The wolf howl is a beautiful sound. Dogs howl when left alone because they are performing the “howl of loneliness” in the words of Dr Morris. This serves the same function as a howl when it is made to bring a pack together after they have scattered. In the wildnerness a wolf howls to assemble his pack members before setting off on a group hunt which occurs in the early evening or morning.
Domestic dogs howl less than wolves because they are fed and therefore have no need to bring the pack together and reinforce cohesion in the pack. A domestic dog’s pack does not scatter or it rarely occurs. But if a dog is shut in and forcibly kept away from their human companion they might howl because it is a call which says “come and join me”. This reflects the howl as a call to join the leader in a group hunt, but for the dog locked in it is a call for their human companions to come and join him.
In short, the howling dog who is locked in is calling for company and he wants to attract other members of the pack. If a dog’s human companion fails to respond they are doing a poor job as a dog guardian and caregiver.
The howl is made in a social context. It is used sometimes apparently by humans to attract young wolf cubs. If a person sits in a tree and is able to make a genuine wolf howl it can be sufficient to attract a cub or cubs. Adult, wiser wolves are not fooled because they can recognise the individualised sound made by any specific wolf.
Howling is personalised and it is possible to identify the wolf. It is said that you can identify specific information about the mood of a wolf who is howling. This brings me nicely to a video I saw recently made by a young woman who makes a fantastic wolf howl and bark. She describes the slight variations.
Howling is normally made at the borders of wolf territory which indicates that there is an element of territorial display. Solitary wolves who have been driven out of the pack don’t join in with the howling. They do, however, howl from time to time and if other outcasts join them it enables them to form a new pack.
Howling does occur in some professional kennels because the social context is created. Sometimes dogs howl when they are kept away from bitches on heat or are lonely stray dogs. But well cared for dogs in the home and are not stimulated to howl because the social context is not present.
One last point is worth making. If a family is indulging in an evening singing session (rare nowadays) dogs can sometimes mistake it as the leader of the pack howling to draw the pack closer together. The dog may answer the call by howling in response. The howling dog, though, will not see what should happen namely the group going off to hunt!