrounding area. The howl is, therefore, a strategic call but, at the same time, also defines the strict hierarchy of the pack. This is evidenced by the unique sonic harmony each rank of the pack creates when it howls, somewhat like a choral composition. The leading pair – the alpha wolves – begin the chorus with an initial low howl; this is followed by a howl from the beta wolf, which assumes a higher pitched, longer-lasting howl; following this, are calls from wolves of lower rank, who produce more varied vocalisations, similar to barks, which serve to give outsiders the impression of a larger group than is in reality. Last in importance and consideration within the pack, the Omega wolf is tasked with producing a higher, more pleasant howl, which helps to restore calm in times of conflict.

Dog howling: from discomfort to amused participation

Dogs howl less frequently than their wild counterparts, and their call can be linked to several factors. Putting aside the excitable call of sled dogs, our domestic dogs generally howl to make a ‘social’ call or indicate an uncomfortable situation. For example, when a dog is left alone: the sadness of this situation causes the animal to howl as it expresses its desire to reunite its pack, which in this case, is made whole by the return of its human owners.

However, there is no need to worry for of our four-legged friends when they howl in response to music or particular sounds, such as sirens or bells, as they are not feeling discomfort but a desire to participate with the noise stimulus – often with hilarious results.