In my busy veterinary hospital, we have scores of dogs staying with us for a myriad of reasons. Some are simply boarding with us while their pet parents are away, and some are sick. The dogs staying with us do not know each other, but many of them will begin to howl when a siren drives by on the street outside.
It is widely known that dogs will howl along with sirens from police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. You have likely heard this phenomenon occur in your own neighborhood.
But why do dogs exhibit this behavior? Why do some dogs completely ignore the sound and act like nothing is happening? Is the siren hurting the dogs’ ears? And most importantly, if your dog is a siren-howler, can you get them to stop?
The exact reason that dogs howl at sirens is not fully known. Veterinarians and dog behavior experts have theorized that the behavior is linked to their innate nature harkening back to their days as wolves. Others believe that dogs howl at sirens to warn their family and friends of a possible threat.
Why Do Dogs Howl At Sirens?
Because our furry best friends cannot talk to us, siren howling behavior, like many other dog behaviors, cannot be fully explained. However, most veterinarians and dog behavior experts believe there are two main explanations for why dogs howl at sirens.
Dogs Howling Like Their Wolf Ancestors
If you have ever stood and listened to dogs howling together, you may have gotten a chill as it called to mind a pack of wolves howling in the wild.
A link with their wolf ancestors may be precisely the reason behind dogs howling at sirens. This connection is currently the most popular theory as to why dogs display this behavior.
In wolf packs, the wolves howl as a way to communicate amongst themselves. You can think of it as an unsophisticated form of GPS tracking. The wolves use howls to help locate each other in the wilderness.
All dogs are descendants (though distant) of wolves. The theory suggests that dogs howling at sirens are doing so instinctually, just like their wolf ancestors.
The reason sirens, in particular, elicit this behavior in dogs is due to the fact that sirens are high-pitched and may mimic the howls of other dogs when heard.
Other high-pitched sounds that often cause dogs to howl include instruments such as the flute and the clarinet. Musical sounds heard from a TV program can also cause dogs to howl.
Animal behavior experts have learned that the very sensitive ears of dogs can hear the howls of both dogs and wolves from very far away. This highly sensitive hearing capability is why wolves can rely on howling as a form of communication in vast wilderness areas.
An Alternative Theory For Howling
Other scientists believe that dogs howling at sirens has nothing to do with their wolf ancestors at all. They believe that dogs howl at sirens to protect their families and friends – both human and dog.
This behavior is likened to the dog being a fierce protector or “watchdog” for those in their community.
This theory posits that dogs hear the siren but do not recognize what it is. The siren may be innocuous, but it could also be a threat. The possible danger makes the dog uneasy and on high alert. Because dogs are pack animals and are invested in the safety of their human and canine friends, they howl as a warning.
This behavior is thought to be used by dogs as a tool to alert others to potential danger.
As the police car, ambulance, or firetruck passes by, and the siren recedes into the distance, the howling dog may interpret the retreat of the sound as a success. They believe their howling “scared” the siren away, and they have successfully protected their territory.
The success the dog feels reinforces the howling behavior and makes it more likely that the dog will continue to howl at sirens in the future.
Do Sirens Hurt My Dog’s Ears?
We know that high-pitched sounds such as sirens or squeaking musical instruments can be very annoying to human ears. This concern has caused many pet parents to worry that their dog’s howling at these sounds is in response to pain or discomfort.
Luckily, most veterinarians and animal behavior experts tell us that we can rest easy. It is not believed that sirens hurt dogs’ ears.
Scientists looked at dogs’ body language that were howling at sirens to determine if the sirens were hurting the dogs’ ears. A dog who is in pain or discomfort will display many behaviors that we know signal distress. These signs include:
- Crouching down or cowering
- Excessive lip licking or drooling
- Trembling or shaking
If your dog is howling and not displaying any of these discomfort signals, it is safe to assume that they are howling either like their wolf ancestors or to protect their community.
Not All Dogs Howl At Sirens – Why?
To date, no research has been done to look at exactly how many dogs howl at sirens versus how many do not howl at sirens.
The most plausible explanation for why some dogs howl at sirens and others do not is simply that, like people, all dogs are individuals. Some are siren-howlers, and some are not.
It has been theorized that dogs that do howl at sirens are more pack-based individuals. They believe the siren is actually the howl of other dogs trying to communicate and feel the need to participate.
On the other hand, dogs that do not howl at sirens have been theorized to possibly be more confident or secure in their homes or environment and therefore choose to ignore the siren.
Are Some Breeds Of Dogs More Likely To Howl At Sirens?
Some animal behavior experts believe that breeds of dogs that are more closely related to their wolf ancestors are possibly more likely to howl in response to a siren sound. Breeds in this category include Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, and American Eskimo dogs.
Additionally, some experts believe that dogs that are bred for hunting purposes may be more likely to howl at sirens. These dogs use vocalizations such as howling, barking, or baying when they hunt. Breeds in this category include Coonhounds, Beagles, and Foxhounds.
Of course, as mentioned before, all dogs are individuals, and there are many factors that influence their behavior, both presently and in their past. It is not uncommon to have a Siberian Husky or Coonhound that does not howl at sirens, nor is it odd to have a different breed, such as a Yorkshire Terrier that does.
How To Stop Your Dog From Howling At Sirens
Unfortunately, having a dog that howls every time an emergency vehicle passes by can be a real problem. If the dog lives in an apartment or is outside in the yard, noise complaints may be called in against the dog, causing tension with neighbors or even leading to an eviction from your home.
Luckily, there are some tools you can utilize to aid in breaking your dog’s siren-howling habit.
The first thing to do is to teach your dog how to be calm and quiet when sirens are not around. A word should be used each time, and the dog rewarded with positive reinforcement (a treat or a pet) when they remain sitting calmly and quietly.
Once the dog has mastered the calm command in low-stress situations, you can use this cue to tell your dog that you desire them to be calm and quiet when a siren passes by.
This training will take some time and effort, but in time, with lots of positive reinforcement, your dog can learn to remain calm and not howl at sirens.
One important thing to note is that you should never scold or punish your dog for howling at sirens. Remember that the behavior is either deeply embedded in their genetics, or they are being good, loyal companions and trying to protect you.
If a dog is punished for this behavior, they will soon come to associate the siren with the unpleasant punishment. This is not an effective way to discourage the behavior, and it may cause the dog to become anxious every time they hear a siren in anticipation of punishment.
Dogs have difficulty understanding that their howling is undesired behavior and may think the siren is responsible for their punishment. Punishment in response to siren howling can result in great distress for your pet.
Do not give up if your dog is resistant to learning the calm command or you find that the dog continues to howl at sirens. Overcoming the instinct to howl at sirens is difficult for dogs that do it, and it may take a lot of time and patience to break this habit.
If you are uncomfortable training your dog or your dog is continuing with the behavior after your diligent attempts to train them, an expert should be consulted. You should reach out to a board-certified animal behaviorist or a knowledgeable dog trainer in your area.
Dr. Jamie Whittenburg is a vet with 15 years of clinical experience. She graduated from Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. Her area of expertise is small animal general practice, equine practice, surgery, and academia.
Dr. Whittenburg operates her own hospital in Lubbock, TX, named Kingsgate Animal Hospital. Medically, she’s most interested in practicing general surgery and feline medicine. When not at work, Dr. Whittenburg enjoys outdoor activities, reading, and spending time with her family.
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