Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, cats gotta play with balls of yarn, dogs gotta howl at the moon.
That’s the way it’s supposed to go, right? But wait — why do dogs howl at the moon, anyway? Is that even what they’re doing?
The image (and sound!) of dogs howling at the moon is a pretty potently indelible one, but what’s the truth about this phenomenon, and what does it mean for your lunar howler.
Of Wolves and Dogs
One of the most common explanations for this behavior is the fact that dogs are descended from wolves who supposedly howl at the moon. Wolves are so closely associated with the full moon that folklore links the emergence of werewolves to full moons and wolves howling at the moon. However, there is little hard evidence for this myth. Instead, if wolves howl at night, it’s less because of the moon and more because they are nocturnal animals. As such, dogs may be drawing on that. If your dog is up at night, their nocturnal sleep schedule and potential loneliness at that hour may have more to do with them howling than the moon.
Howling at Night
Wolves, the same as dogs, use howls to communicate over long distances. This is one potential reason why a single dog howling in a neighborhood can sometimes set off a chain of dogs howling back to them. These dogs may think that they are responding to each other’s howls, and they happen to be doing so during the night.
You’ll also want to think about the other potential upsides of howling at night for dogs. Most people are asleep at that time (or are trying to while their dogs bark away) which means that car engines, TVs, and other sounds that are the product of human activity are quieter. As a result, it can be easier for dogs to hear one another while they howl. Moons also provide them with more light to see by than a pitch black night, which can also incentivize them to be active at that time.
Studies have attempted without much success to connect dogs’ nocturnal howling with the moon or other activities on their part. Studies by the Colorado State University Veterinary Medical Center as well as the British Medical Journal have attempted to draw such a comparison, with both noting an uptick in emergency room visits for dogs during full moons.
However, this is far from conclusive, in no small part because the emergency room visit rate also went up for cats in these studies, and it’s not as though these felines are howling along with their canine brethren. The British Medical Journal article noted an uptick in animal bites during those full moon hours, but before you start connecting that to any kind of myths about wolves during the full moon, it’s worth noting that the causes of those bites remain in dispute.
What You Can Do?
So while your dog may not be howling at the moon per se, they are still making quite a lot of noise.
Once you recognize that dogs don’t just respond to the moon but can bark at night for a wide range of reasons, you may be able to better focus on those reasons and thus address the actual cause of their howling.
For example, as mentioned, dogs typically use howls as a means of long-distance communication. Knowing that, you can start to figure out with whom your dog may be communicating (are there other dogs howling and setting them off?) or the other stimuli to which they may be responding (do you have neighbors who are playing loud music or are otherwise up at that hour?).
On the other hand, their nocturnal howls may also be a peal of loneliness. There’s something exciting about night in the city, but it can also be quite lonely and isolating. Whether you live with your dog in the city or out in the countryside, there’s a chance they could feel that sense of loneliness and isolation with you and the rest of your family asleep, leaving them “alone” all night. In such a situation, the howl of another dog far away may seem all the more welcome and comforting, helping them feel as if they aren’t “alone” after all.
If your dog is howling due to separation anxiety at night, you can try to comfort them, or work to train them to better understand that you haven’t “disappeared” during this time but are simply asleep. If your dog is calm enough and you are willing, you might consider letting them sleep at the foot of your bed. However, if you do that you run the risk of your dog “getting used” to that, so if you aren’t willing to cater to your dog making themselves at home in your bedroom at night, consider other options.
If other dogs’ howling is to blame, you could always try talking to those dogs’ owners, but the success of that will obviously vary on a case by case basis. It may be better to take matters into your own hands by soundproofing your dog’s pen if they are an inside dog so external howling and nighttime noises don’t find their way to your dog’s ears.
Then there’s the idea of desensitizing your dog to nighttime noises. This will obviously take a lot of patience, and the technique you follow to do so will depend on what things your dog likes and how you prefer to train them. However, once you have broken free of the myth that your dog is necessarily going to bark, and further that this is due to something as out of your control as the waxing and waning of the moon, you’ve taken the first step towards solving that nocturnal howling problem once and for all.
We love to romanticize moonlit midnights and imagine that they can bring out the wolf in us all.
Contrary to popular belief, however, they don’t have to result in you suffering through your dog baying at the moon.