When emergency service vehicles wail through the area, you’ve probably noticed that it is usually accompanied by a cacophony of domesticated neighborhood dogs wailing as well. This kind of ambient noise is expected and barely noticed in more populous areas, but when the dog howling along with the sirens is in bed with you, it can be disruptive and alarming to say the very least. Like most behaviors dogs exhibit that are foreign to us, all it requires is a little understanding of a dog’s senses, as compared to ours. In this case, why dogs howl at sirens strictly involves hearing and communication, with a dash of ancient history to round out our comprehension.
While the research is still ongoing, it has been postulated that humans began domesticating canines as many as 40,000 years ago. Prior to that, domestication of dogs was satisfactorily confirmed at approximately 13,000 years in the past. Regardless of when we began taming them into our best friends, dogs still share a common ancestor- the wolf. This is not the wolf you know about and call to mind today, but an extinct species that existed ages ago. However, drawing the connection between wolves (ancient and otherwise) and the modern dog is helpful in making the connection to behaviors such as howling. Dogs who howl at sirens are communicating in a way somewhat similar to how we perceive wolves howling together under a full moon.
Why Dogs Howl At Sirens
Dogs, despite a long history of being our companions, are still, and will always be, pack animals. The howl lets other pack animals know that another dog is near, and that dog has territory in the area. It can be a sound that dogs make when they want to be reunited with a pack, or to join a pack. This does not necessarily mean that when your dog howls at a siren, he is planning to hit the road for good and stick with the fire engine and police car. Rather, it’s probably something he just intuitively knows he has to do, and doesn’t think much on acting upon it further.
So why has the dog chosen to howl during a siren? To us, ambulances and police cruisers sound and look nothing like wolves or dogs, but they do intrigue us, because they let us that something is going on. We wonder where that siren is headed, who is in trouble, and is someone we may know hurt or in danger? We gather all of that urgent curiosity just from the sound of the siren, and our hearing is not nearly as good as a dog’s.
Dogs have hearing that is four times more sensitive than a human’s. If you’ve ever heard of or owned a dog whistle, you know that this is expressed on the higher end of the sound spectrum- when it comes to low-end noise, humans and dogs are on a pretty even keel. The dog can hear the siren before you, and after you. The buildup to approach of the siren is longer and louder for a dog, so the dog is much more aware of the noise and may begin to howl before it even registers to you than a vehicle is approaching. Even on an ordinary day, when you think your house is very quiet, your pet can hear the slightest of stirrings downstairs and in the walls.
Your dog can also pin down the location of the siren much more expertly than a human. Dogs have 18 muscles in their ears, whereas humans have just a few. The ear is also shaped differently- when you want to listen extra closely, you might cup a hand behind your ear. Dogs do not need to do this, because on top of their already biologically-enhanced hearing ability, most breeds have the ear construction and positioning to further increase the clarity of a noise. Consider that. If you could hear that siren as well as the dog could, you might howl also.
If you want to stop your dog from howling in general, there are a variety of training techniques. As always, all training should begin early in a dog’s life, so it is a deeply engrained response that neither you nor the dog have to think about and work on constantly. Many owners do a simple poke on the side of the torso. This should not hurt the dog at all, but should be firm enough to distract the dog from the howling it is doing, and bring it him or her back to the present moment.
When it comes to a dog specifically howling at sirens, a lot more patience is required.
Making a short, sharp noise of your own can also interrupt a dog’s howling, and remind the dog that there is actually no cause for concern, and therefore no need to participate with the sirens outside of the home. It can also be that a noise from you can remind your dog that you are the pack leader, and you are in control. If there were real danger present, your dog would be able to gauge your response, confirm that, and react. The ultimate goal here is to remind the dog that there simply isn’t any need to react to the siren, not that you are angered by their behavior. Outrightly punishing a dog for its natural genetic tendencies is cruel, and will lead to more behavioral issues, including anxiety and aggression.
Pet owners should always consider the potential noise and activity levels of their neighborhood before deciding to commit to a dog. Howling, even if only at sirens, can be aggravating to neighbors and cause community unrest. In more forgiving neighborhoods, other dogs may do the same, which can actually be comforting to the dogs in the community, since they know where one another is, and they’re monitoring the situation. If your dog howls at sirens, just know that it is completely normal and that they are just acting as we all do occasionally- on the orders of our ancestors.