Jamie writes: “Why do dogs howl at sirens? We live near a firehouse and whenever the trucks pull out with lights and sirens, my dog howls along. My friend said that the sirens hurt his ears and that’s why he howls. Is that true?”
Dogs don’t howl along with sirens because the sound is painful to them. Let’s think about this logically: If pain were the cause dogs howl at sirens, then all dogs would react to the sound of sirens unless they are deaf. However, most dogs aren’t bothered by sirens at all and very few dogs howl at sirens or other sounds.
Additionally, consider that howling is not usually a sign of pain in dogs. Dogs don’t howl if they are injured or experiencing pain, such as an ear infection for example. Dogs usually show pain by yelping, whining, and pawing or biting at the painful body part. The dogs I’ve seen howl at sirens, however, do none of those things: their ears are most commonly pricked forward in attention before they begin to howl.
Lastly, remember that dogs have the ability to “block out” some loud noises by folding back their ears to protect their hearing. Police dogs going to the pistol range, for example, usually fold their ears back to guard against the repeat gun fire but they don’t howl.
Howling at sirens goes back to your dog’s ancestor, the wolves, and the natural instinct to howl for communication. Howling helps a pack communicate and coordinate when they are spread over large distances while hunting or traveling. It helps them find a lost pup or pack member. It communicates being lonely. It can even be a group activity which many canids engage in – think coyotes or wolves howling in harmony. Lastly, it can be a warning.
Dogs who still have this instinct howl when they hear a sound that is similar to the howling of another dog, such as sirens, flutes, singing, or hearing another dog on TV. The response howl is an instinctual behavior and your dog probably doesn’t even understand it – he just knows it’s “the thing to do.”
Check out the pup below responding to a siren.