A lone dog howling beneath the light of the moon can be both mournful and spooky, and it can also elicit fantasies of a red-eyed pack of savage killers in full pursuit under cover of night. Multiple myths surround this classic canine behavior, and some of them may even be true!
Full Moon and Loud Mouth
That dogs howl at the moon is, in and of itself, a myth. Dogs howl for the same reasons their wild cousins do -- communication. Wolves howl, day or night, full moon or dark, to call to pack members separated from the pack, to let other packs know the boundaries of their territory and just for the helluvit, like a community sing. Dogs do it to make contact with other dogs when they're bored or lonely, and often when they hear another sound that resembles a howl: a siren or even a human singing. The moon is completely irrelevant. The "at the moon" part probably comes from the posture they assume when howling -- head back, nose to the sky -- which directs the sound up and out so that it carries over a wider area. These long, drawn-out vocalizations can easily be heard as far as 10 miles away.
Dogs of Death
Since Pharaoh ruled in Egypt, dogs howling at night have been regarded by cultures as diverse as the Celts and the Japanese as an omen of doom. To the Welsh, a howling dog on the doorstep meant a death in the house.
A 9 on the Richter Scale
It's a widespread belief that dogs howl and show other disturbed behaviors in advance of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches and violent storms. Indeed, there are plenty of anecdotes of dogs howling right before a natural disaster strikes. However, some scientists explain that dogs and other animals have keener senses than we do (e.g. smell, hearing, and ability to feel subtle vibrations and fluctuations in atmospheric pressure, etc.), so are simply alerted to the danger more quickly than our senses allow us to be. However, many people still insist on crediting dogs with a mystical "sixth sense" that warns them to seek safety.
Of course we couldn't talk about myths surrounding howling without bringing up the supernatural! It's a common folk belief that man's best friend can "see" or otherwise perceive spirits, ghosts, demons and other fearsome beings, and they are thought to howl at night in response. They have also often been depicted in fiction as howling at the approach of a werewolf. Got silver bullets?
By Martha Adams
About the Author
Martha Adams has been a rodeo rider, zookeeper, veterinary technician and medical transcriptionist/editor. She traveled Europe, Saudi Arabia and Africa. She was a contestant on "Jeopardy" and has published articles in "Llamas" magazine and on the Internet. Adams holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.