Bulldog standing next to motorcycle.

My Dog Always Barks at Motorcycles and Sirens–What to Do?

Many dogs bark at loud, irritating noises like motorcycles and sirens and can start racing around in a frenzy. What is this all about, and what can be done? Many dog owners wring their hands to try to deal with Fido barking his head off each time a loud bike passes by.

Due to superb hearing, dogs are very sensitive to loud noises and often react to them, especially if they are distressing types of sounds such as sirens. Barking “back” at these loud sounds can be a canine’s way of reacting to stressful sounds which can become habitual. However, with training, conditioning, and providing safe harbor most dogs can be re-directed to a calmer state.

Although some dogs may have phobias to really loud noises, most dogs are simply sensitive to these loud sounds. And, let’s face it, sirens and motorcycles can be really irritating and obnoxious. The purpose of an emergency vehicle siren is to get the attention of other drivers, so they can safely pass through the streets at high speeds. I honestly don’t know why motorcycles need to be so loud. But I assume it is partly a function of an outboard-type motor that is not enclosed by a hood.



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Reasons Why Dogs React to Loud, Unpleasant Noises

Barking or howling is like saying “Ouch!”

If someone accidentally steps on your toes, you will probably jump back and say “Ouch”! Or if someone jumps in front of you and yells loudly, you will be startled and may yell back. Because a dog’s hearing is so acute, his natural reaction is to bark or howl when he hears an irritating, loud noise. Really loud noises can be an assault on your dog’s ears in a similar way and cause him to react. His natural instinct is to bark back.

Barking is the Way Dogs Communicate

Dogs bark to communicate. Their vocal cords and facial/throat muscles do not allow for a lot of variation. They can whimper, yip, bark, or howl, and that’s about it! The intensity, frequency, or pitch level indicates a lot about what they are trying to say.

Dogs will bark at each other in a tone that is either an acknowledgment, an alert, a warning, or vicious vocalization to back off!

A Loud Barking Reaction Can be a Way to Release Stress or Tension

I certainly do not like to hear loud, abrupt noises. It makes me jump and sometimes want to swear! We live near a country road that is a favorite place for groups of bikers to use for Sunday outings at high speeds. When a group of bikers with really loud motorcycles wiz by, I often find it very unnerving. My two mixed breed cattle dog/pug dogs usually go nuts and will bark and howl until the rumbling noise passes.

But once they get it out of their system, they settle down and go about their business. It seems like a release of adrenalin that spikes due to the loud, startling noise.

Howling is a Reaction to a Distress Signal

Light brown dog in the woods howling.

When other dogs in the neighborhood howl, my dogs howl. A siren is certainly a signal of distress and they react in an equally distressed manner. There is an emergency and everyone is being alerted.

We typically hear a lot of sirens in the spring or whenever the weather is nice and people want to get out and about. Sometimes it can be really unnerving. My dogs really do not like the sound of sirens and will often howl if they hear a lot of sirens. It is a reaction. And, perhaps not unwarranted. Sirens are loud, upsetting, irritating, and very disturbing to an otherwise peaceful day.

Barking Can be Habitual as Something for A Bored Dog to Do

Some dogs may bark just because they are bored. If they are left out in the yard all day long with not much to do, dogs will start barking as something to do and to relieve the stress of being left alone. They will become increasingly more sensitive to every little sound and movement.

Dogs are pack animals. and like to be with other dogs or their human family. And, like humans, they thrive much more when in the company of other dogs or their human owners. Seniors and disabled people who have become isolated in their homes or nursing facilities, often develop mental health issues from lack of social contact. They may become overly talkative, or they may withdraw and become depressed

This is true for dogs as well. If too isolated, dogs may bark excessively as a way of expressing their distress. Any unusual or loud noise will increase their reaction.

Loud Noises Like Fireworks Can Push Some Dogs Over the Edge

On the 4th of July when one of my dogs hears fireworks going off, she will hide in the bathroom or kitchen. Somehow she feels more protected in a smaller room. I would not say that her fear has escalated to that of a phobia, but she is definitively upset by fireworks and will sometimes howl.

My sister has two smaller, mixed-breed dogs who tremble, shake, and dive into their crate or under the covers of my sister’s bed when fireworks go off. It is sometimes so bad, that they have considered giving them tranquilizers. Vets often recommended anti-anxiety meds for dogs during the 4th of July. And, I have to admit that I have considered taking them myself! I have also discovered some calming herbs that help relax my dogs when I give them prior to the start of fireworks. The ones I like the best which you can find at Chewy are Zesty Paws Calming Bites.

I live in Northern California and most cities have banned fireworks here. However, my city has allowed them until recently. Not only are they a fire risk, but countless animals have been terrorized by the booms, pops, and smoke produced by fireworks set off in the streets. My bias is toward celebrating safely at a public event that lasts 30 minutes, rather than shooting off potentially dangerous, exploding rockets and sparklers in neighborhood streets for hours on end!

Your Dog Could be Fearful or Have a Phobia Associated with Loud Noises

Some dogs will shake or tremble every time they hear loud noises. Sirens, motorcycles, cars backfiring, or fireworks can really set them off. They will run and hide, not eat, and shiver for a long time after hearing disturbing noises. This could be a phobia–an exaggerated emotional response that is not normal. Dogs, like people who have mental health issues, exhibit excessive reactions that would be only mildly upsetting to others. See the post at dogtime.com for more details about canine noise phobia.

In the event you find your dog overreacting to an array of loud noises in a way that seems more than the norm, contact your vet. Your dog may need anti-anxiety medication or some behavioral coaching and training to desensitize him. A behavioral specialist or a certified dog trainer may be able to help.

Your Dog May Simply be Mimicking Other Dogs

I have noticed that my two dogs who are siblings, pay attention to what the other is doing. The sister who is more of a cattle dog of the two, barks and howls a lot at loud sounds. The other dog is less disturbed by noises, but she will often begin to howl if her sister is barking and howling up a storm. Sometimes in a most amusing way, she will bark once or twice in response to her sister, then run back inside and jump on my lap. She will sit there and continue to watch her sister run around the backyard howling as if her work is done!

My dogs lived in a kennel/daycare facility for 9 months when they were about five years old. There was a lot of barking and howling going on at that kennel. Even though they were well cared for, they were set off by all of the other dogs who would each take their turn barking or howling at something. A lot of it was simply the anxiety of being away from home in a strange environment.

Several months after I adopted them, I took them to a doggie summer camp for a week so they could get some training, and I could get some much-needed R & R at a local resort at the beach. I took them to the facility a few days beforehand to get them used to it. As soon as we approached the kennel area and became aware of the other dogs, they begin to howl to beat the band! Charlotte howled so much that she began foaming at the mouth. My sense was that it brought back fearful memories of being abandoned at a kennel for several months by her prior owner.

But we all hung out for a while and played fetch and I let them run around. They calmed down, and when I took them back a few days later, they were fine.

How to Help Your Dog Calm Down and Stop Barking

Reassurance

The worst thing that we can do as dog owners is to yell at our dogs who are probably already very upset. I will be the first to admit, that I often want to shout at my dogs when they suddenly erupt into a barking or howling frenzy. They both have a very high-pitched bark that can be ear-piercing at times.

But, I try my best to do things to get their attention. I talk to them in soothing, calm tones to get them to settle down and not drive our neighbors nuts. My goal is to normalize the situation by saying “everything is ok”. I use calm tones to reassure them and de-escalate the situation. Additionally, I think it is important to not pay a lot of attention to the intruding noise or make a big deal of it. Noise is just another daily occurrence in everyday life. If I went around slamming windows and cursing in a loud voice every time there was a loud noise, my dogs would most likely react even more.

Break the Impulse

Dog trainers have recommended various methods to stop a dog from going into a frenzy and using his primitive “limbic” brain to drive his actions. When my dog Charlotte is over the top and agitated by a loud motorcycle or truck backfiring, she will run around the yard like crazy barking her head. She does not hear me when I call her and she will not stop and let me comfort her. Charlotte can get totally crazed and all of our training just washes over her.

So, I have tried various techniques to stop her impulse and bring her back into a more rational state of mind. I have used water bottles to shoot a stream of water at her face. This works at the moment, but I have to be close by and it is only 70% effective in getting her to stop barking. I have sometimes yelled her name, and in some cases, she has stopped and come back to me. But I am afraid that she is still fearful when I do that, and it is not my preference.

The most effective method that I have tried was recommended by a trainer. He told me to put 10 pennies in a can and shake it hard. This will get the dog’s attention. I was amazed at how well this actually worked! The first time I used it, my dog Charlotte was outside barking her head off at a siren or some other loud noise. I opened the door and stood outside and gave the can one very hard shake and said “Charlotte, enough!” She stopped dead in her tracks and came running back inside with her head down and tail tucked. Once Charlotte was by my side, no longer barking, I petted her and told her “Good dog!”

The key to this method is to not overuse it or your dog will become immune to it. So, I use it sparingly when my dogs are really crazed. And, now, all I have to do is gently shake the can a bit. They will stop their barking and come inside and sit by my chair. It is not a perfect solution, but it does help break the impulse.

Obedience Training

Person point finger at tan and white dog to help train him.

The best way to control your dog is through training. With enough training, your dog should always come to you when you call regardless of what else is going on. Your dog will come when you call, sit when you say “sit”, and lie down when you say “down”. In a perfect world, your dog should obey your every command.

Having said this, not all dogs are equally good at obeying commands. And, it takes a lot of work and commitment on the owner’s part. I have taken my two rescue dogs to one complete series of basic training. I have also worked with three different trainers to help resolve some specific issues. Because I have two dogs and can only deal with one dog at a time in a class, it is double work for me to train them as it involves a separate class for each dog. So far, I have not been able to continue with advanced training. But I do periodically reinforce what they have already learned, and it has helped a lot. I adopted my dogs, at 6 years old. So, I have no idea what long-established bad habits I am trying to undo!

But if you have the time and commitment to train your dog, it can make a huge difference. Obedience training is really the best way to break your dog’s impulses by making him always think about his actions and pay attention to your commands. The more you do this, the more control you will have over his behavior.

Distract Your Dog From Barking at Motorcycles and Sirens

Another suggestion a dog trainer gave me was to distract my dogs with treats. She suggested that every time my dogs started barking at a motorcycle or siren, to call to them and say “Treats!” Then I gave them some treats when they came running back to me. Once they stopped barking I would reward them with verbal cues like “Good Dog!”, stroke them, and give them more treats.

This worked really well, however, it did not stop them from barking again several minutes later. They got very good at this game. Every time they heard a loud noise, they would run outside and bark for a minute. Then they would come charging back into the house and sit by my side waiting for a treat. A few minutes later the cycle would start all over again. I was going through a lot of treats, and they were gaining weight!

Still, it is sometimes a good option to break an annoying bout of barking. All I have to do is screech “Treats!” at the top of my lungs, and they stop barking and come charging back to my side for their reward.

Have Compassion and Understanding for What Your Dogs May be Struggling With

Too many times, we simply want to control our dog’s behavior. We don’t like what they are doing, so we give a command or somehow try to control what they are doing.

Yet, if we put ourselves in their paws for a minute, we might begin to understand that the human world is a very complex, and frightening place for them. They have little control over their lives. They often cannot see what is causing the outside noise due to closed doors and high fences. So, they often have no idea what is creating a loud irritating noise.

Motorcycles not only are loud and noisy, but they have stinky exhaustion. Sirens are meant to be alarming to alert others to an emergency. So, what do we expect our beloved furry friends to think?

Patience, love, training, and consistency can go a long way to reassure our pets that they are safe. We can help them know that their world is not falling apart and that we are there for them. Perhaps as responsible and loving dog owners, we also need to stop our own impulses to discipline and control. Through empathy, love, and dedication we can help orient our canine companions to our crazy, human world!