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Little white dog howling

The high-pitched sound of a siren can trigger the behavioural response of howling in some dogs.

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Why dogs howl at the sound of sirens and how to stop it

By Greta Inglis Dog Behaviourist | Animal Behaviourist

Published on the

Have you ever wondered why your dog howls at the siren of an emergency vehicle? Here's why, and what you can do about it...

 

The sound of a siren can be startling, and it’s even louder to your dog’s ears than it is for us humans. It isn't uncommon for a dog to howl at the passing of an ambulance, which may catch their owner by surprise.

Canine experts and dog trainers are still unsure of the reason behind this behaviour, but there are a number of theories that may help shed some light on why our four-legged friends react in this way.

Why do dogs howl at ambulances or instruments?

While the reason behind this behaviour remains unknown, it's believed that your dog howling at a passing siren may come down to genetic history. Wolves, as group animals, communicate through a series of vocalisations to alert their group to dangers in the environment. As descendants of wolves, it's therefore possible your dog reacts to the high-pitched frequency either as a simple response to the sound itself, or to warn others from the social group that danger may be on the horizon. As the siren moves off into the distance, the threat decreases and the howling behaviour is reinforced.

It's important to observe your dog's body language. If they seem anxious or worried by the sound, you may need to put a desensitisation program in place. 

Do sirens hurt my dog’s ears?

With their super sensitive hearing, there’s no doubt that the high-pitched sound of a siren or an instrument is louder for your pup than it is for you. Having said this, a dog that is experiencing pain or discomfort will usually show signs of this in their body language. If the noise of a siren hurts your dog’s ears, they may pant, lick their lips, crouch down or try to hide.

Unless your dog has had a bad experience around loud noises, it’s more likely that they’re actually showing an instinctual reaction to the stimulus, resulting from their ancestry.

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What are the dog breeds that howl at sirens the most?

Canine behaviour experts believe that certain ancient breeds may be more likely to howl at passing sirens and instruments, due to their genetic history. Where DNA is a closer match to the wolf packs that dogs descended from, the howling behaviour seems to be more commonly seen.

Siberian Huskies

With ancient nordic roots, this primitive breed remains most closely associated to the wolf. Independent and determined, these beautiful dogs can be vocal, and are known for their tendency to howl instead of bark.

Learn more about the Siberian Husky

Alaskan Malamutes

Bred by the Mahlemut people, the Malamute was originally used to hunt caribous in the Alaskan high north. Falling into the Spitz and primitive category, this breed is considered almost incapable of barking. Instead, these dogs communicate the way their wolf ancestors did- with a howl. 

Learn more about the Alaskan Malamute

Akita Inus

Another ancient breed, the Akita Inu originated in Japan and to this day is considered a 'national treasure'. With a calm and independent character, this Spitz howls to communicate with their group. 

Learn more about the Akita Inu

Primitive breeds may be known for their propensity to howl, but they aren't the only dogs that react to loud sounds in this way. Breeds that vocalise loudly, such as the Beagle and the Coonhound may also howl when they hear a passing siren or an instrument being played.

How to stop a dog from howling at sirens

Before you teach your dog to stop howling at the sound of a siren or loud instrument, it's important to rule out any fear or anxiety surrounding the behaviour.

Take a look at your dog's body language: Are they cowering, lip licking or trembling? If so, you may need to introduce a program of desensitisation and work with them to build positive associations to the sound. 

If you believe your dog just needs some re-training, you'll want to start by teaching them a 'quiet' commandBuild this up over multiple training sessions, and reward your dog regularly. As the sound of the siren approaches, ask for 'quiet' and pair it with your dog sitting quietly. Don't forget to use lots of praise and reward

Scolding your dog when they howl could create a fear response in the future. Use plenty of positive reinforcement during training.

With their incredibly sensitive hearing, it's hard to imagine the high-pitched tone your pup experiences when an ambulance passes by or your neighbour picks up their clarinet. Why dogs howl at sirens and other loud noises remains somewhat of a mystery to us owners, but luckily, there are steps you can take to reduce the reaction. 

Patience is key when working to modify behaviour, as you'll need to take time building positive associations and rewarding calm and quiet behaviour. Over time, your dog will learn that, wonderful as their singing voice may be, they don't need to use it every time a high-pitched sound passes them by.

Why doesn't my dog howl at sirens? 

Each dog is an individual, with past experiences and their own unique temperament. While there may be traits that characterise certain breeds, this is no guarantee of behaviour. 

The sound of a siren may trigger a response in some dogs, whether they're trying to respond to the noise or alert their owners. Other dogs may be totally unaffected by the noise, confidently letting it pass them by. If your dog doesn't howl at sirens, you can reward this by offering a tasty treat as they sit quietly. This can prevent problems developing in the future. 

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