Not a Matter of Pain
For many years, there was belief that dogs howled in response to sirens for the simple fact that the high-pitched wail of sirens hurt the dog's ears. Considering a dog's sensitive ears, this theory made perfect sense.
Dogs can hear better than humans, there's no bones about that. "What a human can hear at 20 feet a dog can hear at roughly 80 feet," points out Marc Bekoff in the book "Canine Confidential, Why Dogs Do What they Do" when referencing an article by Service Dog Central.
This explains why humans have relied on dogs since ancient times. Since dogs can hear better, they have helped humans throughout centuries by alerting them to potential dangers that humans couldn't detect.
However, there is something about this theory that has made many dog owners question its validity: when dogs howl in response to sirens, they don't appear to be in any pain. Also, most howling dogs don't appear to be acting fearfully by hiding or shaking as they do with scary sounds such as the noise of thunder. Rather, dogs who howl at sirens seem rather pleased to tilt their noses up to the sky and start howling.
One dog howls, and other dogs are quick to join the chorus, as if they are all singing along. This led to the development of another theory, this time focused on the dog's evolutionary past.
An Ancestral Instinct
Howling is a behavior that is reminiscent of a dog's past. Back in the days, a dog's ancestors utilized howling across vast strips of land to reunite other members of their social group.
Since hunting required the coordinated effort of group members and the group often ended being separated, howling worked well for the purpose of reuniting considering that its sound traveled well over distant land and was much more effective than barking.
Howling also served a social function: it provided members of the social group a sense of adhesion to the group. Their chorus must have also had an impact of any outsiders, providing them with info about their claimed territory and likely acted as a deterrent to respect their boundaries.
Did you know? Research has revealed that different types of wolf species have different "dialects" when it comes to howling. For example, the timber wolf exhibits a type of howling characterized by low, flat howls, whereas, critically-endangered red wolves exhibit high, looping vocals.
Response to a Modern Sounds
Sure, a siren doesn't sound like another dog howling to us, but all it takes is for one dog to howl, and soon, all the neighborhood dogs will join the chorus, raising their heads to the sky and unleashing those wild instincts within.
There must be some component of screaming sirens that reminds dogs of howls which prompts them to answer. Perhaps it's a matter of the high-pitched sound.
So why do dogs howl at sirens? It's not like they still need to hunt and locate each others's whereabouts. Howling at sirens nowadays may therefore appear as a redundant behavior with no practical purpose.
Judging by their zest for howling, one can deduce though that modern dogs must be finding the behavior appealing regardless. Perhaps they are just celebrating their kinship with their neighborhood buddies. As it spreads, it becomes a social event to which all dogs eagerly wish to partake.
Or perhaps they sense police cars and ambulances as intruders and they howl together hoping to send them away. And indeed, the sirens always fade and stop becoming audible at some point, so dogs perceive their howling as being reinforced. Regardless of why dogs howl at sirens, they remain fascinating creatures nevertheless.
Did you know? While all dogs can howl, some dog breeds are particularly predisposed to it. Northern breeds such as huskies and malamutes, rank high as howling machines. Beagles and basset hounds are also known for howling, but the noise they produce is technically considered more "baying" rather than howling.
Now That You Know...
Howling when dogs are in the country with only birds and crickets as their main audience is certainly not as problem, but problems start when dogs start howling at sirens in close-knit neighborhoods. What to do in those cases? Here are some tips.
- Distract your pup. To stop the howling you will need to do something that attracts your dog's attention. You can try to roll a ball across the floor or toss a tasty piece of food.
- Redirect to a training session. Right when your dog howls (or even better just a split second before he starts), call him to you and ask him to perform an alternate behavior such as laying down. Dogs find it difficult to bark or howl when laying down. Make sure to give your dog a high-value treat to reward his compliance. If you make this a routine, your dog may start rushing to you upon hearing a siren in expectation for his tasty treat.
- Wanna have fun and train your dog to howl? Just try howling yourself. Your dog will likely respond with a howl, then simply say "howl" before you howl and at some point start gradually fading your howling and just say "hoooowwwwl." Soon, you'll put you dog's howling on cue and your dog will howl upon hearing you saying the word "howl."