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Dogs use many different forms of vocal communication, and howling is one of the noisiest! Howling is a good way for your dog to attract attention, let other dogs know that they are around, or sometimes, just respond to other noises. Some dogs will go through their whole lives without ever howling, whereas others seem to derive great pleasure from doing so on a regular basis and aim to make it as noisy as possible! If your dog is a howler and things are starting to get out of hand, read on to find out what you can do about it.
In order to be able to address the howling itself and hopefully manage to stop it, it is first important to find out why your dog is howling in the first place, and this could be for a wide variety of different reasons.
Often, dogs that are sick or injured will howl, even if their ‘pack’ or people are right there next to them. It is vitally important to rule out any physical cause for howling before viewing the problem as a behavioural issue, as your dog may need veterinary treatment.
If you regularly come home from work to find grumpy- looking neighbours waiting to tell you that your dog has been howling all day, this is something that you will need to address fairly quickly. Not only is causing an inconvenience for your neighbourhood a big problem on its own, but if your dog is lonely and anxious, this will probably lead to a range of other acting-out behaviours as well as howling, all of which can be hard to break. Also, of course, being lonely or anxious to the point that they begin to act out is not good for your dog in itself.
If your dog has learnt that making a big noise annoys you and you will make a fuss of him (either positive or negative) to encourage him to be quiet, he will soon learn to howl for attention, or to make demands with his voice.
It can be hilarious to hear your dog start up howling when a certain member of the family begins to sing, or when a certain song comes on the radio or a police siren goes past outside. For some dogs, other sounds can prompt them to join in with their own voices, and of course, when the triggering sounds stops, the howling will generally also stop. However, if your dog is joining in with the sound of other dogs howling in the locality, this can be more of a problem, as they do not come with a timed ‘off’ switch!
Once you have established the reasons behind why your dog is so keen to howl, you are on the way to being able to manage their howling and getting them trained out of it.
If your dog is howling due to separation anxiety, then you will need to address the root cause of his separation anxiety before you can deal with the problem. Dogs are not meant to live solitary lives, and it is not appropriate to keep a dog locked up in the house all day without companionship or stimulation while you are out at work or otherwise engaged. If you are confident that your dog is receiving enough interaction with you and that they are appropriately entertained while you are out, you will have to work on their separation anxiety, which can take some time to do. Go back to basics with your dog, assigning a safe crate or area of the house to them, and that they can view as their shelter and a comfortable place to use when they are on their own. Begin by leaving them for short periods of time and returning with a treat, gradually building up to longer periods, until you are able to leave your dog happy and unsupervised for up to four hours at a time. Four hours is the upper limit of the amount of time it is reasonable to expect a dog to spend unsupervised. If you have to work through the days or can’t be there for your dog for longer than four hours at a time, you must make provision for someone else to come in and spend some time with them and let them go to the toilet while you are out.
If your dog’s howling is always triggered by a particular sound, such as a singing voice or other dogs outside, teaching them not to howl can be rather difficult, as their attention will already be on the other sound from the get-go. You may be able to mask some of the noises that trigger howling, with the radio or other background noise, or even do something about the presence of the noises themselves, depending on what they are. If there is no getting away from the fact that your dog will be regularly exposed to noises that trigger them to howl, you may want to look at undertaking a course of exposure therapy with your dog to fully expose them to the triggering noise at different levels and in other environments. This can help them to work through whatever it is about the sound that makes them want to howl, get them used to it and in time, hopefully lead them to see the noise as normal and uninteresting rather than as a cue to join in!
If your dog howls to get your attention, then giving in to his demands to make him be quiet might seem like the path of least resistance, but of course in the long run, it only makes the problem worse! If your dog has already got used to a pattern of ‘howl and reward’ this can be a hard lesson to break, but it is by no means impossible. Once your dog begins to howl or otherwise make a noisy fuss, it is important to totally ignore him- and stick to this. Do not respond in any way, even with a reprimand- act as if your dog is invisible to you. Do not pet him, make eye contact with him or talk to him at all. Once the howling has stopped (and stopped genuinely, rather than just paused for breath!) reward him with a kind word. It may take a significant amount of time for this lesson to sink in, but persistence is the key to success!
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