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Why Do Dogs Howl at Sirens?

A howling dog.
A fire truck rushing to an emergency.
Beagles are one breed that often howl at sirens.
Research seems to show that basset hounds are among the most likely dogs to howl.
Huskies are among the dogs most likely to howl.
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  • Originally Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Revised By: Phil Riddel
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2014
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Although not all dogs howl at sirens, it is quite a common problem for owners. Howling is a form of communication, but it is not always easy to determine what the dog is trying to say; it may be a sign of distress or it may be intended as a signal to other dogs. Two main explanations for howling at sirens have been suggested. One is that the sound is painful to dogs and the other is that it is instinctive behavior: a response to a noise that sounds — to the dog — like another dog howling. The second theory is more generally accepted.

Canine Hearing and Pain Thresholds

The theory that sirens can cause pain or distress to dogs is based on the fact that they have much more sensitive hearing than humans and can detect a far wider range of sound frequencies. It may be that a sound that is merely annoying to humans is physically painful to a dog. There seem, however, to be many cases where dogs howl at sirens without showing any other sign of distress and may even appear to be quite happy while howling.

Canine Social Behavior and Communication

Dogs are social animals and regard their owners as members of their pack. A great deal of canine behavior is related to the maintenance of relationships within the pack, and with other packs. This can be traced back to the domestic dog’s wolf ancestry.

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Howling is an integral part of wolf behavior. The sound carries much further than a bark and may be used by a lone wolf to locate other pack members. A howl can send a signal that says "I'm here!" and the respondent howl of other wolves may be a reply of "We're over here!" Often, a group of wolves will howl together, seemingly to announce their presence to other packs and possibly as a way of defending their territory.

All domestic dogs are thought to be at least in part descended from wolves, so it seems very possible that they are displaying the same type of behavior. Some sirens sound like the faraway howl of a dog — at least to other dogs — and the dog may simply be sending a helpful reply. One howl often leads to another, which is why a whole neighborhood of dogs may howl in response.

Some dogs will howl in response to other stimuli, or sometimes for no obvious reason. It could be that the dog is bored or lonely and is trying to attract other pack members — in other words its owners — or other dogs for companionship. This is unlikely to be the case, however, if the dog howls only at sirens.

Many dog owners can tell amusing stories about their pets' reactions to sirens. In one case, for example, it seems that two collies would run the length of an acre so that they could politely howl at the noon siren each day without annoying their owner. If interrupted, they would look very ashamed and stop immediately.

Factors Affecting Howling

The responses of dogs to sirens are very variable; some howl at all sirens, some only at certain types and some not at all. The noon sirens that are played in some towns in certain parts of the world seem to sound particularly dog-like and often prompt howling. Research seems to show that huskies, malamutes, and other wolf-like breeds, along with beagles and basset hounds, are among the most likely to howl. Even so, it differs between individual animals, perhaps due to circumstances, past experiences, and their relationships with their owners. Anecdotal evidence suggests that howling can be learned from other dogs.

Training a Dog Not to Howl at Sirens

Howling can be distressing for the dog owner and annoying to neighbors, so many owners have an interest in ways to prevent this behavior. One widely used method is desensitization and counter conditioning (DSCC). In the case of sirens, this would perhaps involve playing a recording of a siren at — initially — a very low volume, then gradually increasing the noise level over a period, so that the animal can get used to it gradually. Simultaneously, the "counter conditioning" part has the owner giving the dog a treat or engaging it in some enjoyable activity so that it will come to associate the siren with pleasant experiences. Owners can try this for themselves, but in some cases, professional help from a dog trainer might be needed.

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anon356631
Post 37

My one Dachshund (I have two) does not howl; he cries as if distressed or in pain. I don't think he is doing it just to be a dog. He is definitely distressed because he looks at me, asks for help and hides under the bed covers.

Both Dachshunds are rescues and Animal Control picked up this one who was skin and bones. They estimated that he was running loose for at least three months. My suspicion is that he had a really rough time trying to survive those three-plus months and maybe he had close calls with emergency vehicles almost running him down. When he hears sirens it seems to bring back bad memories. After the siren has passed, it takes him about a minute to calm down. During that minute he whimpers.

Unlike others, this is not amusing to me. It is horrible to watch my dog suffer. Unfortunately, the fire department uses my street as a path to go to fires or medical calls. Lucky for us, the sirens only blare about every ten days or so. Most of the time they go up and down other streets, where the siren is in the distance and does not bother my dog.

What is ironic is that the sirens have always been around. I just never noticed them until I got Badger in 2011.

anon336304
Post 36

My dog, a lab, howls at the trains that go by. We live a few blocks away from train tracks and sometimes I hear him howl when the trains go by. We can hear the trains, but cannot see them. Today I was watching him out the window and he put back his head and howled three times while the train was passing. It was so funny! I also have a small jack russell that never howls.

anon278974
Post 35

My rottie never howled until we got our dalmatian who howls. She seemed to teach the rottie to howl over a period of time. It got really loud once they started doing it in unison. Our rottie is gone now, but the dalmatian, who is 11 years old, still howls to this day.

anon263341
Post 34

I have a small dog that howls whenever he hears a ambulance siren. His body language seems to be distressed so we usually distract him if we hear the siren first. It doesn't seem to be something he does for communication or fun.

anon250619
Post 32

I have a seven year old rottweiler. I live down the street from our town firehouse. Every time the siren sounds, so does Kobi. I find it quite entertaining. He sticks his nose straight up in the air and howls like a wolf. He seems to enjoy it even more if I join in with him. Gotta love dogs!

anon246234
Post 31

I have two German Shepherds, one male and one female. My female howls, cries and barks at the sirens. I notice that my male dog with try to nudge her with his nose as she howls. Unfortunately, this has caused my neighbors to complain to the Animal Service.

anon218802
Post 30

My dog howls at fire trucks, but not ambulance or police. Before he starts howling he listens intently and cocks his head only when the siren gets to the lower end of the fire truck siren.

If I try to howl like a siren, he only gets interested when I drop from high to low and get towards the bottom of the pattern. He then starts to howl. Since I can hit the same frequency vocally with the local fire truck sirens, I think the instinctual reaction is related to frequency pattern and not loudness. It certainly is not related to pain.

anon198444
Post 29

My Malamute howls whenever I go out. I only know this because my husband and son tell me, and a few times I have heard her when I returned home and once when I got in the shower and she thought I had gone out. I was able to peek in the window once and she was lying on the floor, not looking distressed at all, howling her head off. It is a very strange, plaintive howl that sounds much like a siren, and gets very, very loud, and goes on for about fifteen minutes.

My mutt howls only at sirens, and only if they go directly by our house. Her howl is very soft and short and is very sweet. She does not appear to be in distress at all either, and her howls are preceeded by her cocking her head from side to side, as if she is perplexed by the sirens.

I wouldn't think that my malamute is howling to attract the company of other dogs though, because she has two doggie sisters and she actually seems pretty aloof, as if she'd be happy to be an only dog.

anon180197
Post 28

We have a Great Dane. He is almost four years old. He has always since a pup howled at the sirens of police officers and ambulance since he was a pup. He is an indoor outdoor dog, mostly indoor, and we have no children so he is very loved and cared for.

He just got finished howling at the sirens and I came to look it up as I have always wanted to find out the possible reasons, they are interesting.

I hope that he is not in pain, and I hope that he is not lonely. I am fortunate to be a stay at home wife and I try to take great care of him and our other pets, we have a few! So I would hope he is not lonely.

Anyhow, he is now running around playing with his ball, and seems to be fine after his good long howl. I don't try to comfort him or interfere with his howls because that I've learned only sends the signal to them that it is o.k. to be scared or nervous if that is what he's feeling, I just let him be a dog and he seems totally o.k. with that, thanks for letting me post. God bless all living creatures and those who love and care for them!

anon179876
Post 27

i have a two year old jack russell who only howls when she sees the fire engine/police car that the noise is coming from. it is the most hilarious and cute thing ever! I wish she did it more. It makes me laugh every time!

anon166604
Post 26

My female lab/pit mix only howls whenever she hears emergency vehicle sirens that are close. She is not outdoor kept nor does she jump to attention. She just belts it out from whatever position she's in. As soon as the siren stops, she stops. Not a big deal -- just an animal being an animal. Curiosity is what bought me to this article.

anon154664
Post 25

My dog sterling howls at sirens too, but ends in a growl. He also cries and does short like mini howls. I usually have to hold and soothe him till he stops crying.

anon140153
Post 24

My rottie howls not only at sirens, but when my son plays his trumpet scale! She doesn't howl at all when he's playing songs; it's just the scale that drives her crazy!

anon128415
Post 23

I have two rottweilers and we have had this bloodline of beautiful rotties for the past 16 years, and every single one we have had in this line loves sirens, all types of them. Plus staying near a police station doesn't help, but hey if that's what they want to do then i let them.

anon124511
Post 22

I live near a busy road in a suburb. There are many dogs where I live. Usually, they will bark if the any foreign visitor, pedestrian, or car drives by. I don't have a dog, but behind me on the next block, there is a dog that barks very loud. It's a small dog.

I notice that whenever a fire engine or truck is trying to drive down the busy road, all the dogs bark hysterically. I don't blame them. Those mechanical sirens are still widely used and are very loud with a sustained period of high and low wailing and sharp growling sounds. I hate them and so do the poor animals.

anon123330
Post 19

My dog used to howl until I used a shock collar. He doesn't howl or bark anymore and I haven't had to put the collar on in over a year. A trained dog is a happy dog!

anon112071
Post 18

Fact: Howling is communication!

Fact: Howling travels on airwaves very similar to those sirens travel.

From personal studies (In the domestic canine field) I encountered that two-thirds of the dogs which are always are howling when they hear an ambulance, police car or fire engine, are outdoor held dogs!

Most interesting was to realize that almost 80 percent of such dogs were:

A) Male

B) Not altered (Neutered)

C) Single dogs (And again, exclusively living a lonely life in someone's backyard/property).

Usually I read it's because of loneliness but when another factor popped up, as such dogs are usually rather anti-social with other dogs/severely dog aggressive, which led me to believe it might be territorial.

Researching wild canines, I came across the fact that wolves will react to the howl of a wolf from another, close by pack, and not, as usually believed, to communicate throughout the internal pack.

Fact is that the internal pack exercises short barks and very short sounding howls to assure the pack wasn't spread too widely, and to assure the safety of all members.

The long lasting, intense howls between packs helps define territorial boundaries as well as the size of them.

The longer, stronger, intense and far traveling the howl carries, as more territory can be claimed. It also hints to another pack in the area how large the pack may be. To intensify the effects, the howling wolf often seeks elevated areas like a hill, or even lower branches of trees.

Given those facts, then comparing it with the howling outdoor held dog, it makes a lot of sense.

The sirens, traveling on the same exact airwaves and frequencies, trigger the dog to howl to establish the territory they are in, ergo the property they live in, in efforts to keep intruders out.

Again, dogs howl even when someone plays the piano or howls at their dog but it's the "internal" communication while stimuli from out-of-pack-and-territory triggers territorial, boundary indicating communication.

anon86722
Post 17

I have four dogs. My German Shepherd is the only one that responds to sirens. That being said, once in a while the other three will join in and then my oh my, what a cacophony!

connie2j
Post 16

anon35645: I read everything I could find online before posting. There are many theories out there as to why dogs howl. What I should have done is ask his vet, a professional!

anon85805
Post 15

My dog can bark or howl with a tennis ball in his mouth. that doesn't stop him.

anon75781
Post 14

Our dog howls when he hears the song Patience by Guns 'n Roses. Not sure if he's singing along or if he hates it. Will occasionally do it to other songs but not often.

anon73494
Post 13

My German Shepherd cross howls like crazy at sirens and I don't believe for a minute that it is because of distress - quite the opposite as he seems very excited, wagging his tail as he runs out to the middle of the yard to 'call back'. It's instinctual communication.

anon70371
Post 11

My dog howls when we come after being out late. I wonder why he does this? He is 16 1.2 years old and started doing this almost a year ago.

anon64338
Post 10

Our dog Charlie (goldendoodle) only howls once a month when they run the monthly air raid siren. It is amazing how he goes to the glass door and is almost embarrassed if we say anything.

anon58559
Post 9

My dog howls at sirens. However, somewhere she must have learned that not everyone likes howling. When she's sitting on my lap, she'll try to hold back, and then she howls--quietly.

anon48035
Post 8

My Min Pin howls at all sirens when they get within a block or two. I don't see anything wrong with it, and I let her howl until she's done. However, if you want to train them not to howl, the trick is to bribe them with treats. If the dog is eating a chicken strip, the dog can't howl. Just find a treat tempting enough. Still, my personal opinion is give your dog its time to be a dog.

anon46599
Post 7

if me and my bf start to make howling noises both our dogs small and big start to howl! it's the cutest thing when they do it together. or when my bf plays the piano the little one howls. and they both howl at sirens. its pretty cute actually. i hope i'ts not hurting them. it doesn't seem like that's the case.

anon40474
Post 6

I howl and then my dog howls. It's a game we play. I don't think it hurts her ears. She seems to like it. We are a pack or something.

anon38917
Post 5

My dog only howls when right near the siren. I want to train him to howl on command! I love the sound of a dog/wolf howl.

anon36110
Post 4

Try giving your dogs treats or a toy whenever there is a siren. They can't howl if their mouths are full, right? Plus, it makes sirens into a fun game.

anon35645
Post 3

"Some think that a dog’s sensitive hearing is the direct cause and that they’re actually howling because they’re in pain. *According to most experts*"

you should probably read before you post, connie. :D

connie2j
Post 2

I hate to think that all these noises hurt my dogs ears because he not only howls at sirens, but the ice cream truck that is always in our neighborhood, and almost every plane that goes over our house (we live near an airport). Poor thing! He rarely barks.

anon26913
Post 1

Dogs can be trained not to howl?

So i just read this and my dogs howl at sirens and have tried everything to get them to stop. Any ideas?

thanks dado

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