A few nights ago, while I was in my room, I could hear the faint wail of a siren. In a hurry, I grabbed my camera and headed to the balcony to record what I knew I was about to witness. The siren, which I hear almost every night, is of the local area police who patrol the streets of my locality on their motorbikes. As the approaching siren reaches a crescendo, the street dogs that live just outside my residential society begin a very intense howl. As can be heard in the clip below, the dogs howl together but only for a brief amount of time. Although I have been observing the three dogs – 1 adult female and her 2 adult offspring – for a couple of years now, somehow, I did not pay much attention to their unusual response to sirens until a few months ago.
In several societies around the world, a dog’s howl is considered as a death omen. For instance, in ancient Egypt, it was believed that the god of death, Anubis, had the face of a dog and that the howl of a dog meant the calling of a soul to Anubis.1 In some parts of Europe, it is believed that if a dog howls three times in a row, it is a sign that someone is going to die. Similarly, in many parts of India, the howl of a golden jackal at night is considered to be a bad omen. Being a scavenger, many Hindus associate the jackal with the goddess of death and destruction, Kali.2 Some people also believe that when dogs bark without any apparent reason, they are actually barking at ghosts and spirits of deceased persons.3 While beliefs and superstitions such as these are aplenty, it is common for all species of dogs, collectively known as ‘Canids’, to emit a variety of vocalizations.
As a matter of fact, there is a lot of overlap in the sound that dogs and other canid species produce, and these sounds are nothing but different forms of vocal communications.4 For instance, according to one study on coyotes in North America, there are around 11 different vocalizations that a coyote is known to use for various purposes, for instance, to threaten (growl and huff), to alarm (woof), to greet or express submission (whine), to announce location (lone or group howl), etc.4 Similarly, studies in the wild have shown that wolves howl for three main reasons: i. to stake claim to a particular territory, ii. to announce one’s location to other members of the pack, and iii. for social purposes and to reinforce family bonds.5 But what about howling behaviour in domestic dogs, especially the ones that we encounter on our streets on a regular basis? Why do street dogs howl?
Although conditioned to a large extent by the anthropogenic environment and resources, street dogs exhibit behavioural traits that are innate, instinctive and akin to their counterparts in the wild. For instance, territorial behaviour in street dogs can be observed when they mark trees, light poles and vehicles in their area by urinating, and when a new vehicle comes into their area, especially at night, they see it as an encroachment on their territory and will often bark and chase the vehicle.6 Similarly, like their wild relatives, domestic dogs are known to use howling as a means of vocal communication to attract attention, make contact with others, announce their presence, and even express pain or distress, although, according to Barbara Sherman, a veterinary behaviourist at North Carolina State University, domestic dogs do not make ‘true howls’ or sustained, long-range calls like wild canids.4,5
Speaking of howling response in domestic dogs specifically to sirens, reports from different parts of the world suggest that it is not uncommon for dogs to respond to high-pitched sounds of ambulances, fire trucks, patrol vehicles and musical instruments.6 The most common explanation is that this sort of howling behaviour has been inherited from wolves which use high-pitched howls to locate pack members when separated, and because high-pitched sirens resemble the high-pitched vocalization produced by a canid, it triggers an immediate howling response in domestic dogs as a means to announce their location.7 Another plausible reason is that the sound of a siren is perceived by domestic dogs as a threat, and howling may be used to make each other or their human companions aware of the threat.7
All canids, including domestic dogs, are known to not just have a keen sense of smell but also the natural ability to pick up minute or high-pitched sounds that are often not audible to the human ear. In the city, there are all kinds of smells and sounds, and how dogs perceive and respond to these is quite interesting and warrants further investigation if we are to get a better sense of how dogs, especially street dogs, navigate the urban life.