Why Your Maltese Howls and What You Can Do About It

“Arooooooo.” The sound of your Maltese howling. It is sometimes a very startling sound when you hear it coming out of the frame of your tiny dog. It is something that is traditionally associated with the ancestor of the modern dog: the grey wolf and their closely related species. It served as a signaling call both to members of its pack and to other potential intruders.

So what are some reasons why your Maltese might howl? It doesn’t happen very often, but a Maltese can howl for several reasons, the most common of which is separation anxiety. Other causes include howling in response to other sounds, howling for attention or sometimes they may howl when they are extremely excited. At worst, they may howl when they require medical attention.

Although domesticated dogs retain this howling behavior from wolves, the actual frequency and duration of the howl differ by quite a bit from wolves. Technically the howling from domesticated dogs don’t even meet the proper definition of howling, as pointed out in this article by the National Geographic:

Most domestic dogs don’t make true howls, which are defined as a sustained, long-range call, says Barbara Sherman, a veterinary behaviorist at North Carolina State University… …However, many dogs produce attention-seeking vocalizations that owners call “talking” or “howling,” and which varies by breed and individual

Indeed, when some owners report howling from their Maltese, it may come across as sounding rather sad or pitiful. As discussed in the following sections below, howling doesn’t necessarily mean there is any serious problem with the dog, and there may be some things you can do to relieve the howling.

They are Anxious When Separated

“I’m here by myself, where is everyone? Aroooooooo. When are you coming back?

Because the Maltese has been bred to be a companion dog and thrives most in the presence of their human owners, separation anxiety is perhaps the most common reason for howling in any Maltese. Despite this, it can be tricky to diagnose as it requires the absence of their owners in order to trigger. Your neighbors may inform you of the fact that this is happening or you may catch it in any household video recording devices if you have it set up.

This can be accompanied by bad behaviors such as destructive chewing, especially on furniture like table legs or urinating in appropriate locations even though they are toilet trained. Eventually, the Maltese may finally acknowledge the fact that the situation is not changing and do something else, such as taking a nap to pass the time.

There are two examples where this has happened to my own Maltese:

  • I first witnessed my Maltese Terrier howling when my mother would go on her shopping trip during the day. In her earlier years with us, the dog would sometimes stand near the front door or in the garage area and stare expectantly at the door, followed by pacing around and then howling. Despite my attempt to comfort her with my presence, the howling was not fully alleviated. She only really stopped this howling habit after a few months adjusting to our family routine.
  • The second is when we enforced a rule to prevent the dog from sleeping on our beds at night (mainly for cleanliness reasons), so we installed a door separating the living and kitchen areas from the bedrooms. This created another incidence of separation anxiety and triggered her anxiety and howling. The howling was actually so loud and persistent (not to mention distressing and heart-breaking) that it would keep us awake at night. The dog eventually figured out how to bypass the door anyway by repeatedly pushing on it until it rebounded and left an opening for her to slip through. Ultimately, we just moved her dog bed closer to us though we still didn’t let her on our beds.

So once you have identified that the howling due to separation anxiety is happening, what can you do to deal it?

  1. Ensure that good quality dog toys are within easy access for the Maltese to chew or play with. It would help even more if these are organized in a good, confined location of an appropriate size for its age and size so the Maltese can feel safe while playing around. A big, empty and silent room can be very intimidating for the dog, so something like a playpen with toys is highly useful for dealing with these anxiety issues.
  2. A warm, comfortable bed for the Maltese is essential as it allows the dog to retreat to a safe area to sleep in the absence of its owner. Although I did not use one for my Maltese, a dog crate can be used in conjunction with a good bed if your dog is trained to use it.
  3. Although this doesn’t directly target the underlying issue of the anxiety itself, a pee pad should be introduced in a convenient area. The pee pad encourages the dog to relieve itself in a safe, controlled manner. It is also wise to take the dog outside to do its business before you leave it alone for long periods at a time.
  4. You may also want to look into “Small Dog Syndrome”, where the Maltese is led to believe that they are the leader of the human-dog pack because they are being pampered or allowed to do things that bigger breeds would not be able to (e.g. jumping on the owner, urinating in any place it desires). This is something I suspected that my Maltese had initially although we did manage to “train” it out of her later (with some difficulty).

They are Responding to Other Sounds

Arooooooo, I’m here too!

Your Maltese may also be howling in response to other sounds, such as other dogs howling, sirens from passing vehicles, or even music! This is traditionally the reason why dogs (and their wolvish ancestors) howled – they used howling as a way to signal to other members of its pack to provide information about its location. On a personal note, I have never actually heard my Maltese howling in response to high pitched sound, but your experience may vary.

There’s not much to say about these particular stimuli, other than to watch and pay close attention to how your Maltese might respond when they hear these sounds. Usually, this does not happen enough to be a real nuisance. It may even be cute especially when the dog attempts to ‘talk’ or join in for some singing. If it does become problematic in any way, you may need to address it in a way that targets the root problem.

The simplest and most obvious way is to eliminate the source of the noise. Identifying the triggering sound is relatively easy if it originates from your household. It could come from a television or tablet when you are watching a video (maybe about other dogs), or it could be the note from a musical instrument.

A much more likely scenario is that the source of the sound is beyond your immediate control and therefore you exercise no power to curb or control it. It can often just be the siren from a nearby emergency facility or vehicle, or other dogs howling across the road.

In this case, the Maltese would need to undergo proper behavioral training to desensitize and condition it to the noise, so it no longer induces the urge and the need to howl when stimulated. The process of desensitizing and counterconditioning is complicated, and you should consult a trained and certified pet behaviorist for further advice and proper training if necessary.

They are Seeking Attention

I want food. Grrr. Now! Arooooo.

Your dog might howl when it is excited or aroused in some way, and it is just not getting the attention it feels like it deserves. A needy Maltese might pace around under your desk looking for your attention, only to be disgruntled and trot off when it realizes it is being ignored. A howl could follow, prompting a very concerned owner to come rushing out only to be greeted by a very excited dog, primed for action.

Bingo! Your dog is a master tactician and has used howling to solicit attention whenever it desires.

Sometimes this behavior is harmless, such as signaling the need for exercise or maybe to empty its bladder outside when you have been negligent (I know I’ve been guilty of this from time to time). Other times the howling can be unwarranted and addressing it incorrectly may encourage poor behavior in the future.

Perhaps the most common occurrence of ‘bad’ behavior is excessive and frustrating levels of ‘begging’ for food at the dinner table. As there are many human foods unfit for canine consumption, you may not (and probably should not) be able to feed the Maltese your food scraps, that is, until you give in and feed it something like the bone of a cooked chicken wing. Not only is this unhealthy, but it could be potentially harmful as the softness of the cooked bone could break and form shards that present a choking hazard to your Maltese.

Even if you don’t give anything to your dog, you may still be inadvertently encouraging your Maltese to howl for attention (or any reward) by scolding it when it does howl. Like little kids or internet trolls, the Maltese is likely to see your ‘negative’ retort or comment as good attention all the same. A problematic habit for dog owners to overcome is that we tend to rush in to try to intervene and correct any situation we deem as wrong.

In this situation, the best thing to do is to try your best to ignore the dog until it stays quiet. Wait a few moments and then and ONLY then should you reward its calm behavior with some treats. This is the only reliable way to discourage loud, boisterous behavior and reinforce quiet, obedient habits.

They are Hurt or Distressed

Arooo… It hurts a lot. *yelp* Ouch. Aroooooo…

Dogs can also howl as a form of vocalizing pain. Like their great ancestors, who might howl as a call to signal that they are injured or trapped, a piteous or desperate howl might be a signal from your canine to you that it is feeling unwell. This kind of howling may seem to occur out of the blue and may have no apparent stimuli.

If you let your Maltese out to play and let it slip out of sight, it is entirely possible it may have experienced an injury or even a bite from a hostile animal. Check your Maltese for external signs of injury such as blood or swelling, and look out for some unusual and unpleasant smells. Internal injuries will not be readily seen from outside but can cause symptoms in your Maltese.

In either case, your Maltese might be very protective, anxious or scared of its surroundings and also potentially be extremely aggressive when you try to approach and examine it. It is just a form of defense and self-preservation and an excellent indicator that something is wrong.

There are about a hundred and one reasons why this may be happening, so if you suspect your dog is unwell and not getting better, you need to consult a professional veterinarian immediately. If it is immediately appropriate to take it to the vet, at least pick up the phone and have a chat so they will advise what to do or what further checks you might be able to make. In the worst case scenario, they will ask you to come in immediately for a professional assessment. It is best to be safe than sorry.

Further Reading

VCA – “Why Do Dogs Howl?” – https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/why-do-dogs-howl
Canidae – “Superstitions about Howling Dogs” – https://www.canidae.com/blog/2014/05/superstitions-about-howling-dogs/