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Matthew Rozsa

Why some dogs love to sing with humans

Droopy eared, long-faced Basset hounds may seem to have little in common with fluffy, wolf-like Alaskan malamutes, but both breeds share at least one notable trait: They love to howl. Other breeds like Pomeranians and Chihuahuas are equally vocal, albeit with yips and yowls rather than bellowing howls. Owners of vocal dogs may engage in the parlor trick of howling or singing in order to induce howls in their pet, much to the delight of their guests. Some so-called "singing" dogs have become YouTube famous for their 

It even seems dogs will outright sing: Think of the legendary New Guinea singing dogs — or the canines who become momentary YouTube stars for their predilection for singing along with pop star Michael Jackson or opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

So what makes these pack animals, not too far removed from wolves, engage in such overtly human behavior? And could dogs, in theory, genuinely enjoy ruffing along with the Baha Men's "Who Let The Dogs Out?" — or would they would always simply be barking dogs?

Salon reached out to experts to answer questions like these and learned, among other things, that dog vocalization is a complicated science.

For one thing, as Florida veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader told Salon, it is a common mistake to assume that "howling" and "singing" are somehow one and the same thing.

"They are different scientifically," explained Mader, author of "The Vet at Noah's Ark," by email. "Howling is a form of canine communication. Dogs will howl, especially across longer distances, and others will respond with their own howl. Dogs will also howl or vocalize to their owners in an attempt to communicate emotions such as hunger, fear, anxiety, etc."

A 2009 study published in The Veterinary Journal says dogs seem to bark not for each other, but for human benefit.

"Singing," by contrast, requires the qualities inherent to music like harmony, pitch, melody and tempo. Mader pointed to a recent study by researchers from the University of Vienna, and published by the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, which indicated that dogs modulate their vocalizations in ways extraordinarily similar to those performed by humans when they try to sing to music. This strongly suggests that, in their own inimitable canine fashion, dogs who appear to be singing are in fact doing exactly that.

But just because dogs can (perhaps) sing doesn't mean they have perfect pitch.

"That said, limited data exists that supports a dog's ability to perceive and interpret melodies," Mader clarified. "Recordings of dogs 'singing' with their owners or to instruments clearly demonstrate that they can change their vocals. Whether or not this is deliberate or just random is not known."

Indeed, there is much that is not known about why dogs vocalize in the ways that they do. The challenge for every animal cognition scientist is that they cannot literally ask their subjects to explain why they make a certain sound in specific contexts. Yet scientists can conduct research which proves more narrow things. For example, a 2021 article in Current Zoology reports that dogs will whine in ways which companions find annoying because their owners unintentionally condition them by providing rewards after hearing those unpleasant sounds.

Moving from domestic contexts to the outdoors, a 2016 study by researchers from four countries and published in the scientific journal Behavioural Processes revealed that different wild canine species like coyotes, jackals and red wolves will modulate their howling in deliberate ways. This further suggests that canine species in general are able to use specific types of vocalizations based on what types of animals they are around, indicating that they have an inner self which might in other contexts be vocalized in a manner construable as "singing."

"Howling is a form of canine communication... Singing" by contrast, requires the qualities inherent to music like harmony, pitch, melody and tempo.

Dogs may also have more surreptitious uses for their vocalizations. Researchers publishing in 2021 in the scientific journal Current Zoology found that dogs may utilize ultra-high frequency vocalizations in order avoid the ears of potentially prying outsiders. These seem to be specific for intended "tete-a-tete" conversations with their preferred pack members. This again suggests that, both with other dogs and with humans, dogs will intentionally adjust how they use their vocal organs — in other words, dogs are code-switching. While this does not prove that dogs intentionally sing along with people, it at least demonstrates both that dog vocalizations are sophisticated and that dogs are able to exercise agency in how they use their voices.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how dogs bark. A 2009 study published in The Veterinary Journal says dogs seem to bark not for each other, but for human benefit. Different varieties of barking have emerged so that dogs can directly and acoustically communicate their needs to humans across short distances. While a noisier animal might be less effective at surviving if it had to catch its own prey, certain dogs' that live with humans would not need to worry as much about staying quiet. Instead they would evolve to intuitively figure out how to vocalize their needs to humans with three basic types of barks (aggressive, playful and fearful). Children as young as five years old have shown some instinctive ability to differentiate between the three and associate them with the dogs' inner states. By the age of eight, children are on par with adults in understanding basic barking signals.

Similarly, as the authors of the study pointed out, any casual observer can notice distinct differences between how different breeds tend to bark. "We know that some breeds do not (or only rarely) show any propensity to bark (for example, the Basenji, Chow–chow, Shar-pei), whereas others bark excessively," the authors write.

"There are reports of them howling — aka singing — in the forests and highlands. These vocalizations are likely similar to those of the wolf, for long-distance communication and for social revelry."

In the case of a very special type of wild dog, however, there is no question that their vocalizations are more than mere barking or howling: New Guinea singing dogs, which until 2020 had been believed to have been extinct in the wild for the previous half-century. They are ancient domestic dogs indigenous to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, and which live in free-roaming communities.

"There are reports of them howling — aka singing — in the forests and highlands," Molly H. Sumridge of Kindred Companions LLC, a former assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College, told Salon by email. "These vocalizations are likely similar to those of the wolf, for long-distance communication and for social revelry." Sumridge also described how owners of New Guinea singing dogs report their animals "harmoniz[ing] with songs sung or played on the radio or TV. They also sing when someone leaves or arrives, and sometimes just to state an opinion. When multiple singing dogs are together they will harmonize with each other. Other dogs tend to join in too. These moments are quite moving and leave most owners to pause and enjoy."

She added that, in her own research, "something beautiful I frequently witness is the closeness of these dogs and their owners."

If you want that kind of relationship with your own pooch, you might listen to Dr. Mader who referred Salon to a Scottish SPCA study which found that all forms of music are soothing to animals — but that, if one is to pay attention to trends, reggae and soft rock tend to be particular favorites.

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