Here’s why dogs howl at emergency sirens

Saturday, February 27, 2021

In a story you will only read in the Hood County News, researchers in DeCordova have new insight as to why dogs howl at sirens from emergency vehicles. A previous theory purported that sirens loosely resemble a wolf howl, and the dog believes he is calling his pack.

Others suggested that the sound of sirens hurts a dog’s ears. When we hear a loud sound, we tend to cover our ears with our hands to block out the noise. Dogs are in essence howling in response to ear-splitting noise.


Data from the recent study indicate that something much different is going on. Sirens serve as a que for dogs to initiate communication with humans, not other dogs.

The communication has different themes and modalities, depending on a variety of environmental factors. Most common (approximately 46% of cases) the dog’s vocalization is an expression of empathy toward a person being transported in an ambulance. For example, “I know it really hurts and you are scared, but its going to be OK! They are taking you to see a really great doctor. Hang in there, friend!”

Another common theme is the conveyance of encouragement to first responders, such as: “you are working really hard today and helping a lot of people...let’s grab a beer when you get off.”

Other times, researchers found words of advice to responders. A firefighter might be warned of potential danger: “stay off the roof if there is smoke coming out of that house. You already have a bad back. Your wife will get really mad if she has to take care of you again”.

It was determined that another research subject was in fact providing advance notification to hospital emergency room staff — “a guy is on his way who needs lots of patching up. But he has great insurance, and you will get paid big money — so do whatever he needs. Use the good pain meds, but not too much.”


If your dog does not howl at sirens, it does not necessarily mean she lacks empathy or concern for others. Data indicate that some dogs engage in silent prayer or meditation for people in need of support in crisis situations.

Mediation is frequently accompanied by the dog assuming a reclined position and closing of the eyes. A small (almost statically insignificant) portion of the of the research population did not respond to sirens in any way whatsoever.

It should be noted that the non-responsive group was engaged in napping, chewing or licking themselves (for hygiene or pleasure), likely deferring action for a more convenient time. More research is needed.


Researchers were struck (but not necessarily surprised) by a sharp contrast in behavioral responses for a comparable feline study group. When exposed to identical stimuli, cats consistently exhibit a reaction completely opposite of dogs.

Cats displayed a sometimes-unsettling absence of empathy and were determined to be altogether indifferent toward human suffering — even babies, innocent young children, and the elderly.

This data could be useful to anyone considering acquisition of a new pet.


Like human research, dog research must adhere to rigorous and well-established scientific methods and techniques.

The DeCordova team, consisting of a sometimes reliable lead researcher and one loyal senior research associate, are dedicated following science (or at least quasi-science) in pursuit of a deeper understanding of dog behavior.

Following peer review, the complete study findings will be available in your favorite scientific journal.

Finally, its important to note that no animals were harmed in conducting this research — well maybe some cats, but that doesn’t really matter. | 817-994-4270