Is Your Dog a Barker or a Howler? One is Genetically Closer to Wolves

When your dog hears a siren, do they begin to howl? How about if another dog kicks off the chorus first? Are they apt to join in, or maybe they just bark at all the noise? How your dog responds could be an indicator of the nearness to their wolf ancestors or if they’re more akin to the new kids on the doggy block.

howling dogs
Photo: Pixabay/Andrey_and_Lesya

Canine Communication

Science tells us that older dog breeds are genetically more similar to wolves than modern canines. The big question is whether or not there are any indicators we can use to tell us which are and which aren’t. A new study published in Nature Climate Change says there is, and it turns out that a dog’s reaction to the howling of other dogs is the answer.

Howling in response to another dog’s howling is frequently associated with genetically closer ties to wolves when compared to dogs prone to barking. It’s an ancient form of long-distance communication seen in some dogs, and in the wild, it can be a handy-dandy skill for marking territory and letting other wildlife know where you’re at.

dog howling
Photo: Pixabay/Alexas_Fotos

6 Degrees of Separation?

To investigate if there were a genetic explanation for howling versus barking in dogs, researchers at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) observed the responses of 68 dogs when exposed to the sound of wolves howling. From there, they compared the study dogs’ responses to their genetic closeness to wolves.

The results pointed to early breeds – those more closely related to wolves – being much more likely to respond to the sound of howling in kind. Interestingly, these dogs were also more stressed out by the sound. On the other hand, study participants descended from more modern breeds were less bothered by the noise and more likely to bark in response to it. 

“It seems that although howling is present in most breeds’ repertoire, it lost its functionality due to the changed social environment,” explained study author Fanni Lehoczki. “Thus, modern breeds do not use it in adequate situations.”

wolf howling
Photo: Pixabay/Wildfaces

Sex Influences

“What we found is that something is going on with the male sex hormones, as there is no difference between intact and spayed females, but intact and neutered males do behave differently,” continued Lehoczki. “Neutered males, which are in lack of testosterone, howl more in response to the playbacks. As neutered males are suggested to be more fearful, this result can be in line with our findings about responsiveness and more stressed behavior. Thus, the dog howl may mean, ‘I am scared, don’t come closer.'”

Age was also associated with the trend, as dogs younger than two years old tended to howl about the same across the board. On the other hand, dogs two years of age or older were more likely to respond with both barks and howls, depending on their breed’s closeness or distance from wolves.

howling dog
Photo: Pixabay/Alexas_Fotos

Animal Studies

The published findings support the notion that howling is something most dogs are capable of doing, but that its function as a communication tool has grown weaker with the increase of modern breeds which are genetically more distant from their howling ancestors. This effect purportedly becomes more pronounced as dogs age.

So, what it boils down to is that the domestication of dogs and the increase in breed types is basically turning what was once a crucial tool for communicating into something that kicks in when first responders engage their sirens.

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