The Reason Your Dog Howls At Sirens, According To Science

Fuelled by the boom in dog ownership and shows like "The Dog Whisperer," there has been a growing demand for dog behaviorists to help owners understand why their pets act the way they do. Some behaviors, such as aggression or separation anxiety, are commonly diagnosed as relating to a dog's past trauma or issues with the animal's living conditions. But there are some strange habits that for many dogs seem to be hard-wired, such as howling at the sirens of passing emergency vehicles (a behavior that doesn't exactly help owners win any friends among their neighbors). 

As with most dog behaviors, experts say it is relatively easy to train one to stop reacting nosily to ambulances and fire trucks. By establishing a reward system in which you encourage your dog to remain quiet when emergency vehicles pass, experts say it is possible to break the habit. But why do dogs do it in the first place? The commonly accepted theory is that it's a form of communication.

Some say sirens are painful to dogs' ears

We have long known that canine senses are different from humans. Dogs are famous for their incredible sense of smell, estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times more powerful than a person's, depending on the breed. They also exhibit neophilia —the desire to seek out and examine new smells they encounter in the world around them, as anyone who has ever walked a dog is sure to have witnessed.

While dog hearing isn't quite as impressive as their sense of smell — or as vital to their everyday lives — it is still noteworthy for being able to pick up what average humans can't. Dogs' hearing has evolved to help them locate prey, which historically would have been small mammals and birds. Some breeds, such as Labradors, are specially bred to have excellent hearing. Compared to humans, their hearing range is far higher in terms of pitch and somewhat more sensitive. 

This has led some owners to conclude that certain prolonged sounds, such as those from sirens, may cause dogs pain, and that when they howl, they are expressing discomfort. However, certified dog behaviorist Pat Miller told Great Pet Care that unless a dog displays other symptoms, such as trembling or hiding, they are unlikely to feel pain when howling at a siren.

Dogs can think sirens are other dogs

A more widely accepted theory is that dogs' howling at passing sirens is a form of communication. Like humans, dogs use vocalizations to communicate. In packs, they howl to let other dogs know where they are. It is for this reason that canine experts believe that when dogs howl at sustained noises such as those of passing emergency vehicles, they may interpret them as the howling of other nearby dogs and respond as they have evolved to do.

It is also said that such howling is likely territorial — dogs encountering other canines that are not in their pack will attempt to use vocalizations to tell the intruder they are not welcome. In addition, veterinarian and research scientist Dr. Laura Hungerford told Nationwide Pet Insurance that when a dog howls at a siren and then it passes out of hearing range, they might think they have actively chased off the danger of another dog. As cute as this is, it means that the howl is deemed successful, which, unfortunately for the owner, will reinforce the behavior in the dog.