A dog’s behavior can often prove confusing to their human colleagues. We know they like to eat their own poop, but puzzle at their motivations. We’re surprised when dogs give a ladybug the same greeting as a home intruder.
Topping the list of eccentric canine behavior: Why do dogs howl at sirens? Is there some genetic predisposition to responding to a high-pitched alarm from passing ambulances or police vehicles?
As it turns out, the reason dogs howl at sirens is because of their ancestry—namely, the wolf. When members of a pack are fractured and spread out, their companions will howl to provide a way of locating them. Think of it as nature’s GPS: By howling, dogs are able to communicate their respective locations to one another, even across long distances.
Since dogs really don’t know what a cop car is supposed to sound like, they’ll often interpret a siren as an animal’s howl. It’s also possible that dogs consider sirens to be a sign that something is abnormal in their environment, and that they want you, the pack leader, to be aware of it.
Contrary to belief, a dog is rarely howling because the noise hurts their delicate ears. If that were the case, some experts say, then they would display other behaviors, like running and hiding.
The more a dog hears and responds to a siren, the more they might be compelled to continue the behavior. That’s because dogs who howl and then notice the sound drifting away might begin to associate their vocalizing with the disappearance of the noise. In the future, they’ll probably recall that they “drove” the interloper away with their warbling and repeat the process.
While howling is usually harmless, sometimes it can be a sign that your pet is feeling separation anxiety from an owner or that they’re feeling unwell. If howling persists even without a screaming siren within earshot, you might consider taking them in for a check-up.
If you’ve wondered why dogs howl at sirens, now you know. It’s simply a way of signaling their location and not because it pains them. Owners, on the other hand, might feel differently.
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A version of this article was published in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.