Is your dog related to wolves closely enough to answer their call? - study

Researchers may have cracked the code as to why some dogs communicate via howling more than others.

 Amelia the dog, looking happy and fabulous in Tel Aviv (Illustrative). (photo credit: JOANIE MARGULIES)
Amelia the dog, looking happy and fabulous in Tel Aviv (Illustrative).
(photo credit: JOANIE MARGULIES)

A new study may have figured out why some dogs are more prone to howling than others and how this connects to their genetic cousins - wolves.

The main assumption when one hears a howl out in nature is that the sound came from a wolf. It's true; howling is how wolves communicate with each other. However, wolves are not the only ones who speak this mysterious language.

Other canines use howling as a way to communicate over long distances. They also use their howls to mark their territory, and of course, locate others within their pack. Usually, a howl from one wolf means that they've got others nearby.

The study, which was peer-reviewed and published by Communications Biology, attempts to explain why domesticated dog friends seem to have a more complex relationship with howling and communication of the sort. 

Modern genetic comparison: wolves and dog breeds

Breeds that could have worked as sled dogs are often wolf-like and known for being "hard-howlers." One such breed is the husky. Breeds in this category will howl frequently, seemingly replying to sounds that are less than relevant to them. They might reply to sounds like bells, sirens, music, and so on.

Other dogs, though, may not howl at any point in their life, even though they are capable of doing so.

Researchers tested almost 70 purebred family dogs in call-and-response experiments involving recordings of wolf howls. They compared this with these dogs' reactions to their howls. In order to test the effect of the breed, researchers looked into breeds’ genetic overlaps with 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,” Fanni Lehoczki told Hungary's ELTE Institute of Biology. Lehoczki is one of the study’s first authors.

“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,” Tamás Faragó, a senior author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Ethology, ELTE said.

“Interestingly, this genetic effect on howling occurs only among older dogs (5 years and older), 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.”

These researchers looked at more than just the breed and age of each dog. They also considered the gender and the reproductive status of the dogs tested.

“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. 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 added.