My Dog Howls at Sirens - Why and What to Do
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If you live in a quiet neighborhood, it possible a dog will hear a siren very infrequently and bark as the ambulance, police car, fire truck or other kind of emergency service vehicle drives past. If you live in a busy neighborhood in a city, it is possible this is frequent occurrence. A dog howling at sirens is unpleasant for two main reasons. Firstly, it is an often unwelcome loud noise introduced to an otherwise quiet environment. When this is late at night or early in the morning, it can be particularly unwelcome. Of more concern is the evident distress it appears to cause in our dog.
At AnimalWised, we help to understand the reasons for this distress by looking at why my dog howls at sirens. By looking at the reasons for this inappropriate howling, we can find out what to do to prevent it happening again in the future.
Sirens and a dog's hearing
The hearing of dogs is much more developed than that of human beings. A healthy canine is capable of perceiving up to 60,000 Hz (the unit for measuring sound frequency), while people are only able to hear up to around 20,000 Hz. For this reason, dogs are able to perceive sounds via hearing that are otherwise imperceptible to us. For this reason, a dog may be able to hear much more high-pitched sounds.
Although a dog will also react to sounds we can also hear, they also respond to frequencies we do not perceive. Whether they interpret the sound as dangerous or discomfiting, their response can be confusing for us as it appears to come out of nowhere. It is important to note that not all dogs are the same and will not necessarily respond to the same auditory stimuli in the same way.
On some occasions, a dog may howl without any particular auditory stimuli. This can be difficult for a dog guardian to tell, since they may think it is a sound we cannot hear. In these cases, the dog may be howling due to an internal emotional stimulus. This could be due to anxiety, boredom or any number of emotions which lead to their response. It can even be a sign of happiness, although this is less common.
Sounds are not the only stimuli which can cause a dog to be fearful. Find out more with our article on why a dog is scared of everything all of a sudden.
Why do dogs howl at siren sounds?
Sirens are purposefully loud. They exist to warn of others about an emergency. This sound can be disruptive to us and cause annoyance, so it shouldn't be considered strange that it also affects dogs. As sirens from ambulances, police or fire engines can be at a high frequency, the dog may be even more sensitive to it. Simple disruption is not the only your dog howls at sirens.
Dogs sometimes howl when they hear sirens because it reminds them of the howling of their peers. It is important to highlight that the howl itself has several meanings. The most relevant to us as caregivers are sadness, social isolation or the fear of being alone. Learn more about the general reasons for this behavior with our article on why my dog is howling.
Dogs communicate their emotions in different ways, not only through vocalization. Body posture is particularly important as it allows them to express themselves correctly, especially to other dogs. Observing their body language, we can better assess their needs and understand certain behaviors they may display.
Although there is no animal in danger, the dog may perceive a call for help when the sirens pass. To them, it is possible the siren of an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance sounds like a dog in need. By howling, our dog is alerting other animals in the area. Conversely, they may perceive the siren as the howling of a rival dog. In this case, the dog is howling because they want this potential interloper to know whose territory they have entered.
Dogs can similarly howl at other noises, whether a high note on a piano or the sound of our television. We cannot interpret these sounds directly, but we can look at the context and see how they react. If they sit back on the couch, howl docilely and show no signs of anxiety, we should not worry. This is especially the case if they are a breed with a predisposition to howling such as Nordic breeds which include the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute.
When the dog shows signs of fear or anxiety, it signals a problem. Dogs can be easily scared by sirens if they feel scared or insecure. This could be due to poor socialization, trauma, poor education, stress, boredom or any number of negative factors. For this reason, it is important to look for the signs a dog is scared when they hear a siren.
Different sounds can provoke different reactions in different dogs. Learn more with our article on why my dog is scared of thunder.
How to stop a dog howling at sirens
The first thing to know about how to stop dogs howling at sirens is that you may not need to do it. If a dog howls when they hear a siren, but they are not anxious, it could be something which doesn't disturb the household. Similarly, if they are not anxious and sirens appear very infrequently, it may be an issue which does not need addressed.
Conversely, if we have a lot of loud noise in the neighborhood and/or the dog reacts with insecurity, we need to take action. The howling itself is an instinctive behavior which should not be repressed. Instead, we need to follow these steps:
- If you are in the street when it happens, ignore the howling and continue walking as if nothing happened. You must act calmly and without paying attention to it. This will help your dog understand that nothing is wrong. On the contrary, if you pick them up, pay them more attention or act in a nervous and incoherent way, the dog feels their state of alarm is appropriate. We are a dog's reference figure, so if we don't think sirens are a problem, the dog should follow suit.
- We should only provide reassurance if the dog becomes very agitated or looks for somewhere to hide. In these cases, they are frightened and we need to provide some support. Do not reinforce negative behaviors such as running around, compulsive barking or breaking things. Instead, distract them when they begin howling. Offer a game or a toy to help them feel more secure.
- Most importantly, we need to find out the reason for the dog's insecurity and address it. Dogs are very sensitive to changes in routine, so we need to look at the context. Perhaps you have moved home or a new family member has been welcomed. In these cases, we need to provide support and reassurance, as well as positively redirect their behaviors. If the dog has poor socialization, been improperly trained or experienced trauma, we should bring in a canine ethologist to help address these problems.
In the event that the dog howls for no apparent reason, we recommend that you consult a veterinarian. For example, senile dementia in dogs can cause fears and insecurities which lead the dog to howling more often. A medical problem may be the cause if the dog has not previously howled at sirens, but begins to do so all of a sudden.
Can dogs perceive death from siren sounds?
Some people claim that dogs howl at ambulances or other emergency sirens because they can perceive death. This is not true. Dogs are able to detect necromones, i.e. the smell emitted by a dead organism. However, they are unlikely to be able to smell them from an ambulance going past the window. Their state of alert is due to the disruption, not the specific reason the siren is being used.
If you want to look at some more general reasons why dogs howl, take a look at our video below:
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