There's an Instinctual Reason Your Dog Howls When You Sing Christmas Carols
Don’t take it personally if your dog thinks you’re sending a signal out into the night, not singing "O Holy Night."
If, in your house, “Angels We Have Heard On High” morphs quickly into “Angels We Have Heard On Howl,” you are not alone. Dogs singing along with the family is a surprisingly common behavior.
We can blame their wolf ancestors for it, says Bryan Bailey, a dog trainer with Taming The Wild, based in Memphis, Tennessee. “Dogs and wolves share all but 0.2% of their mitochondrial DNA,” says Bailey. Howling, which most of us associate with wolves, is indelibly written somewhere in that shared genetic code.
We do not mean this as a criticism of your singing but, your dog thinks you’re howling. And, they’re doing what they’ve been hard-wired to do, which is join in. At its core, howling is a social behavior, says Aaron McDonald, a canine behaviorist with Three Dimensional Dog, a dog training company in Birmingham, Alabama. “It’s almost like how, if you see one horse start running, they all start running,” he explains. Bailey calls happy howling like a pep rally for pups. It’s usually a positive behavior in a dog pack.
Most of the time, howling along with a tune is harmless (and perfect content for your Instagram feed). There are times, however, when your dog may be trying to tell you that they are not, in fact, grooving. One example is when pups interpret singing as wailing (again, no offense to that falsetto rip you just totally pulled off!). “This connects with their empathetic minds. Dogs have this ability to experience empathy,” says McDonald. When someone in their pack, human or canine, is in distress, dogs will respond.
Another example of your caroling causing distress may come from playing a high-pitched instrument, like a violin. Bailey says canines have more sensitive hearing than humans. In fact, he once had a professional violinist client whose pack couldn’t handle her practicing. The client was a talented player, but the music probably physically hurt their ears.
Signs your dog is not enjoying the sing-along can range from laying their ears back to panting, pacing, or even hiding. If you're singing in a group, they may also start jumping on you or try to get between you and the other singers.
If your dog becomes distressed during singing, McDonald suggests teaching a “go to your safe space and stay there” cue. You can do this by rewarding them when they go in their crate or sit in a designated spot. Attach a verbal cue by saying “safe space or crate” as you are rewarding them in that space. Then, well before they’re stressed out, teach them to go to their safe space on cue. While being in a safe spot won’t make the noise stop, “they are following the executive authority of a parent,” says McDonald. That is comforting for dogs because generally, dogs want to know that their pack leaders have things under control.
Furthermore, as the pack leader, you should think twice before shouting at your howling pup. “Yelling shows them we've lost our emotional control, and we are no longer competent leaders. We are now joining along in the chaos,” explains McDonald. If your dog is happy singing along, let them. If it’s annoying, teach a “thank you, that’s enough” cue, suggests Bailey.
One last thing: Bailey doesn’t recommend teaching your pup to howl on cue, even if it makes for cute videos. “What's cute at first and festive and joyful now can turn into a real complaint from your neighbors,” he says.