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What Is Baying? And Why Some Dogs Do It

Baying is a sound hounds use to communicate to humans and other dogs.

Key points

  • Howls are sounds used by canines to assemble companions and pack members together.
  • Baying is a specific sound used by scent hounds to communicate to humans and other dogs and helps to coordinate a hunt.
  • Baying allows hunting companions to know which dogs have the scent and therefore should be followed.
  • Baying is under genetic control; it could be eliminated via selective breeding, but that would reduce the effectiveness of a hound pack.
R. Scopes (CC By NC-ND 2.0)/Flickr
Source: R. Scopes (CC By NC-ND 2.0)/Flickr

Do you know what it means when a dog howls? Do you know the difference between a dog howling and a dog baying? Most people feel more secure when talking about howling, but many are not sure what baying is.

The Purpose of Howling

Howling is a natural behavior that is found in wild canines like wolves. Because of deliberate genetic manipulations (through selective breeding) our domestic dogs bark more than wolves or their other wild canine cousins. The flip side of the coin is that our dogs actually howl a lot less. In wolves, the howl has several functions. One of them is to assemble the pack for hunting. Since wolves hunt early in the evening and early in the morning, it is not surprising that we are most likely to hear wolves howling at these times. The howls assemble the group, which may have dispersed into the underbrush to sleep through the evening or to rest out of sight during the day. Our domestic dogs have a food supply that is presented to them by their owners, and they do not have a need to call their pack together for a synchronized hunt.

Another purpose of the howl is to reinforce the identity of the group. Upon hearing the howling, group members gather together and join in the song of their pack. Because of this, dogs often howl when they are forcibly shut away on their own, or otherwise isolated from their family and pack. This howl of loneliness has the same function as the group howl; it is an attempt to attract other canines.

What Is Baying?

Baying is the sound that hounds make when they are tracking. In the older literature, it used to be referred to as "trail barking." However, it uses a deep and booming voice and is usually distinct from the barking voice. When you first hear baying it might sound something like howling, however, it is a more complex sound. While howls involve holding a single sound for a prolonged time, baying contains many tone variations and occurs in short bursts. To me, baying sounds like the combination of a howl and a yodel. It is certainly a much more excited sound and is often filled with a happy enthusiasm.

For centuries scent hounds—including bloodhounds, foxhounds, coonhounds, bassets, and beagles—have been systematically bred, not just for their scenting ability and desire to track, but also for the sounds that they make when they are hunting. The baying sound that hounds make when tracking acts as a beacon. It allows the hunters or trackers to know exactly where the pack is at any moment. The number of dogs sounding off at the same time, and the intensity of the baying, indicate the strength and freshness of the scent to the hunter. As the dogs signal this information about what they are smelling, the hunter or tracker uses it to figure out how near the quarry might be. Some control of the pack's movement can then be exerted by humans via signals on a hunting horn—which, to the dogs, probably sounds like a special form of baying—or mundanely via a whistle.

Coordinating the Hunt

The sound of baying is also important for the other hounds on the hunt, as well as their human masters. There a major limitation of the dog's scenting ability known as "olfactory adaptation." When you walk into a room you might notice a distinct smell, such as perfume, the scent of flowers, brewed coffee, or so forth. After only a few moments, however, you are no longer aware of these smells because of olfactory adaptation. This is actually the result of fatigue of the scent sensitive cells, which comes about when a particular odour is present in the nose for a period of time. The same thing happens to hounds on the hunt.

Typically when a hound picks up a scent it will begin to bay or "give tongue." This sound is interpreted by other dogs in the pack as, "Follow me. I've located our quarry's scent." For a strong scent, however, olfactory adaptation will set in after only about two minutes and then the hound on the track loses its ability to detect the scent. At this point the dog will go silent and raise its head to breathe fresh, spoor-free, air, and allow its nasal receptors to become functional again, a process which will take at least 10 seconds and could take up to a minute, depending upon how strong the original scent was. This is why hounds are run in packs.

At any given time, some dogs will be perceiving the scent and will be sounding off, while others will be mutely running with the pack waiting for their noses to recover. Various members of the pack take turns tracking the scent, hence there should never be a moment when all of the dogs are resting their noses at the same time. The dogs whose noses have temporarily shut down know which dogs they should be following; the dogs still on the trail are the ones that are baying. These sound signals allow the pack to continue to move in a coordinated manner with every dog still close to the track.

As the scent becomes stronger, suggesting that the pack is now very close to its prey the baying becomes less melodious, as the individual sound phrases become shorter in duration but more frequent and the message now shifts to, "Let's get him!" Or "All together now!" Once the quarry is sighted the baying sounds will begin to break up and barking will begin to be mixed in with the baying sound. In some sense, this is still distantly related to howling because it has the element of attempting to rally the pack for a coordinated hunt, only the hunt is ongoing already.

It's All in the Genes

In the same way that whether a dog barks or not is under a high degree of genetic control, so is baying. The geneticist L.F. Whitney, noticed that while most Bloodhounds bayed when on a tracking a scent, a few rare Bloodhounds did not. He was able to demonstrate that by selectively breeding the non-baying dogs, he could produce a strain of silent tracking Bloodhounds. While such a line of dogs might be useful for sneaking up on a hiding criminal, such a silent hound would be useless in most circumstances.

For instance, since the dog makes no sound you would not know where it was. This means that you would have to have the tracking dog continuously on leash if you wanted to monitor his position. Furthermore, since the dog does not bay, you would not know if he had found the scent and was tracking, or whether he was simply strolling through the woods enjoying the normal smells of nature. The baying sound of a dog is thus an important way of communicating what he is smelling to his nasally challenged human companions.

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References

Whitney, L. F. (1929). Heredity Of The Trail Barking Propensity In Dogs. Journal of Heredity, 20 (12), 561–562, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a103133

Coren, S. (2001). How to speak dog: Mastering the art of dog-human communication. New York: Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster (pp. i-xii, 1-274).

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