The man whispered to me – “You know, my dog sings to me”. As a vet, I have grown used to people entrusting me with certain confidences about their pet’s habits, but I hadn’t heard of any dog singing. The man went on to describe the dog would serenade him when he was feeling miserable. The dog would look at him with a concerned expression, and would then burst into song.
On further enquiry, it seemed that the owner was not certain which song the dog was singing – perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was a canine interpretation of a human song. I never heard the dog sing myself, but I believe that the ‘song’ was a series of “whooo whooo whoooooooooooo” noises which a less romantic owner might have referred to as ” howling”!
It is true that dogs are excellent communicators. I am certain that this singing dog was somehow aware that his owner was unhappy. He had learned that if he behaved in a certain way (i.e. “singing”), his owner responded by cheering up, and by giving the dog some gratifying attention.
The howl of a dog is an ancient inherited mode of communication, stemming from the days when dogs roamed in packs. The high pitched, drawn out howl is a very distinctive sound, which can be heard several miles away on a calm night. In the wild, the howl was used as a way of calling the pack together. If a dog found a particularly tasty piece of carrion, his howl would call his pack to the feast site. If a dog was injured, and needed help, his howl would let his pack-mates know how to find him.
There are probably other more subtle social reasons for dogs howling – but these are difficult for us human onlookers to interpret. For example, the howl of a dog seems to be infectious. If one dog in a kennel starts to howl, several other dogs in the kennel will soon join in. Perhaps this communal howl is a way of making the dogs feel that they are part of the same team, not as alone in the world as they may feel. A human analogy might be the members of a rugby team singing ‘rugby songs’ together at the end of a good day’s sport. There is something reassuring about being part of something bigger than yourself!
The modern domestic dog has certainly adapted the howl from its traditional usage. Many pets seem to use the howl as just another way of vocalising, in addition to their repertoire of growls, barks and whines. Although it is unusual for a dog, such as the aforementioned, to burst into spontaneous song, it is common for dogs to howl in response to music.
An owner recently told me how her Jack Russell recognises the “Eastenders” theme tune on television. The owner is in the habit of taking the dog for a walk immediately after the programme. The dog loves his walks, and so he becomes excited whenever he hears the theme music – ” I’m going on a walk soon – whoooo whoooo whoooooo!”
Another dog has learnt to recognise his owner’s alarm clock in the morning. As soon as the alarm goes off in the owner’s bedroom, the dog downstairs realises that a walk will happen shortly. The dog has discovered that howling makes the walk happen sooner. The poor owner has to obey his pet – there is no ‘snooze button’ on a howling dog!