An animal behaviorist explains the reason, particularly as it relates to the sound of sirens.

By Roxanna Coldiron
June 04, 2020
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Border Collie howling in front of mountains
Credit: Sven Hagolani / Getty Images

Sirens wail in the distance, and your dog begins howling at the top of his lungs. It's a common scenario that leaves you baffled. Why does Fido do this? The sound can be quite disruptive and loud. In an area with lots of sirens, it can also be nonstop. "Howling is meant for communicating across long distances," explains Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, DVM, medical director and American College of Veterinary Behaviorists resident at Behavior Vets in New York City. "But howling can also be a distressed vocalization." So, the reason behind your pup's howling really depends.

It's important to note that howling is a very natural behavior for dogs, having evolved from wolves. In the wild, wolves howl to communicate their location to pack members or to warn other wolf packs from their territory. Our domesticated dogs usually communicate with barks and yips ("very puppy-like behaviors," as Dr. Tu says) but will sometimes feel compelled to howl under certain conditions.

"Sirens may sound like another dog trying to reach out to them," Dr. Tu explains. "So, your dog may be howling in response and saying 'Yes, I'm here.' But the sound of sirens could also be distressing them. You'll see your dog exhibiting anxiety behaviors like yawning or licking." You will want to pay attention to your dog's actions when you see her howl at passing sirens. Does he seem stressed out or frightened to you? Or maybe he seems at attention and ready to help this strange-sounding dog howling over the freeway? You can train your dog to stop howling in either case with practically the same method.

This training technique is called desensitization. For it to work, you will want to go slowly without rushing progress. Dr. Tu says to record the sound of a loud siren and play it at a low volume. If your dog seems distressed, you should lower the volume. But when he is not showing signs of distress and he is not howling at the siren sound, you can reward him with treats and praise. "Then you would slowly increase the volume, one level at a time, only increasing the level once your dog exhibits the desired behavior and shows no signs of distress," Dr. Tu explains. "This could take months before you can reach level 100 percent." You may have to dial back the volume a few times if your dog shows signs of anxiety at any point.

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