A howling dog.
While not all dogs howl with sirens, it is a fairly common problem for owners. Howling is a form of communication, but it’s not always easy to determine what the dog is trying to say; it could be a danger signal or it could be a signal to other dogs. Two main explanations for the sound of sirens have been suggested. One is that the sound is painful for dogs and the other is that it is an instinctive behavior: a response to a noise that sounds – to the dog – like another dog’s howl. The second theory is more generally accepted.
Canine hearing and pain thresholds
A fire truck rushing to an emergency.
The theory that sirens can cause dogs pain or distress is based on the fact that they have much more sensitive hearing than humans and can detect a much wider range of sound frequencies. It could be that a sound that is only irritating to humans is physically painful to a dog. There seem, however, to be many instances where dogs howl with the sirens without showing any other signs of distress and may even appear quite happy while howling.
Canine social behavior and communication
Beagles are a breed that often howls with sirens.
Dogs are social animals and consider their owners to be members of their pack. Much of canine behavior is related to maintaining relationships within the pack and with other packs. This can be traced back to the ancestry of the domestic dog wolf.
Howling is an integral part of wolf behavior. The sound goes far beyond a bark and can be used by a lone wolf to locate other pack members. A howl can send a signal that says “I’m here!” and the howl of other responding wolves could be a response of “We’re here!” Often, a pack of wolves howls together, apparently to announce their presence to other packs and possibly as a way of defending their territory.
Research appears to show that basset hounds are among the dogs most likely to howl.
All domestic dogs are believed to be, at least in part, descended from wolves, so it seems very possible that they are exhibiting the same type of behavior. Some sirens sound like the distant howl of a dog – at least to other dogs – and the dog may simply be sending a helpful response. One howl often leads to another, which is why an entire neighborhood of dogs can howl in response.
Huskies are among the dogs most likely to howl.
Some dogs howl in response to other stimuli, or sometimes for no apparent 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 company. This is unlikely to be the case, however, if the dog only howls at sirens.
Many dog owners can tell fun stories about their pets’ reactions to sirens. In one case, for example, it appears that two collies would run the length of an acre so they could politely howl at the midday siren every day without disturbing their owner. If interrupted, they would look very embarrassed and stop immediately.
Factors that affect howling
Dogs’ responses to sirens are very variable; some howl at all sirens, some only at certain types and some don’t. The midday sirens that are sounded in some cities in certain parts of the world seem to sound particularly dog-like and often provoke howls. Research appears 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 the recording of a siren at — initially — at 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.