Howling: Music to My Ears

Despite Hollywood's portrayal of the howl as a lonely cry in the dark, howling is a gorgeously complex vocalization in wolves, coyotes and dogs.

Dogs howl for a number of reasons. Not all have to do with sorrow, sadness, or loneliness. Sometimes, howls are a great way to share excitement. In wolves, this is called rallying. The wonderful staff at Wolf Park uses this to great effect when it's time to round up the wolves participating in the weekly Wolf/Bison interactions. (Wolf Park is the only place on the planet where you can see this predator/prey interaction every Sunday. 25 years and counting and the score remains Wolves: 0.)

Dogs & wolves (don't know about coyotes) howl in response to other sounds:

  • howls (by humans, other dogs, wolves, coyotes)
  • sirens
  • musical instruments (bagpipes are a classic trigger)

Howling is often a call/response mode. Among wolves, the howl functions as a way to ask, "I'm here - where are you guys?" I have used this to let a lost dog know where I was (accompanied by the other dogs.) Howls carry far.

Howling can also serve as a territorial warning - "We're here, so you better not be!" I've had the pleasure of listening to the three groups of coyotes that live around our farm doing a round of howls.

Living with German Shepherds is a wee bit like living in a Wagnerian opera.? Loud, bombastic, so dramatic with plenty of intense vocalizations.? (After all, the same country that brought us Wagner gave the German Shepherd Dog!) So these are dogs who howl a lot.? Including more than a few who have howled in their sleep, a lovely form of talking in your sleep if there ever was one!

I've been intrigued forever by the gorgeous sounds that can and do pour forth. There's a fascinating ability to harmonize in subtle ways.? If one dog enters on the same note, there's an instant shift to a harmonizing note.? While my ears are not seriously trained to detect such subtleties, I've listened closely after reading a long time ago that in a group howl, no animal sings on the same note as another.? Apparently, it's true, at least to my ears.

One of the great pleasures of my life is howling with my dogs.? It's a hoot teaching puppies to howl.? While sometimes they do go right to a ful voiced howl, more typically my pups do a teenage boy voice cracking thing at first, or get out a nice note or two and then devolve into excited yipping.? Be careful if you decide to try this at home, as some dogs get really scared by howling.? My pups grow up with it, and surrounded as we are by many coyotes, it's a familiar thing from early puppyhood on.

I've spent a lot of time in my life pressed close on all sides by happy dogs, howling with them -- at the moon, at the fire siren, at the coyotes, just for the hell of it.? Only thing that comes close to eclipsing the joy of singing with my pack is the thrill of hing a wolf howl right beside your face - indescribable.?Visit Tom O'Dowd's wonderful Wolf Saga blog for video of Tristan howling at Wolf Park .? (Tristan is the wolf greeting me on the jacket of my last book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky.)

Howling with a wolf is something you can experience yourself at Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana (just outsidePurdue University).? Wolf Park offers a variety of experiences ranging from Howl Nights (Fri & Sat evenings, spring/summer/fall) to intensive multiple day seminars with hands-on experience with their imprinted wolves.

While all howls are wonderful, reality for me is that some dogs have really spectacularly beautiful voices, with pure controlled tones and a gift for controlling those tones to great effect.? Some dogs I've known were a bit more like a wonderful elderly man in our church when I was growing up.? Dear Everett poured heart and soul into every hymn, loud and enthusiastic in his singing.? On more than one occasion, I wondered if God had to do a double take and wonder what the heck that oversized bullfrog was doing so far from a pond.

And here's last bit of weird trivia - I've heard musicians say that Nature sings in the key of B flat.? Black holes apparently hit the deepest B flat ever (57 octaves below middle C)? Male alligators apparently find tubas playing a B flat only one octave down from middle C to be pretty sexy (brave tuba players).? This article offers a great description of an alligator concert, including video.

Music to my ears... just like my dogs howling right along with the rest of Nature.