Howling is a characteristic form of communication in wolves that helps them send messages across long distances, mark territory boundaries, and identify the position of other wolves. Among dogs – the wolves’ domestic relatives – the situation is more complicated. While some breeds, such as wolf-like sled dogs, howl frequently, even in “reply” to irrelevant sounds like bells, sirens, or music, other types of dogs never engage in such behavior.
Now, a team of ethologists from the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary has examined the phenomenon of dog howling by testing the reaction of 68 purebred family dogs to recorded wolf howls. To test the effect of a dog’s breed, the experts measured its genetic similarity to wolves.
“According to our results, breeds which are genetically more similar to wolves (“ancient breeds”), are more prone to reply with their own howls to wolf howl playbacks. On the other hand, breeds more distantly related to wolves (“modern breeds”) typically reacted with barking instead of howls. It seems that although howling is present in most breeds’ repertoire, it lost its functionality due to the changed social environment, thus, modern breeds do not use it in adequate situations,” reported study lead author Fanni Lehoczki, a postdoctoral researcher in Neuroethology at ELTE. “Additionally, we found that breeds which howl more also show more stress-related behaviors in this situation.”
“We assume that more ancient breeds, which are genetically closer to wolves, can process the information encoded in wolf howls better than modern breeds. Thus, ancient breeds of our study might become stressed by intruding on a pack’s territory and use howling for the sake of avoidance, just as wolves do,” added study lead author Tamás Faragó, a postdoctoral fellow in Ethology at the same university.
“Interestingly, this genetic effect on howling occurs only among older dogs (>5 years), for which an experience- or some age-related personality effect can be a plausible explanation. It is possible that – in line with our hypothesis, that howling appearing with a higher level of stress is a fear reaction – older dogs are more fearful, which was already suggested by previous studies, but these speculations require further investigation.”
Besides the breed and age of the dogs, the scientists also tested the effect of other features such as sex or reproductive status. The analysis revealed that, while there was no difference between intact and spayed females, intact dogs behaved differently from neutered ones.
“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,’” Lehoczki explained.
These findings support the hypothesis that domestication and selective breeding by humans significantly changed dogs’ vocal repertoire, including the perception and production of howls.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications Biology.
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