Dogs howl at sirens for many reasons, including boredom, fear, anxiety, and excitement. While some may do it as a form of long-distance communication to alert their pack to danger, others do so simply because they enjoy it.
Though howling is often associated with wolves, many domesticated dogs are also prone to making that long and loud baying sound at sirens. They are closely related, after all.
Since dogs are the most popular pets in the US, howling can become quite a nuisance.
But why do dogs howl at sirens?
Turns out, it could be the breed’s innate tendency or an indication of something sinister going on with it.
There could be plenty of reasons.
Howling at sirens is your dog’s way of responding to a noise that it may deem as either good or bad. By howling at it, your dog could be trying to alert you to foreign sounds and warn you of it.
No study has been made on dogs’ inability to resist the temptation to howl at sirens. But most likely, and often, it’s because they resemble another canine’s yelp and the dog is simply responding.
Dog mom Summer Thomas from Texas reaffirms this fact. She says, “Howling is a form of communication for dogs. People used to say that loud sirens, train whistles, etc., hurt their ears. Not true.”
But then why do certain dogs howl at particular sounds and not at others? There are many causes for this behavior, which vary depending on the individual dog.
So, it’s important to understand why your pet does it in the first place. Then you will be able to determine whether or not the behavior is normal, and take the appropriate steps to correct it.
The high-pitched noise emitted from sirens is alien to a domesticated dog, especially if it has grown up in a relatively quiet neighborhood. Not seeing the source of the blare amplifies its strangeness, arousing fear and anxiety in your pet.
In an attempt to get away from the din, they drown it out with a howl.
According to Dr. Laura Hungerford, a veterinarian, research scientist, and faculty member at the University of Nebraska, “He may associate the sound with particular events or have learned that if he howls, the noise is chased away.”
Some dogs are chivalrous by nature, constantly trying to safeguard their pack or family.
They may consider the siren as a threat, or a warning of one, and feel the need to alert their loved ones.
In general, however, dogs have the gift of knowing whether a presence (human or animal) or event (natural or man-made) is good or bad.
Thus, they react with a bark to their owner that something nice is about to happen, or howl to convey the opposite.
If a siren is accompanied by the sound of an approaching vehicle, it may trigger memories of being left alone in your dog. This is especially true of pets whose parents when leave for work or other commitments.
Your pet will begin to panic and try anything it can to stop you from leaving, which includes barking and howling.
For some dogs, sirens could be noises that remind them of certain traumatic events, which cause them distress and uneasiness.
Your canine companion could be just like people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It can hear certain sounds in everyday life and react by recalling past events associated with those noises.
For instance, soldiers often suffer from PTSD that manifests itself in many different ways. Watching fireworks displays on the 4th of July could trigger them to relive their experiences on battlefields during wartime.
Dogs are instinctively caring and helpful. Upon learning that sirens are a human’s message to other humans that help is on the way, they assist in sending the message along.
It’s possible that some dogs howl simply to divert attention to themselves.
It might seem like a ridiculous way for a pet asking TLC from its owners, but give it another thought.
Your dog could be feeling sad or stressed. Rather than bite or scratch furniture out of frustration, it could choose to use vocalization.
If they don’t get any reaction after 10 minutes of nonstop howling, they’ll realize it’s a pointless exercise and move on to the next tactic.
DVM Dr. Sabrina Kong, DVM has a word of advice for the wise.
“The best way to go around it is to understand they want to communicate something and educate yourself on types of howling… if it needs to be managed in a more acceptable way (if it howls for the attention, it might need some other reinforcement tactics to manage how they communicate)”, she explains.
In cases where your pet is suffering from any kind of painful medical condition—whether mental or physical— it might howl at sirens as a coping mechanism.
Howling helps relieve the stress of whatever your dog is going through, especially when you’re not around to comfort and placate it.
Certain pitches may also be painful to dogs’ sensitive ears. While an average human hears noise on a range of 20 cycles per second to 20 rHZ, a dog’s range of hearing is approximately 40 cycles per second to 60 rHZ.
Dr. Laura Hungerford says, “Dogs could feel pain from sounds that weren’t painfully loud to us. Very loud sounds can hurt the ears and if a sound seems too loud to you, it is probably more so to your dog.”
While we’re on the topic of coping with pain, we might as well mention this: If your pet suffers from arthritis or another condition that makes it agonizing for them to walk, you’ll notice they stop suddenly and then start to yelp and/or whine.
There are also times when dogs experience intense pain but don’t let it show through outward signs.
You might see their bodies go into shock mode as their instincts tell them to hide the fact that something is wrong until the danger has passed.
Some dogs are fascinated by the different sounds they hear, including the ones they make. Imagine their excitement when they discover the uniqueness of their very own howl!
And if the first time happens as a reaction to a siren, you can be sure it won’t be the last.
Canines are known to be creatures of habit.
“When dogs are not provided with enough mental or physical stimulation, they can become vocal,” according to consulting veterinarian Dr. Linda Simon, MVB, MRCVS.
Even the laziest of dogs need to expend their energy.
This could be in the form of physical exercise, or a puzzle that piques their interest.
When your dog spends a lot of time by itself doing nothing, it’s bound to start feeling bored and retort to howling.
“These non-stop howls are a way of the dog expressing distress and frustration. Owners need to address this sort of howling by ensuring their dogs have plenty to keep them entertained, both in the form of exercise and mental activities,” Dr. Simon explains.
So why do dogs howl at sirens?
Pat Miller, owner of Peaceable Paws LLC, believes that it’s got to do with dogs’ pack mentality.
“I tend to buy into the theory that it harks back to wolves howling in packs and they enjoy it, especially because some dogs will also howl when other dogs howl. If we want to be technical, we could say that dogs have a genetic propensity to be reinforced by the opportunity to howl along with others,” she explains herself.
Dr. Jonathan Roberts, BVSC adds to this postulate. According to him, just like wolves and coyotes, dogs too use howls to communicate and mark their territory.
“The purpose is mostly to communicate territory and to facilitate cohesion within their pack”, says Dr. Roberts.
“It’s actually a very small segment of dogs, and usually breeds that are prone to howling in the first place. Sirens, specifically the slow up-and-down sounding ones, bear a resemblance to dog howls. Some dogs hear that and instinctually respond, or reply to it. They basically think it’s another dog. Again, this is not a ‘most dogs’ thing.
– Sterling Phoenix
Does a dog’s breed affect its likelihood of howling at sirens?
Smaller breeds are more inclined to display this behavior than larger ones because they have higher-pitched voices and are more sensitive to sound. Thus, they tend to relate and communicate with other high pitch sounds.
While you can expect smaller breeds like terriers to howl at sirens, other not-so-small breeds like hounds and foxhounds do so as well.
This is due to the hunting instinct stamped on their DNA, which always alerts them to danger signals.
The American Eskimo, Siberian Husky, and Malamute are known siren howlers as well, thanks to their breeds’ close relation to wolves.
What the Fact! Older dogs are more predisposed to howl at sirens than younger ones, as they may be experiencing hearing loss. Hence, they might interpret the sound as an approaching trouble.
Likewise, a dog’s environment influences its perception of different noises, regardless of its breed and age.
The urban pet is accustomed to all types of noise pollution, including police car, ambulance, and fire truck sirens. Meanwhile, a rural dog may find it alarming, and therefore, distressful.
Are you a parent of a canine that howls a lot? You may be concerned about your dog’s behavior and wish to stop it from baying at well-meaning service vehicles.
Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.
You have two options for solving the problem: training and medication.
Regardless of the reason, there are a few basic things you can do to help your pet feel more comfortable when hearing siren sounds. These techniques work for all breeds, ages, and sizes of dogs:
This may sound counterintuitive, but allow us to explain.
Treats, petting, or verbal praise could calm your pet and slowly dissuade it from howling at sirens.
It may take a little time for your dog to associate the behavior with the reinforcement. But it will learn to make the connection when the latter is withheld during howling.
It could be a quiet room in your house where your dog can go when it feels overwhelmed, a crate, or a dog house.
The idea is to increase the distance between your pet and the source of noise.
So fill the area with its favorite toys and blankets to provide the comfort and warmth your dog needs to feel secured.
Having this refuge will also be helpful at other stressful times in your pet’s life, such as when it is sick and/or is nursing injuries.
Start by playing recordings of sirens at a low volume in your dog’s familiar surroundings. Let them get used to the sound before increasing the volume.
How will you know when they’re ready?
Exercise patience and follow their lead. Sudden negative reactions, such as jerking and whining, mean it’s not yet time.
Next, expose them to the same recording in different environments. For example, inside your home if they spend most of their life (sleeping, eating, playing) outdoors. Or, on a busy street if they live indoors.
You may also add positive reinforcement to this training.
Over time, you should notice the sirens are bothering them less and less.
Believe it or not, some dogs howl out of boredom.
So, make sure your pet is getting enough exercise, particularly during times when they would normally cry out that way. Being active occupies their mind and encourages them to rest afterwards.
Many pet stores, both physical and online, sell calming sprays or treats designed specifically for dogs who react negatively to loud noises like thunderstorms or fireworks.
Ask your vet about these options if you need help finding the brand and type that works best for yours.
If your dog continues to howl after you’ve tried the above approaches, you can administer a sedative to reduce or eliminate the problem.
While these are non-prescription products, consult your vet before going this route.
You must never give your dog any pharmaceutical products without a vet’s advice.
As surprising as it may sound, yes you can! In fact, it could be a great bonding experience and help build happy core memories for your dog.
As Steph from Dog Day Care explains, howling with your dog could help you communicate with each other and become the foundation for a strong friendship that stands the test of time.
That depends on a lot of factors: your dog may go on a howling spree at 3:00 am in the morning because it wants to or do so when you leave it alone for a long period of time.
Understanding the reason behind your dog’s howl will help you determine if it’s harmless or needs intervention.
Dogs do howl in pain and sometimes the cause of their discomfort may not be obvious or visible to the naked eye.
Do get your pet checked by an experienced vet to understand if it is suffering from any painful medical issue.
Because dogs dream too, much like us. As DVM Dr. Rebecca Oliviera says,“If your pup is howling while they are sleeping, it is most likely dreaming. According to science, canine brains go through the same stages of electrical activity as we do, which suggests they can dream, too.”
In the absence of scientific research, theories abound as to why dogs howl at sirens. The most likely explanation is that they are trying to communicate with it. After all, dogs are social creatures while sirens are loud and attention-grabbing.
If your pet is a siren howler, we hope that the tips we enumerated above will help you deal with the matter.
The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not a problem without a solution. Many pet dog parents will attest to that!
A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.