Howl If You Missed Me

Although my wife and I lost our Australian Shepherd a couple of years ago, we still recall with fondness just how happy she was when people came home …

Unlike some other dogs, “Smylee” was not a big jumper or leaper. But, she was a big greeter … and a vocal one at that. After you entered through the front door, what she really liked was for you to get down on your knees and give her a big hug, when she proceeded to howl for joy. In turn, this caused you to howl as well, turning the meeting into a group howling fest which let everyone else in the house (including all of the various cats hiding in nearby nooks and crannies) know that yes indeed, someone special had arrived.

I always wondered why Smylee howled when I came home from a long trip, and of course my wife and I had concocted our own theories to explain the behavior. Recently, I did some research and discovered that howling can actually be used for long-range communication with other dogs or owners. It can also be used to locate another member of the pack, or even to keep strangers away. In the wild, it’s often used by wolves or coyotes to call in the pack for hunting (a sound that we hear often out here in the Texas Hill Country). For the domesticated canines that we know and love, howling is sometimes a sign of separation anxiety, too.

Of course, sometimes dogs will howl when they hear the wailing sirens of a police car, fire engine, or other emergency vehicle. Loud, high pitched sounds like those made by clarinets, flutes, and other musical instruments can also precipitate an impromptu howling session. We’ve all seen our dogs jump up and howl (or bark) in response to certain sounds on the television. Sometimes, even an electric guitar playing just the right note will create a quick reaction. Especially if it’s blues! Interestingly enough, the sounds don’t have to be live and in person to get a response, as any recorded facsimile will work for a dog.

You should know that when your dog begins howling to acknowledge your karaoke singing, they are not doing so because of your superior crooning skills. Contrary to popular belief, the sound isn’t hurting their ears, either—even though you might be singing a little off key. The simple explanation is that dogs react with howling as an instinctive response to hearing what they interpret to be another howl (i.e., another dog in the distance). Your “singing” makes you just another dog in the pack, letting everyone else know where you are.

In Smylee’s case, she only howled when greeted by a long lost friend or someone who spent time away from home for an extended duration. In this instance, her dog howl was meant to say “here I am” and used to alert the rest of her extended family and call them home—much like wolves do in the wild. When Smylee howled, she was letting everyone within earshot know that someone important had returned home and that anyone else in the family should drop everything, run to the door, and join the pack in celebration.

One of these days, we will see her again on the other side. She will be there, waiting to greet us with a welcome smile, no doubt howling for joy when we finally join her in that heavenly pack.